University of Illinois Alumni Association Board member Colleen Callahan has broken ground – and glass ceilings – for women in agricultural communication
“You come into this world with nothing, and you leave with nothing. It’s what you do in between that matters.”
Such was the advice bestowed on Colleen Callahan ’73 aces by her father when she was young – advice that she took with her as she moved from the family farm in Milford to the University of Illinois and on through a pioneering career in broadcasting, communications and public service.
As the child of parents who raised grain and purebred hogs and cattle, Callahan grew up showing livestock at local, state and national competitions. She also excelled at writing and public speaking. When she got to Illinois, majoring in agricultural communications seemed only natural.
“I really wanted to start a career in broadcast,” remarks Callahan. “However, there were no women in the field at the time.” Even the women in her agricultural classes were few in number – such as her agricultural economics class, where she was one of only three co-eds.
Beginning to feel rather lost and unsure of her potential career path, she sought counsel from her faculty adviser, Jim Evans, phd ’68 media.
“She brought great enthusiasm and dedication to the program, I recall, along with deep roots in agriculture and strong sense of mission in helping advance it,” notes Evans, now a professor emeritus of agricultural communications.
“Her communications skills were readily apparent.”
Callahan compares his response to her plea for advice to the response of a good parent. “Dr. Evans did not tell me what to do,” she recalls. “Instead, he asked me the questions until I came upon the answer myself.
“He said, ‘Well, would you rather get your degree in something that you don’t like and do that for the rest of your life, or would you prefer to get a degree in something that you do like and then try to find a job doing it?’
“I obviously chose the latter.”
When Callahan graduated in 1973, women broadcasters were still breaking into radio and TV. Fortunately, WMBD Radio and TV, a Peoria station with a commitment to serving the region’s farming community, was interested in taking a chance on her. She became the station’s first woman agribusiness director. After working at WMBD for three decades, she started her own communications firm.
In the course of her work she has traveled to Afghanistan, Iraq, the Middle East and Cuba and has gone on to win many accolades, including her recent induction into the Hall of Fame of the National Association of Farm Broadcasting (she previously served as the organization’s first female president). Callahan has also held a seat on the University of Illinois Alumni Association Board of Directors since 2006, chairing the board’s communications committee. (Her term ends in May.)
In 2008 her passion for public service took her into the race for the open seat in Illinois’ 18th Congressional District, an experience that Callahan details in her upcoming memoir, “Not Winning Doesn’t Mean Losing: My Run for Congress.”
The following year she accepted the post of director of United States Department of Agriculture rural development for the state. “She loves to advocate for rural people and rural communities throughout Illinois and contributes her energy and talents through investments totaling some $700 million a year for rural businesses, communities and housing,” observes Evans. Callahan works out of an office in Champaign, not far from Kickapoo, where she and her husband, Richard Burns ’73 aces, live on an Angus cattle farm. (Their daughter, Brittney Rae Burns ’03 aces, is an attorney in Chicago.)
“I do not have a single regret,” she concludes. “And I have learned to never say ‘never.’”
“Colleen has long been a role model and mentor for youths who have talents and passion for communicating within agriculture, and with the consumer public it serves,” Evans notes. “In her they see how to combine these interests in their careers. They see enthusiasm, enjoyment and the impact of dedication and hard work. They see her firsthand knowledge of – and concern for – the activities, issues and people of the land. They see her special ability to communicate with others.
“And they see Colleen's spirit of working with love.”
Editor’s notes: View a video retrospective of Callahan’s life and career.
Amanda Liberatore, a UI senior in English and communications and a spring semester intern at the UIAA, contributed to this profile.