A family tradition of cooperative public service

 Congresswoman Cheri Bustos (D-IL 17) grew up in Springfield, but her family roots run deep in rural Illinois. Her family connection with electric co-ops and public service starts with her grandfather Joe Callahan, a hog farmer from Milford, Ill., who was a state representative during some of the most turbulent times for Illinois electric cooperatives.

Rep. Joe Callahan was pictured on the cover of the May 1965 Illinois Rural News, this magazine’s predecessor. Bustos’ grandfather helped pass in a bipartisan manner the Illinois Electric Supplier Act, which was landmark electric utility legislation. 

“I actually have that original magazine cover framed and in my Congressional office in Washington,” says Bustos.

She says she got to know her grandfather well since he would stay at their home in Springfield when the General Assembly was in session. “What I remember about my grandpa was he was tough, he had a great sense of humor, smoked, and always carried Juicy Fruit gum and butterscotch hard candy. He was a big man, but more than anything, I remember my dad’s stories about his dad and what a strong man he was and how he stood up for the right things. My dad said my grandfather had a 100 percent voting record on issues that were important to electric co-ops.

Bustos heard many of the stories about when the REA lights were turned on from her father Gene Callahan and uncle, Myran Erdman, a dairy farmer from Chenoa, Ill., who served on Corn Belt Energy’s board of directors for 20 years.

“My dad remembers the first thing my grandpa bought was an RCA push button radio. He bought it that same day that the electricity came on because he loved the news. My dad’s sister Neta, who is Myran’s wife, remembers having to do her chores before she could listen to Little Orphan Annie on the radio.”

Both Bustos and her father were newspaper reporters before moving on to political service. Her father served as chief of staff for Paul Simon when he was lieutenant governor and also for U.S. Senator Alan Dixon. Callahan has always had a passion for sports, especially baseball. He was the lobbyist for Major League Baseball when Congress was threatening to strip the league of its anti-trust exemption. Bustos’ brother, Dan Callahan was also passionate about baseball and served as Southern Illinois University’s head baseball coach until he lost his battle with neurotropic melanoma in 2010.

Bustos learned a lot from her father — life lessons about teamwork, building relationships, hard work, and showing respect to others. For example, he was well known for always, always returning phone calls.

Showing respect and gratitude were lessons she and her sister and brother learned early says Bustos. “It was more than just words from my mom and my dad. My parents are nice people, but believe me my dad is tough. He has very, very high expectations. If we varied from that path of treating people with respect in any way there was no tolerance for that.”

In addition to always returning phone calls, Bustos learned as a reporter that listening is also an important skill as well as a way to show respect. She carries that life lesson into her current job. For example, in August she will be conducting a 14-county listening tour she’s calling her “Backyards and Backroads” tour.

So what life lessons does she pass on to young people? Bustos says, “At a recent commencement address I talked about getting out of your comfort zone, things that are hard to do, or uncomfortable to do, or you just don’t think you can do it. You’ve got to do it. That’s where the magic happens — outside your comfort zone. Obviously running for Congress is not the most comfortable thing to do when your life is exposed and there is public criticism, but it has been an amazing experience and I hope at the end of the day they will say I made a difference.”