Originally published by Baylor Line Magazine in Fall 2018
From a young age, his destiny has been in front of him: adventure and capturing it in a frame.
Oversized couches scatter the second floor of Castellaw Communications Center. In the spring and fall semesters, students set up shop here between their classes and a buzz fills the hallways. In the summer, though, the buzz disappears. The hallways are empty, the couches lonely. In early June, I sat on one of those couches waiting for Curtis Callaway, a senior lecturer of Journalism, Public Relations, and New Media (JPRNM) at Baylor. The linoleum floor and ceramic tile walls of Castellaw make every small thing an echo, especially the stride of Curtis’ boots as I heard him coming up the stairwell. Like these echoes, you are aware when Curtis is there. He is tall, engaging, confident. Usually, he is on campus to teach and he wears a button-up shirt — one of those polyester fishing shirts by Columbia — in neutral colors, blue jeans, and brown loafers. This time, though, he is not teaching, coming into town from his farm for an errand and our interview. He dressed down. An old ballcap, t-shirt with grass clippings on the shoulder, and scuffed boots showed he had just been working outside.
“It’s hot out there,” he said, and he smiled the unforced smile of a man living his best life. His smile is famous in the department. In fact, almost everyone I interviewed mentioned it. How wide it is, how genuine it is, and how comfortable it can make his students. It lets them know he is not here to badger or crucify them.
Callaway teaches photography. He is one of three in the department who does so. Graduating in 1991 from the Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara and working as a professional photographer for two decades, Callaway’s perspective is different from the other two professors, who have spent their lives teaching or working in the realm of photojournalism.
“He took me to the next level,” said Corrie Coleman, one of Callaway’s current students. “Because, with him, there is this crazy amount of obsession to detail.”
Rae Jefferson, a former student, called that level of attention “Callaway caliber.” She said he taught her, “If you want to be good, you have to be precise.”
His method of teaching involves putting more “time and focus into each photo,” rather than “relying on circumstance.” Students in a course with Callaway learn to obsess over the minute details and bring emotion into what they shoot.
“With Curtis, I learned what I can do with a photo,” said Drew Mills, a former student. “He really challenged me to not just show up, do what’s told, and move on. He wants to make sure it’s the best it can be.”
Perhaps his smile also comes from the leftover joys of adventure, lingering from memories. Curtis, his wife Kaye and his two daughters just returned from travelling across Italy, where the five of us coincidentally and conveniently were able to cross paths for a day in Florence. Last summer, he photographed on safari in Africa, but only after taking a group of students to Costa Rica in partnership with Baylor’s environmental science department. Earlier this year, he and Kaye spent time swimming with whale sharks. The week after our interview, they were travelling again — this time to Maine.
“From his days with Cousteau, adventure followed him. And, since I’ve known
him, he’s been around the world — either with a camera or complaining that he didn’t have one on him,” said Carol Perry, one of Callaway’s colleagues in the journalism department. Perry, also a senior lecturer, offices next door
to Callaway in a tucked-away corner of Castellaw.
“Curtis and Kaye should have the middle name ‘Adventure,’” Perry added.
Years before teaching at Baylor, Callaway did contract photography for Jean-Michel Cousteau Productions, which specializes in marine biology exploration. Callaway “dove into places people had never dove before.” For eight months
out of the year, for seven years, it was all adventure all the time. Callaway was one of the first American photographers allowed back into Vietnam. The opportunities never ceased.
“We would be sailing from point A to point B and just stop at this random island,” he said, recalling one time he emerged from a dive and an indigenous man in a canoe was thoroughly surprised by this foreign diver and his other-wordly camera gear.
Callaway worked directly with Jacques Cousteau’s son, Jean-Michel. On passenger ships, he gave lectures “on coral reef ecology, sharks, and marine mammals.” He did live broadcasts for the passengers from underwater with specialized gear.
