Calliope “Callie” Chamis lived the best years of her life in Belen where she gained respect, admiration and friendship from the teachers and administers she worked with, from students who she inspired and from friends and family members with whom she shared her life.
Callie Chamis, 68, died last week from complications of diabetes, a disease she’s been battling for 25 years. Although Chamis’ illness had been under control for most of its duration, she was put on dialysis five years ago.
Chamis grew up in Las Vegas, N.M., and moved to Belen in the mid-1960s. After graduating with a master’s degree in education from New Mexico Highlands University, she first taught English in Tularosa.
When Chamis came to Belen, she was hired as the P.E. coach at Belen Junior High School. Through the years, Chamis’s career expanded into administration, and she was hired as the principal at at the junior high in the early ’70s.
In 1978, Chamis was named director of transportation, a position she kept for nine years. She went back to the junior high school in 1998, where she worked as both assistant principal and principal until she retired in 1992.
Her brother, Chris, and sister, Penny, joked that everyone was surprised when Chamis decided to make education her career because she wasn’t a very studious person.
“She was the world’s worst teacher,” Chris said. “She fought with all the teachers. That’s why she was such a good principal.”
Penny said it was even more ironic that she started as an English teacher because that was the subject she disliked the most.
“When my mother found out she was teaching English, she almost died,” Penny said. “In fact, one of her former teachers asked mother one day what Callie was doing now. My mother told her she was a teacher and this woman’s mouth fell open.”
Hundreds, if not thousands, of students who crossed paths with Chamis remembered her for strict but fair discipline, her sister said. But the ones she remembered by name years after she retired were those who sat in her office for one misdeed or another.
“She would run into people all the time and they would ask her if she remembered their kids,” Penny said. “Calliope would look at them and she’d say, ‘No, were they ever in trouble?’ When the parent would say, no, Calliope said, ‘I’m sorry to say I never got to know the kids who weren’t in trouble.'”
Penny said Chamis wanted her students to be as youngsters were when she was growing up. “We respected my mother and dad; and Mother was very strict with us, and Calliope thought that’s the way they should be.”
Because Chamis was always an athletic person, it was only natural for her to teach physical education, Penny said. “She enjoyed it.”
Chris, who said her sister was very competitive with him, remembered a time when they were playing tennis and he just happened to win the match.
“She always tried to take my thunder away,” he joked. “She was a scholastic champion, and she went out to win. I didn’t know much about tennis, but I won. She got a little aggravated, and I asked her why. She turned around and said she was playing for the fun of it, not to win. She just left me cold.”
Known as a good disciplinarian as both a teacher and principal, Chamis gained the respect of her students, teachers and administrators. Former Belen Superintendent Marie Garcia-Shafner said Chamis’ style of being strict and stern was only a small part of who she was.
“She always conducted herself in a very dignified and respectful manner,” Garcia-Shafner said. “When you asked her a question, she always gave you an honest answer. You knew when you asked her something, she was going to give a very thoughtful and honest answer. She was a very principled person and was always fair.”
Mary Sanchez, another former Belen school’s superintendent, also remembers Chamis as an honest, fair and dedicated person.
“She looked tough, but she had a heart of gold,” Sanchez said. “She was a very dedicated and caring person. I could always trust her. She was kind of my pipeline. She was such a loyal cabinet member.”
Through her tough exterior, Chamis’s soft side was very apparent more times than not, her family and friends said. “She would cry at the drop of a hat at a sad story,” Garcia-Shafner said.
“The facade she put on as a powerful individual and as soft as she was, but her heart was bigger than she was,” her brother said.
Chamis’ good friends, Bing and Sabie Romero, who remember meeting Chamis 40 years ago at the local bowling alley, said she was not only generous, but it was obvious that her soft side most often came through.
“Her and Sabie would sit there and cry over an old movie,” Bing said. “She was very generous, and, if you needed something, she would always be there for you.”
In the last few years of Chamis’ life, her disease took control and limited her daily activities. “She had never given up hope,” Penny said. “She fought it, and she did everything they (doctors) told her to do, and I think she just finally got tired.”
Known for her great story-telling, quick wit and a big orange cup of water she took everywhere she went, Chamis will surely be missed by those who knew her best.
Clara Garcia is the editor and publisher of the Valencia County News-Bulletin.
She is a native of the city of Belen, beginning her journalism career at the News-Bulletin in 1998 as the crime and courts reporter. During her time at the paper, Clara has won numerous awards for her writing, photography and typography and design both from the National Newspaper Association and the New Mexico Press Association.