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Joan Callahan, Concord’s former city welfare director, leaves a legacy of caring and action

  • Joan Callahan, the former director of Concord's Human Services Department, passed away on July 18, 2021 at age 74. Courtesy—Cassie Mason

  • Joan Callahan, the former director of Concord's Human Services Department, passed away on July 18, 2021 at age 74. Courtesy—Cassie Mason

  • Joan Callahan, the former director of Concord’s Human Services Department, died on July 18 at age 74. Photos courtesy of Cassie Mason

  • Joan Callahan, the former director of Concord's Human Services Department, passed away on July 18, 2021 at age 74. Courtesy—Cassie Mason

  • From right to left: Joan Callahan sits next to her mother, Marjorie McCrave, and grandmother, Alice Callahan. McCrave is holding Callahan’s daughter, Cassandra Mason. Courtesy of Cassie Mason

Monitor staff
Published: 7/31/2021 4:00:24 PM

Joan Callahan, who led the Concord Human Services Department for two decades and was a tireless advocate for poor families and women, turned 74 on July 4 this year. She passed away just two weeks later.

Her friend, Sen. Lou D’Allesandro of Manchester, said her Independence Day birthday made perfect sense.

“She was born on the Fourth of July. What better birthday for a person who inspired people and helped people and really tried to bring the American Dream to everybody?,” he said

Callahan was known in Concord for her work on behalf of needy residents, both professionally and as a volunteer for a number of organizations. She pushed for welfare reform on the state and national level, working to streamline the process of getting benefits and open up more opportunities for women.

Her friends and family say she had a wicked sense of humor and offered loving but blunt advice.

She served as the City of Concord’s welfare director for more than 20 years, beginning in 1981. She was also an early childhood educator in Rhode Island, directed community services at Rockingham County Community Action and worked at Dartmouth Psychiatric Medical Research Center and Pembroke Academy.

Julia Griffin, now Hanover Town Manager, met Callahan in 1991 when Griffin started as Concord’s assistant city manager. Callahan helped Griffin adjust to city government after Griffin was quickly promoted to city manager a year and a half after moving to Concord from California.

New Hampshire requires cities and towns to provide welfare to needy residents, unlike many other states which assign those responsibilities to counties instead. Callahan knew the welfare system inside and out and worked hard to get families the best support possible. With two children herself, she had a particular soft spot for helping families with kids.

“She knew everybody that provided services that in any way shape or form could benefit a resident in need, not just in Concord but statewide,” Griffin said.

During the recession of the 1990s, the city was facing severe budget pressures while trying to address residents’ increased need for help with housing and medical costs, so Callahan got creative about getting resources from social service agencies and from the state.

“She was so effective in the New Hampshire Legislature in testifying on various bills that she was able to figure out how to wring more financial assistance and financial partnership out of state,” Griffin said.

She won Medicaid and Medicare funding reimbursements and support for local agency partners in Concord. “Once those programs are in place, it’s pretty tough for the state to cut them,” Griffin said.

Sen. D’Allesandro said he put forth legislation at Callahan’s request to expand educational opportunities for women who received Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, making it possible for them to earn bachelor’s degrees.

In 2001, the St. John’s Parish of the St. Vincent de Paul Society presented Callahan with a quilt honoring her work “assembling a patchwork of services, goods, housing and funding” for Concord residents.

“You helped folks put the pieces of their lives back together,” the note from St. John’s the Evangelist Church that accompanied the quilt said.

Callahan also helped bring about the first emergency housing shelter in Concord on Pleasant Street. She worked particularly passionately to ensure other women could thrive, whether in the workplace or at home.

“She’d just breeze into a meeting with you, and it was better than a hit of caffeine in terms of her energy level,” Griffin said. “You just felt energized by her presence.”

Callahan also helped Sen. D’Allesandro with his campaign for governor and picked him up when he lost. “When I was down and out after losing the governor’s race in 1982, she would wake me up in the morning, call me in the morning, ‘Get out of bed, get going!’ ” he said.

Her friend, Candice Dale, said Callahan was supportive but always gave the tough love that was most needed. The two met when Dale was the city’s community development director, back when there were few female administrators in Concord government. Callahan supported her when her marriage ended, becoming the first babysitter for Dale’s oldest son.

When Griffin became city manager, she said Callahan always checked in with her as a working mother. “It didn’t matter what you were talking about,” Griffin said. “Her job was to take care of other people. And that’s what she did so beautifully, seamlessly, thoughtfully and with a great sense of humor.”

Callahan received the prestigious Caroline Gross Fellowship in 1998, allowing her to attend a seminar at the Harvard Kennedy School. At the time she was president of New Hampshire Local Administrators Association and had worked on a team developing a widely used system that made it easier for people to apply for multiple benefits.

“She cared about people, and she never forgot people. She would always check on people,” Dale said.

That included remembering to send friends cards for holidays, even for Valentine’s Day and Halloween. When Dale moved away, Callahan gave her 30 mailing labels and instructed her to write.

Callahan was an avid reader and followed the news and politics closely. At the end of her life, she began to struggle with memory loss, which Dale said she noticed when Callahan began leaving her sweet but childish notes and gift baskets with notes that said, “Love, Joanie.”

Callahan’s daughter, Cassandra Mason, took care of her mother after she was diagnosed with dementia.

“If my mom was talking to you, she would prefer that if you were going to write a story it would be something to help somebody else. That was what she did: She helped people,” Mason said.

Although Callahan had prepared well for the end of her life, dementia was never in the plan, and advocating and caring for an elderly parent is never easy.

“The demographic of New Hampshire is older,” Mason said. “A lot of caregivers are struggling with the same things we struggled with.”

Concord Hospital has no geriatric behavioral health unit, so Callahan had to go to St. Joseph’s Hospital in Nashua during one emergency. The bureaucracy of applying for Medicaid benefits was complex, even for someone used to filling out forms.

If Mason had to offer any advice, she would tell caregivers not to be afraid to ask for help or support.

“Trust yourself, forgive yourself and save voicemail messages,” Mason said. “I have several voicemails from my mom telling me how much she loved me and how grateful she was to have my help, and those were what got me through some of our more difficult times.”

Cassidy Jensen bio photo

Cassidy Jensen has been a reporter at the Monitor, covering the city of Concord and criminal justice, since July 2021. Previously, she was a fellow at the Toni Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at Columbia University, where she earned a master's degree. Her work has been published in Documented, THE CITY, Washington City Paper and Street Sense Media. When she's not at City Council meetings, you can find her hiking in the White Mountains.

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