Commentary: Bo Callaway's Legacies
Howard “Bo” Callaway died in March just as the azaleas and dogwoods were beginning to bloom in the great gardens that are the legacy he and his father bequeathed to Georgia and the world.
Spring brings out the best in Callaway Gardens, but Howard Callaway was a man for all seasons: a soldier, a business leader, a politician, an environmentalist, a resort visionary, almost Georgia’s governor … and almost president of the United States.
Callaway lived a full life in his 86 years, but he would have been the first to say there were some loose ends.
Callaway was born into a successful family and made it more successful. His grandfather invested in the region’s textile mills, and his father, Cason, took the mills to another level before retiring at 43 to pursue his careers as a farmer and gardener on a grand scale.
Bo Callaway, born in LaGrange and raised in Harris County, assumed leadership of his father’s dream of “creating the most beautiful place on earth since the Garden of Eden” when he was just 26, a graduate of West Point Military Academy and a veteran of the Korean War.
Bo and Cason worked together on the gardens and the resort until Cason’s death in 1961. His father had planned a garden where people could picnic and enjoy the scenery. Bo envisioned a full-scale resort where they could spend the night or a week.
Cason planned the gardens and five lakes, with a few overnight rooms. Bo’s first vision was to build the largest inland lake in the nation and three golf courses, for years the finest in Georgia. Bo also built the first A-frame cottages, added onto the Country Store and expanded the Gardens Motel, now the Mountain Creek Inn. During the 1980s, the John A. Sibley Horticultural Center and the Cecil B. Day Butterfly Center created a major resort and environmental preserve.
By then Callaway had also become a trailblazing political force in Georgia and the nation. In 1964 he was the first Republican congressman elected from Georgia since Reconstruction. By 1966 he was the Republican candidate for governor and received the most votes in the general election, but failed to get the 50 percent then required by Georgia for election.
He would have been the uncontested winner, but an 1804 Georgia law stipulated that if no candidate had a majority of the popular votes the General Assembly would elect from the two candidates with the most votes.
Callaway contested the law all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld the 1804 law by a 4-3 vote, with Justice Hugo Black of Alabama casting the deciding vote.
Lester Maddox, the Democratic candidate, was elected governor by the heavily Democratic General Assembly. Callaway accepted the verdict, and 36 years passed before another Republican got as many votes for governor.
Callaway was Richard Nixon’s southern campaign manager in 1968 and almost certainly would have been Nixon’s choice as running mate instead of Maryland Gov. Spiro Agnew if Callaway had been elected in 1966. Nixon wanted a southern running mate, but he didn’t know Agnew well. That’s how close Callaway came to being president.
Nixon did name him secretary of the Army in 1971, and Callaway had the task of ending the draft and creating the volunteer Army the nation has today.
Callaway moved to Colorado in 1977 and became the state Republican chairman. He returned to Georgia in 1993 and again took charge of Callaway Gardens, while also heading the GOPAC political organization that fellow Georgian Newt Gingrich used to engineer the Republican congressional landslide of 1994.
Callaway helped Sonny Perdue in two campaigns for governor and saw his long efforts to make Georgia a Republican Party state come to reality. At the same time he dealt with the economic challenge facing all resorts in the last 10 years.
He suffered a stroke in 2012 and never re-gained his full strength. But what a life he lived. He has a number of important legacies, but the unique gardens, beach and nature preserve just off U.S. 27 between Columbus and LaGrange are gifts Georgians – and the world – will cherish for generations.
Bo’s father told him to “hang the picture a little higher on the wall so more people can see it.”