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Tal Callaway, 1932–2021: 'Top of the line'
Friends remember long-time Sears manager, founder of the 'Coffee Club'
Tal Callaway
At the 2012 Coffee Club Holiday Celebration, then held annually at the Hodges-Yawn Pondhouse, Tal Callaway shares a story with the group. (SCOTT BRYANT/Herald file)

A long-time manager of the Statesboro Sears, one of the founders of the Kiwanis Ogeechee Fair and beloved husband, father and grandfather, Talmadge (Tal) Callaway passed away Saturday, surrounded by his family. He was 89.

"Tal had a favorite phrase that he used all the time," said Pat Spurgeon, a retired Georgia Southern professor who met Callaway in the mid-1960s. "It was associated with his business as manager of Sears, but it applies to him. As a man and a friend, Tal Callaway was the 'top of the line.' That was a phrase he used so many times to describe a product his store sold, but as I was lying in bed last night, I thought it also described him perfectly — top of the line."

A native of Greensboro, Ga., Callaway was a 1950 graduate of Greensboro High School. He attended the University of Georgia before enlisting in the United States Navy and serving during the Korean War. 

Upon his return, he graduated from Presbyterian College with a Business degree. He moved with his family to Statesboro in 1959 when he became the manager and operator of the Sears Catalog Store, a position he held for 32 years. 

One of Callaway's favorite daily customs was drinking coffee with friends, and he quickly established what went on to become a legendary Statesboro group shortly after he moved to Statesboro. In retelling the story of the founding of the Coffee Club at a Christmas celebration in 2012, Callaway said Ed Olliff had helped him find a place to live, so he asked him, "You're my kind of people, Ed. Do you go to coffee?"

And with that, the two began meeting on Oct. 5, 1959, at Franklin's Rexall Drug Store at the soda fountain. Dub Lovett joined shortly after, but was allowed only 15 minutes for his break. He often slipped away quietly and paid for the other men's coffee.

Callaway said, "We can't have that, Dub," and the men began to match coins to see who would pay. Eventually an elaborate system of who would pay using dice was devised. Callaway said, "We don't feel like it's gambling because it's an honor to treat your friends. It's a privilege."

Tal Callaway mug
Tal Callaway

Over time, the group, originally called the 10:30 Uptown Coffee Club, changed locations to Ellis's Drug Store, Snooky's uptown, Bunny's Restaurant, Webb's Nic Nac, Vandy's on Vine, Vandy's on Main, Boyd's, R.J's Steakery and Vandy's in the Mall. 

A smaller group, which includes Spurgeon, still carries on the Coffee Club tradition by meeting occasionally at Loc's Chicken and Waffles behind Chick-fil-A.

"The time at Snooky's was the highlight of the Coffee Club," Spurgeon said. "At that time, we had 16–18 every day. We just as soon be put in jail than miss a day going to coffee. It became such a wonderful and joyful part of all our social lives."

Another of Callaway's passions was playing golf. Along with Spurgeon, Franklin Beecham would play weekly with Callaway and go on many golfing vacations with him, too.

"We played a lot of golf together," Beecham said. "Like the rest of us, he wasn't the best player. Whenever he hit a good shot, he would say, 'Hit a good shot. Tricked you, didn't I?' I always got a chuckle out of that.

"I am very saddened by his passing. He was always Mr. Sears Roebuck around here. All of us who were part of the Coffee Club are honorary pallbearers, and I'm honored by that kind gesture. He was a good fella."

Alice and Charlie Christmas came to teach at then Georgia Southern College in 1969 and first met Callaway at the Sears store.

"Charlie and Tal became fast friends over playing golf, and they played up until only a few years ago," Alice Christmas said. "There was a closeness among that golfing group that was very special. Charlie didn't have a brother and Tal became a brother to him.

"We became friends with the whole family and we shared a lot of happy times together. They're just like family to us. 

"He had a wonderfully good nature, a zest for living. We're going to miss him."

As a business leader, Callaway quickly became involved in improving the community's quality of life. He was a past president of the Kiwanis Club of Statesboro and was instrumental in the establishment of the Kiwanis Ogeechee Fair in 1963. 

"Tal was already one of the leading promoters of downtown Statesboro when I got to know him in 1964 upon my return to Statesboro from school in Athens," said Joe McGlamery, president of the Statesboro Herald. "As manager of the Sears Catalog Store in Statesboro, he was one of those who understood marketing and advertising in a small market like ours.

"Over the years, our friendship grew from the coffee group that met for many years at Ellis Drug Store to his sponsoring my membership in Kiwanis and much later in Rotary. We enjoyed playing cards, going to both Georgia Southern and University of Georgia football games. We shared a large group of mutual friends and the on-going fellowship of the coffee group that was a 10:30 anchor at Snooky's Restaurant for many years. Sadly, I was a lousy golfer, so I was never able to share that common interest with Tal."

And Callaway was a huge University of Georgia football fan, which Beecham remembers well.

"Even though I'm a Georgia Tech guy and he was a big Georgia Bulldog, we got along well," Beecham said. "We were always able to rib each other over that."

Among the many attributes Spurgeon admired about his late friend was Callaway's sense of humor.

"He could come up with the funniest remarks out of the clear blue," he said. "We're talking about something and then boom, Tal would make a remark and we'd all fall out laughing. He had the most natural sense of humor of anyone I knew.

"Friendship is the greatest relationship in the world. And I'm proud that's what we were — friends. I loved Tal Callaway."

Visitation for Callaway will be Wednesday from noon until 2 p.m. at Joiner-Anderson Funeral Home, followed by a service at 2 p.m. in the Chapel of Joiner-Anderson Funeral Home. Rev. Tom Terry will officiate.

Interment will be in Eastside Cemetery.

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