A tip in 1965 sent FBI agent John M. Callahan and fellow agents to a Mattapan house where Top 10 Most Wanted fugitive George McLaughlin, a notorious Charlestown gangster, hid out in the attic with another ex-con.
A child answered the door. A woman was screaming as agents and Boston police made their way up the stairs. With his gun drawn, Mr. Callahan helped capture McLaughlin, who was later convicted of gunning down a 21-year-old man outside a christening party.
In addition to finding McLaughlin, who allegedly started the bloody Boston gang wars of the 1960s when he made a pass at a rival gangster’s girlfriend, Mr. Callahan helped capture three other Top 10 fugitives during 25 years with the FBI. He died in his sleep at age 94 on Sept. 30 at his home in Milton.
In his personal papers, his family found a stack of commendations from former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. One letter heralded Mr. Callahan for rescuing twin baby boys from a burning duplex in East Cambridge in 1948. Mr. Callahan was driving by when he saw the flames. He and a partner caught the babies after they were tossed to safety from a second-story window.
He was known as “Red Jack” during his FBI career because of his red hair. Agents sought to distinguish him from a dark-haired agent of the same name who was known as “Black Jack,” his family said.
Mr. Callahan, who left the FBI in 1969 and later became the first security chief of the Massachusetts State Lottery, never stopped chasing the bad guys.
He was in his 80s when he took a volunteer post on the state Inspector General’s Council where his knowledge of the “nitty-gritty details” of ferreting out wrongdoing was invaluable, said former inspector general Gregory Sullivan.
“He was absolutely fantastic in that capacity. He was able to impart so much advice in how to go about detecting fraud. It was like having a guru in the room. He was a true public servant,” Sullivan said.
In the 1990s, Mr. Callahan went undercover to help the Boston FBI battle crime against the elderly and Medicare fraud, according to his son Michael, also a retired FBI agent. Mr. Callahan posed as a vulnerable senior citizen while the FBI recorded his conversations with con men.
“He loved it. He could talk a hungry dog off a meat wagon,” said his son, who was an agent for 30 years.
Mr. Callahan enjoyed weaving the web so much that agents eventually had to pull him back. “The two agents who were working with him would say, ‘Jack, the tapes are going on too long.’ ” Michael said.
Revelations during the past 15 years about former Boston FBI agent John Connolly and his supervisor John Morris and their corrupt relationships with FBI informants saddened Mr. Callahan.
“He was disappointed at the tarnish the FBI got,” said Michael, who served as chief counsel of the Boston FBI.
Mr. Callahan ran security at the lottery for 18 years.
“Everybody who applied there had to get by Jack,” said former coworker Joe Pasquarello of Beverly, who called Mr. Callahan his mentor. “He was a loyal friend. He had a tremendous energy and a keen mind.”
Mr. Callahan, who grew up in the Meeting House Hill and Lower Mills sections of Dorchester, was the second son of Thomas and Julia. His father was chief clerk for the city of Boston under Mayor James Michael Curley, according to his family.
His older brother, Edward, served as an Army intelligence lieutenant during World War II and was killed in a convoy accident in France in 1945, his family said.
Mr. Callahan went to the Boston Latin School and graduated in 1937 from Dorchester High School, where he was captain of the baseball team.
He went to Boston College, where he played third base for four years. His family said he dislocated his shoulder before a game against Holy Cross and didn’t tell the coaches. He played with the injury and got hits during four out of five times at bat. He graduated in 1941.
Mr. Callahan also played baseball in the Boston Park League back when games drew thousands of fans.
“He was a legend when he played for the Dick Casey Club back in the ’30s and ’40s, a hard hitting third baseman, the best player at his position on the best team in the league,” said his friend Walt Mortimer, a former league president.
The league inducted Mr. Callahan into its Hall of Fame in 1987.
“We enjoyed his company at both the Hall of Fame meetings and the annual Hall of Fame banquet. He was the senior member of our select group, and was always recognized as such,” Mortimer said.
Mr. Callahan was fresh out BC when he joined the FBI and met Mary C. Halligan during training in Washington. She worked for the bureau.
They married on the Fourth of July in 1942 in Birmingham, Ala., where Jack was assigned at the time. Mary died in 2006. They were married 64 years.
They had eight children. One of their sons, the Rev. Neil Callahan, who was a Jesuit missionary in Haiti, the Philippines, and Thailand, died of cancer at age 39. Another son, Thomas, died at age 59.
In addition to his son J. Michael of Hanover, Mr. Callahan leaves his daughters Mary Byron of Milton, Julie Callahan-Healey of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Patricia F. of Milton; his sons James of Quincy, and Edmond of Scituate; 11 grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren. A funeral Mass was held at St. Elizabeth Church in Milton. Burial was in Milton.
His son Michael recalled the day his father attended one of his high school baseball games in Boston in the 1950s. Mr. Callahan knew his presence made his son nervous so he tried to watch undetected from behind a tree in left field. But Mr. Callahan was wearing the FBI uniform of the day: fedora and trench coat.
“How many guys are in the outfield behind a tree with their FBI suits on?” Michael said laughing. “It showed you how much he cared.”