The Sopris Sun

Jim Calaway: Giving gives everyone a lift

85th birthday July 1

By Naomi Havlen

Special to The Sopris Sun

Several years ago, Bill Gates met Carbondale resident Jim Calaway at the Aspen Institute, and as they shook hands, the Microsoft founder said, “I hear you’re the Bill Gates of the valley.”

Indeed, Calaway’s reputation precedes him in the Roaring Fork Valley, as a successful entrepreneur and philanthropist working diligently to give away his wealth to organizations he says touch his heart, of which there are currently about 15.

“It makes me feel warm and loved,” Calaway said. “I got a beautiful letter last week from a woman down in Florida thanking me for helping build the Calaway/Young Cancer Center [at Valley View Hospital] because her relative was treated here and was so well cared for. It’s not unusual for me to get a letter like that or for people to want to talk to me.”

Even as Calaway celebrates his 85th birthday this week, his schedule includes daily lunch with friends or members of a vast number of community organizations, and evening glasses of wine on his porch or in his home office at River Valley Ranch with a similar rotating cast of invitees, whose company he relishes and who benefit from his guidance in any manner of community service.

“He has transformed independent philanthropy in the lower valley,” said Third Street Center Executive Director Colin Laird. “Before he got here people didn’t give the way they give these days, but he has changed expectations. In his mind, he sees it as a responsibility to take care of and improve the community. If you have the resources, that’s what you do.”

A native Texan with the accent to prove it, Calaway visited the Roaring Fork Valley for seminars at the Aspen Institute in the early ‘70s. He and his wife Connie — whom Calaway met in Aspen, when she was a student at the Aspen Music Festival and School — moved to Carbondale full time in 1993. Not only his wealth, but also his considerable time and effort have been donated to an impressive roster of organizations in the past two decades.

“Jim is one of my favorite people in the world — he is modest, warm, genuine, selfless and passionately committed to the public welfare,” said Elliot Gerson, vice president at the Aspen Institute. “Jim Calaway exemplifies values-based leadership. He has a deep personal commitment to get involved with the people who are ultimately served by these programs. Any organization is lucky to have his involvement. They don’t make people much like that anymore.”

Jim looks back

Jim Calaway tells his life story with ease in his low, rumbling voice. His parents were tenant farmers in the tiny town of Goldthwaite, Texas, raising whatever crops they could with their two mules, Mutt and Jeff, when Jim was born in 1931. A fire destroyed their home when Jim was five years old and his family moved into town, his father getting a job with the highway department. Calaway worked diligently through school — and at the local grocery store before and after classes — to graduate when he was just 15.

Calaway then took a bus 90 miles south to the University of Texas at Austin. Without scholarships or loans, he worked his way through college as a music director at a large Baptist church where he met his first wife, the church’s pianist and organist. Calaway received a bachelor’s degree in business and a doctorate in law, but was most interested in becoming an entrepreneur. “I found my first oil field when I was 24 years old, just a kid in the business. But it was lucky because if I’d failed at that, I may have been forced to become a lawyer,” he jokes.

Calaway spent four decades in the oil exploration industry, reaping the rewards of his own business acumen. He and his wife had twin sons and later divorced, and at age 40 he was alone in a three-story mansion in Houston with a staff of two to take care of him. He owned a private plane and a large sailboat. “I was just not as happy as I thought I was going to be, starting from nothing and being well-to-do at 40,” he said.

Conversations with a sailing buddy who was a Unitarian minister inspired Calaway’s current status as a secular humanist who believes in “love, giving, justice and peace.” “That was when I decided to start downsizing the spending of money on myself,” he says.

Yet his passion for entrepreneurship continued on unabated — in fact, it was passed down to his twin sons, James and John, who joined their father in oil exploration and then four lucrative business ventures, which Calaway refers to as “home runs” that wouldn’t have been possible without his sons at the helm. These home runs include drilling for oil in the swamps south of New Orleans, building wind farms, investing in a software company that sold for more than $300 million and most recently mining lithium high in the Andes mountains of Argentina.

“I am 85 and I still work hard every day,” he says. “I picked a retirement date, and it’s the day I die. But I hope that’s down the road a little ways.”