“(My family) grew up watching Jacques Cousteau’s Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom,” he told a magazine in Mansfield, where his family is from.
He also grew up traveling to visit grandparents in the Ozarks. His grandmother would line her grandboys up with easels, brushes, canvas, and teach them to paint the Arkansas scenery.
He was only six or seven.
It was “truly fortuitous” that he came to teach at Baylor, according to his colleagues. Since his arrival, he has helped to broaden the abilities of the journalism department and strengthened the students’ skills, engagement, and courage.
“Our department’s strength, I believe, is our commitment to and our care for our students and Curtis shares this vision,” said Dr. Clark Baker, associate professor of JPRNM and a fellow teacher of photography with Callaway. “It is indeed a pleasure to work alongside him.”
While his record precedes him, his care for his students now defines him.
“One of the things I have to do as chair is review our faculty,” said Dr. Sara Stone, chair of the JPRNM department. “I can only think of one (student) evaluation that said, ‘[Callaway’s] class was not for me.’ Only one. There are not many professors who can say that.
“He has made more of our students think about being photojournalists,” Stone continued. “For the most part, students end their semester saying, ‘This was the best class I took at Baylor.’ He opens doors for more students” to pursue the careers they dream of.
Callaway also opens doors for students into his life.
He shares his farm (a frequent photography field trip location for classes), his table, and his family, showing students the work-life balance many recovering workaholics like Callaway might not have. And it is his wife, Kaye, who keeps him in this balance, everyone agrees.
“They feed off of each other,” Constance Atton, a former student, said. “He respects her and everything she has to say . . . (They are) genuinely patient, every thought she has he is hanging on to every word, and every thought he has she is hanging on in the same way.”
On one of their many trips, Kaye fell from a cliff, suffering a tremendous injury.
[Read the story of Kaye’s fall here]
“But, boom, he was there, he was ready,” said Mills, who was on the trip with them. “He was in control of the situation . . . He had a singular focus: her. And he’s been that way ever since.”
The twenty-foot fall resulted in a traumatic brain injury. They were in the middle of nowhere, but miracles occurred and Kaye was able to receive the medical care she desperately needed. Curtis was there when she woke up in hospital — not for a few showers and restless attempts to sleep, he never left her side for weeks. Most people would not have made the sacrifices he made, Perry said. Some colleagues noted his attention to caring for Kaye could have cost him his job, but she was what was (and is) most important to him. Kaye changes Curtis the way he changes others.
Now, Kaye is healing and, in watching them, it is a beautiful reminder of what love is for. From her injuries, sometimes it is difficult for her to pull a certain word from her mind. While she fully knows the concept she is searching for, she cannot always will her lips to sync up with her brain. Curtis is there, though, and she looks to him for help.
“When she is thinking of a word, he doesn’t automatically say it even though he knows it,” Atton said, suggesting there is a stronger link between the Callaways than can be explained. “They are so captivated by each other.”
Curtis doesn’t say the words that Kaye can’t place because he knows she can do it, knows she needs to do it on her own. And as Curtis and Kaye spend their lives together, they do their best to bring out the passions of those intersecting their path.
“He has helped me be less afraid with my creative endeavors,” Jefferson said.
That day in Castellaw, we intended to sit in Callaway’s office. But, since it is summer, there is little space for sitting—camera bags and equipment he will lend out to students in the fall line almost every available square inch.
Scattered on bookshelves are antique cameras, lenses, and photos. Facing the door is a shelf with a green album of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, a reminder
of a former project. (Callaway made a documentary on Tommy Duncan, Wills’ singing partner and bandmate. Or, should I say, of course Callaway made a documentary on Tommy Duncan.) The man has accomplished so much and, yet, he never stops pushing the horizon and never stops sharing along the way.
Because he obsesses, waits, shows his best, pulls out the best in others—simply put, because he cares to show he cares—Curtis changes the lives of those around him in monumental ways.
And all along the way, he is carrying his effortless, infectious smile.