It was the largest funeral I’ve ever been to. It was hard to tell just exactly how many people were at the service of celebration of the life of Robert W. Callahan.
A few people speculated as we talked outside the Princeton Chapel after the service, batting around numbers like thirteen hundred, fifteen hundred, eighteen hundred? Nobody was an expert on counting crowds or estimating. The Princeton Chapel seats two thousand, its website says. Every pew was full.
We had to wait for ten or twelve minutes to inch our way inside the chapel, partially just because of the crush of people, partially because people were signing one of the two guest books and partially because Princeton’s squash coaches—in particular Gail Ramsay, Neil Pomphrey and Sean Wilkinson—were standing in the atrium and so many people were stopping to hug each of them.
The current Princeton team, men and women, processed up the aisle in their short-sleeve team shirts—the temperature was in the upper thirties and windy, so knowing undergraduate metabolism they could possibly have worn their gym shorts, too.
The program had a photograph of Bob, taken by Dick Druckman, during the finals of the 2012 national intercollegiate. It also ran on the cover of the June 2013 issue of Squash Magazine.
The service lasted over an hour and a half and was very moving: prayers, two readings and five hymns, including “Old Nassau” and it was amazing to see the hundreds of right hands pop up and wave back and forth during the alma mater.
Six people gave eulogies. Three were the squash players David Bottger, Dent Wilkens and Paul Assaiante. Bottger told stories of sophomoric pranks, about how Bob was always late and his perpetual optimism. He also spoke about the thousand days of Bob’s illness: “Bob taught us how to live and how to die.”
Dent asked everyone who had ever been coached by Bob to stand up and hundreds of people throughout the chapel stood, a stirring image of his direct influence. Dent then spoke about Bob’s typical phrases—”How sweet it is” and “Lock it up”—his humility, his love of the “Transfusion” (a seltzer and juice drink) and his long-winded post-practice talks. He also talked about the 2006 Atlas Lives match against Trinity and how Bob urged his players, after their crushing disappointment, to look in the eye and shake hands with every Trinity player on their way out of the gym that night.
Paul spoke about the many close matches between his teams and Princeton and about Bob’s great integrity. “We need a bigger church,” he said. His message was to pay it forward, to live our lives with the same values that Bob did.
Kristen Callahan and her five sons stood up and she bravely talked about their journey together, over the decades and over these past three years.
As she spoke, the banners that hung so high in the old cathedral swung and fluttered, as if an invisible spirit was moving them.
Afterwards, we reconvened down at the chemistry building near Jadwin. There was a line there too, one that lasted for more than two and a half hours—the line to hug Kristen Callahan and her five boys. There were hundreds and hundreds of people there, Princeton alums in their boldly striped jackets, other coaches (there were no matches in the Ivy League on this Saturday), former campers and counselors, babies, great-grandfathers, Princeton presidents, staff. One person flew up from Florida that morning, came to Princeton and then flew back down that evening. More than one parent was driving back up to the high school nationals.
Perhaps the most fitting tribute that evening came from Bob’s beloved squash team. They all had to slip out of the reception before it ended because they were driving up to Ithaca that night. They had a match the next day against Cornell. Bob would have loved that.