A cozy office

Calaway’s office is a cozy, carpeted space that welcomes visitors to sit in comfortable chairs, and the walls are covered with framed images that make him proud. His eyesight may be failing, but he swivels in his creaky leather office chair to point out photos of his accomplishments: the Calaway/Young Cancer Center, the James C. and Connie L. Calaway Academic Building at the Spring Valley Campus of Colorado Mountain College, Colorado Animal Rescue, Thunder River Theatre Company, and the Third Street Center.

The well-designed edifices in the photos prove how Calaway’s financial commitments have come to fruition, but his generosity extends further into the lives of valley residents who pass through any of those doors. At Thunder River Theater, Calaway was not just a Building Founder, but along with Connie the Calaways have served as season producers for several seasons of theatre. The Third Street Center’s facility is almost 50 years old but thanks to renovations and Calaway’s work as a mentor, executive director Colin Laird says the building hosts community activity around the clock, from business space for nonprofits to afternoon programing for children, and theater and concerts at night.

Calaway is a member of the Carbondale Unitarian Congregation, which meets in the Third Street Center’s main meeting room, the Calaway room, along with Carbondale residents Sue Edelstein and Bill Spence.

“Jim is a great listener with a sense of humor who cares deeply about his friends and is modest in his lifestyle,” says Edelstein. “Jim shows great respect to his friends and makes great effort to keep up with them,” adds Spence. “He is a great observer of human nature and easily shares these insights.”

At Colorado Mountain College, his support is evidenced by the namesake academic building. He has also underwritten scholarships for nearly 100 students, founded the CMC Board of Overseers, and joined together CMC and the Aspen Institute to create the Isaacson School for New Media.

“Jim Calaway is a leader of leaders,” says CMC President and CEO Carrie Hauser. “He shares his wisdom and financial support generously and encourages others to do the same. Jim has challenges to his friends and others to support community causes, however they can.”

As someone who has experienced the dichotomy between wealth and poverty, Calaway feels that that public donations can influence others to help bridge that gap, rather than anonymous giving. He says he has never had a problem challenging friends to donate time and money to local organizations. As a result, Bob Young, chairman and founder of Alpine Bank — and co-namesake of the Calaway/Young Cancer Center — refers to Calaway as “the most expensive friend I’ve ever had.”

“Jim is definitely the type of philanthropist that encourages open giving. In doing so, his leadership has a strong influence on others,” Young said. “It also has a way of giving greater credibility for the charities that Jim supports.”

One of those nonprofits is Colorado Animal Rescue (CARE). “I do feel that his extreme generosity inspires others in the community to be more philanthropic,” says CARE board member Cindy Miller. “He doesn’t do it anonymously, and not because he wants the glory of it all. When you give anonymously, you’re missing out on all the good that can come out of recognition — how people can follow in your footsteps, or be inspired by you.”

Roger Sheffield met Calaway when he was CEO of the CMC Foundation several years ago, and says he has learned a lot from their relationship that has helped him become more effective as a fundraiser.

“He is very unique — philanthropists can be very guarded, and sometimes don’t want to give away their secrets,” Sheffield says. “All too often there are people in the fund-raising field who will say or do anything to get a gift, and Jim has reinforced with me that you need to be authentic, and genuinely have an interest in what the donor has to say. I consider Jim one of the top five philanthropists I’ve worked with over my 30-year career, for his genuineness, his willingness to help, and his commitment to his neighbors.”

Sheffield says he knows Calaway has a wide network of friends, and enjoys being “summoned to the porch for a glass of wine.” As one of those friends as well as a  neighbor of Calaway’s, Donn Willins, says: Calaway’s capacity for diverse friendship is only rivaled by his generosity, which is notable given their outspoken political differences.

“I just love the fact that when Jim and I sit and talk, we’re not trying to change each other,” Willins says. “Our solid friendship comes first, and our infinite number of political differences don’t come into it. We have a core liking of each other that not politics or anything can get in the way of.”

Next steps

What: Jim Calaway’s 85th birthday,

When: 7 p.m. during First Friday,

Where: Downtown Carbondale.

Published in The Sopris Sun on June 30, 2016.