Sunday Profile: Why Jim Calaway is giving away all of his money
June 4, 2016
Jim Calaway, a renowned Carbondale business mogul, does not shy away from credit for the millions of dollars he's poured into the Roaring Fork Valley's nonprofits and charities.
He's the first to tell you the amassed incredible wealth over his lifetime. And he's the first to say that he didn't find purpose for it until he started giving it all away.
The son of poor tenant farmers in a small Texas town, he was the first in his family to attend college. After high school, with $1,000 that he'd saved up in his pocket, he jumped on a Greyhound bus bound for the University of Texas.
He put himself through college and finished law school before deciding upon a career as an entrepreneur.
Fresh out of law school, he partnered with a geologist and got into the oil and gas business at 24 years old. This business venture was massively successful, and he eventually brought on his twin sons to help run the company. They sold the business in the 1990s, but it was only the start of what Calaway calls the "four home runs" of his entrepreneurial life.
Alongside his sons, Calaway would later run successful businesses in wind farming and software. Most recently, they've seized a great business opportunity in lithium mining in the Andes Mountains of Argentina.
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Calaway says some people are incurable entrepreneurs, a category he places himself in.
"I'm 85 years old; what the hell am I doing still building companies?"
But somewhere during this skyrocket to success and overwhelming wealth, Calaway found that he was lost.
At 40 years old, he was between marriages and living alone in a mansion in Houston. He had a private plane and a big sailboat. Still, something was off.
"I said to myself, 'This isn't as much fun as I thought it would be, to be successful in business and spend it all on myself.'"
Around this time Calaway started going to a Unitarian church, and he mulled this problem over with his new minister. He struck upon the idea that it wasn't right to have such success and keep it to himself.
He sold the mansion and the airplane and started a process of downsizing his life.
Now, Calaway says he's eccentric about keeping a minimalist lifestyle.
"My wife, Connie, and I now live in a nice but modest house in River Valley Ranch." They drive two used Toyotas (coincidentally, the company that's invested hundreds of millions of dollars into that lithium company).
This is a man who could afford any chair in the world, but his desk chair that he uses every day at home is from the Habitat ReStore, said Scott Gilbert, executive director of Habitat for Humanity Roaring Fork Valley, a major beneficiary of Calaway's charity.
The millionaire says he now enjoys simple pleasures like socializing during his daily lunch at the Pour House and enjoying an inexpensive bottle of wine with friends at his home in the evenings.
And over the past 25 years, he's been building up great philanthropic momentum, vitalizing some of the valley's community staples with major contributions.
He's focused his efforts largely on nonprofits in the valley. Valley View Hospital's cancer center and the community room at the Carbondale Third Street Center both bear his name. He was a cofounder of Colorado Animal Rescue, a nonprofit close to his heart. He's also given substantial donations to Colorado Mountain College, Habitat for Humanity Roaring Fork Valley and Carbondale Branch Library. He was a principle donor to build Thunder River Theatre and has been a major contributor to the Aspen Institute.
Outside of the valley he's also been a longtime donor to the American Civil Liberties Union and the Knowledge is Power Program, a national network of public schools that support poor students.
"He's a remarkable man who believes in the power of philanthropy and giving back to the community," said Stacey Gavrell, executive director of the Valley View Hospital Foundation.
Valley View had the vision to bring comprehensive cancer care to the valley from seeing people having to travel long distances to get that kind of treatment, but it took contributors like Calaway to make it happen, she said.
Calaway and Bob Young, the founder of Alpine Bank, were the major contributors that made the Calaway-Young Cancer Center a reality.
"But he's less of a name on a building than he is a partner with us," Gavrell said.
On top of the significant monetary donations Calaway has made, the difference between him and other big donors, say Gilbert and Gavrell, is the time and energy he dedicates to these organizations.
Calaway is a fixture at many of these organizations. He's a regular at the Valley View cafeteria, frequently chatting with staffers and patients, said Gavrell. He's constantly making calls to CARE, the local Habitat for Humanity and other organizations, said Gilbert.
At Colorado Mountain College, Calaway has given scholarships to about 150 students over the years, and each semester he meets with them a couple of times to see how they're doing and to give advice.
"I had 10 students (on scholarship) last semester, and nine of them were Hispanic students, which is a community that's growing like crazy across the country," he said.
As a liberal Democrat – probably one of the few in the oil business, he said – he's compelled toward social justice causes and support for the poor.
After having served on a couple of education boards at four-year universities before he moved to the Roaring Fork Valley, Calaway said it touched his heart to see the strong role that CMC plays in the lives of poor students.
But Calaway is not an anonymous donor. He's comfortable saying exactly whom he's given money to and exactly how much. By promoting his contributions, he hopes to encourage other people with means to do the same.
He has a knack for getting donors to give more than they thought they could, said Gilbert.
Calaway said that other wealthy people he's coaxed into philanthropy have called their relationship with him an "expensive friendship."
At 85, he's now thinking about where all his money will go when he passes away.
These days, in his shirtfront pocket, Calaway carries a piece of notebook paper listing in Sharpie several nonprofits close to his heart – and how he'll divvy up about $6.6 million that will be left of his estate, depending upon how much longer he lives and how his investments do.
Calaway and Connie plan to give it all away.
"My sons were successful in business with me, and they're wealthy. I'm not going to leave my money to anyone who's wealthy; I'm going to give my money to the common cause."
Calaway recalled a meal he ate with the Dali Lama about 25 years ago at the Aspen Institute. An ambassador eating with them asked the Dali Lama to describe the essence of what he believes, what life is all about.
Calaway said he's carried the answer with him since then: "To live modestly so you can give to the common good, to cherish all living creatures and to be kind every day."