a life redeemed
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A Life Redeemed
July, 2009, Page 31
Photography by Jake Johnson
Think you’ve known hardship? Meet Morris Callaman, the genius foster kid from Phoenix who beat homelessness and became a millionaire.
Phoenix financier and multi-millionaire Morris Callaman chooses his words with evident care. Even his name – a subtle reconstruction of Callahan, the name of his adoptive family – was chosen with great deliberation, requiring that only one letter be replaced to create an entirely new legal identity. One might attribute such thoughtfulness about language to education – Callaman holds degrees in engineering, business and law. But there’s also a level of caution that points to earlier, darker experiences.
Callaman wasn’t born into success or riches. Born in 1969, he says his parents essentially abandoned him as an infant. He believes his father, an engineer with Honeywell and Motorola, and his mother both suffered from mental illness. When they split, he was given up for adoption and thought to be mentally retarded. (Years later, while in law school, IQ testing placed him in the “ultra genius” category.)
Callaman was passed around among relatives, friends and foster parents, attending 13 elementary schools in a dozen states. Without relating many details, it’s clear he wasn’t properly cared for. While in eighth grade, he learned the whereabouts of his biological father and made arrangements to move in with him.
But his father and new family proved to be as unloving and disinterested as the others. In despair, he says he tried to kill himself by swallowing 20 Quaaludes he purchased on the street. Turns out they weren’t the real thing, however, and he awoke 20 hours later with the suicide note he’d written still lying on his chest. No one had noticed.
Shortly thereafter, Morris snuck out of a bedroom window and never returned. He had just finished eighth grade at Ironwood Elementary School. He slept in Acoma Park and other places. He says he can pick up a street map of Phoenix and recall the various parks, streets and alleys where he lived. This was the landscape of his coming of age.
Eventually, his only brother found him and got him a job picking up trash on a construction site. “I found it much more reliable than stealing,” Callaman says.
Morris Callaman reflects on a childhood spent in foster homes and cold nights sleeping next to this transformer box in Acoma Park. Today, he is a millionaire with three degrees.
He was promoted from garbage collector to ditch digger to mortar maker and so on. At age 16, he worked his way up to living in an apartment on 59th Avenue. But the hard labor and the dead-end world he found himself in were taking their toll.
“I felt like I was 40 years old, like my life was gone,” Callaman recalls.
It was at this point of utter devastation that inspiration came to him. “Something happened that told me it’s not over for me,” he says. “I’m not a religious person, but I felt like I was talking to someone that wasn’t me, at least not in a conscious sense, that said it would be OK, and allowed me to hang on a little bit longer.”
Feeling there had to be something more for him, Callaman went to Glendale Community College to register for classes. Told he needed to get a GED certificate since he had not finished high school, he took and passed the exam that same day. So started his journey out of the shadows.
Ultimately, it would take Callaman nine years of night classes to earn his degree in engineering from Arizona State University. But he was on his way. He got married and had a son. The birth was a healing moment for him.
“I had never loved another human being,” he says. “When I saw that tuft of hair appear, that’s when I discovered love.”
He gained corporate work experience and eventually joined the consulting business of Ernst & Young in 1999, where he worked on accounts such as Disney, American Express and Chrysler, and eventually became a principal at the unprecedented young age of 33.
While working full time there, he continued his education, earning an MBA from the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University in May 2000. By that summer, he says the long hours had caught up with him, and he arranged to take a nine-month sabbatical. For Callaman, time off meant enrolling in law school at ASU.
During his second year of law school, Callaman returned to Ernst & Young, where he proceeded to head up the Mitsubishi account, requiring him to commute to law school from Tokyo.
“As a supporter, Morris has become active in the law school, probably more so than when he was there,” says Patricia White, who was dean of the law school at the time and has since become a friend.
In 2005, Callaman left Ernst & Young to enter private practice. Today he operates what he calls a “micro” venture capital firm that offers financing and advice to early stage companies. He was an early investor in LifeLock, the fast-growing identity theft protection company, and recently invested $250,000 in the Phoenix-based Door and Screen Company of America.
Yet he remains insecure in his wealth.
“I have a Holocaust mentality when it comes to money,” he says, meaning he tends to save against upcoming disaster. He saves 90 percent of his earnings, has no expensive hobbies, still lives in the Chandler home where his son, now in fifth grade, was born, and drives a Ford Thunderbird.
“I remember being dirty and hungry,” he says with typical frankness.
While the memories of his struggles remain vivid, Callaman has not allowed them to stop him from prospering and helping others to do the same. He finds himself compelled to help people, often giving them free business advice along the way. He humorously refers to this as “pro bono venture capital.”
Callaman has also been an enthusiastic supporter of ASU, which he credits with having played a pivotal role in his success story. For his generous giving, he was named a University Sponsor. In addition, Callaman has been active in helping the poor and homeless through such organizations as the St. Mary’s Westside Food Bank, on whose board of directors he served.
“I was the only member who had also been a client,” he says, able to grin about it now, in a testament to the unlikely journey he has made.
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