Joanne Callahan has led a storied career.
She left home at age 17 to study at Harvard University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree and graduated magna cum laude. She went on to earn master’s degrees at Stanford University and what is now called the Dwight D. Eisenhower School for National Security and Resource Strategy. She taught Braille to students in Peru, and spent 33 years working for the CIA in a variety of roles, including political analyst and legislative liaison.
She did it all with devoted guide dogs by her side.
Callahan was just 2 months old when her mother, curious as to why her baby wasn’t responding to lights, lit a match to gauge her reaction. She grew concerned when Callahan didn’t recoil from the flame, and doctors soon confirmed that the little girl was congenitally blind, with a severely damaged optic nerve.
While growing up in Brooklyn, New York, Callahan learned to navigate crowded city streets with a cane. But as a woman, she felt vulnerable, thinking someone could just come and grab it from her. So before heading to Harvard, she partnered with a yellow Labrador retriever named Luna.
“Having a guide dog, you can move so much more quickly,” Callahan, 67, told TODAY. “And you have someone who has skin in the game with you, as it were. They don’t want to get hit by a car. They don’t want to have anything bad happen to them.”
Though all of Callahan’s guide dogs have been Labs from the New York-based nonprofit Guiding Eyes for the Blind, each dog has been different, with unique strengths and attributes: Luna, Elmer, Maude, Scully, Dover, Farber, Mahoney and now, Magnum.
They’ve shared many adventures with the self-proclaimed “adrenaline junkie,” from traveling to foreign countries to traversing the halls of Congress. Each dog has helped break the ice with strangers.
“I find sometimes if you walk in a room and a person is not expecting to see a blind person, it distracts them — the element of surprise can distract them,” she said. “When they see me with a dog, I think we just are more relatable. That has helped me in so many situations. I can’t go into a lot of them because they’re classified.”
Maude, a black Lab, made an indelible impression on a trip to a Central American country, where Callahan visited an embassy with a colleague. He suggested she let the dog off harness to enjoy playtime in a fenced area, which initially seemed like a good idea.
“My dog was having a fabulous time. Then all of a sudden, I heard a splash,” she recalled. “My dog jumped into the ambassador’s pool. Everybody in the cafeteria was looking at us and laughing. Then the ambassador said, ‘Well, if I can’t use it during the day, I’m glad somebody else could.’”
Many of her dogs are included in the Congressional Record — and not always for just being present at a meeting. For instance, when Callahan worked as a legislative liaison, she and Elmer, a black Lab, met with the intelligence oversight committee.
“Elmer made a really big sigh after one of the members on the House side made a comment,” she said. “And one of the congressmen said, ‘You see? Even Elmer doesn’t agree with you.’ That showed up in the Congressional Record.”
Despite their sometimes comical antics, Callahan has trusted all of her guide dogs with her life. Once near a construction site, a truck hit reverse — right at Callahan and Elmer. They both turned 180 degrees and started running, with Callahan grasping the dog’s harness as they fled.
“I just trusted Elmer and ran away from the truck. We ran so fast I lost my high heels and I was just petrified,” she said. “He was next to me all the time and did not lose his cool for a minute. He was the one who initiated the turnaround — he got me out of there. I could have been run over.” (A bystander retrieved the shoes she lost during the escape, for which she was particularly grateful since they were brand new.)
Callahan is immensely proud of her daughters, Alanna and Amelia, who grew up with her guide dogs. She’s planning to fly soon from her home in Georgia to Washington, D.C., to visit Amelia with her new guide dog, Magnum, who is a yellow Lab. This June, the pair graduated after two weeks of training together at Guiding Eyes for the Blind.
“He gets to do the fun stuff now that I’m retired. We go for walks around the neighborhood, go shopping — we love escalators,” she said. “He’s great on planes. We just came back from two trips from New York and St. Louis, and he did great.”
Magnum is also “totally obsessed” with toys, according to Callahan.
“He’ll wake me up in the morning, giving me a kiss with two toys in his mouth at the same time,” she said. “He’s pretty amazing. And he guides so well. … I fell in love with Magnum right away, and I have to say vice versa. It’s a bond that is very difficult to put into words.”
Guiding Eyes for the Blind depends on donations and volunteers to be able to provide guide dogs like Magnum free of charge to people who are blind or visually impaired, according to Thomas Panek, the organization’s president and CEO.
Panek, whose current guide dog is a yellow Lab named Blaze, noted that over 7 million Americans have a significant vision impairment, and that a higher incidence of unemployment in the group correlates with lack of mobility — which is one way guide dogs can be so beneficial.
He feels Callahan’s career shows that “anything is possible” not only for individuals with vision loss, but for people with guide dogs who might be considering a career in service to the country.
“What it’s all about is being able to provide people with freedom and independence so that they too can participate fully in society, just like any of us would,” Panek told TODAY. “You’ve got this beautiful dog that’s helping you all the time. … It fits into your life in helping you really be the best you can be, and Joanne has certainly demonstrated that. We’re incredibly proud of our graduates and the people we serve, because we see what a difference it makes.”