Bill Callahan is a one-man party. Whether he's shucking oysters behind his traveling oyster bar, teaching science at Watsonville High School or shredding it on stage with his guitar, Callahan knows how to work a crowd like nobody's business.
That's no surprise to local farmers market customers, who for more than 20 years lined up to buy fresh, succulent shellfish from "Bill the Oyster Man." But they really just wanted to see Callahan, a boisterous, larger-than-life character, holding court from his seat on a battered ice chest, oyster knife in hand, laughing about how he kidnapped Tom Hank's brother or the great party he attended at the Schwarzeneggers' house.
"We had fun," he said with a mischievous smile.
The 57-year-old Callahan grew up in Los Angeles, where he fell in love with the ocean. At the University of San Francisco he fell in love with his future wife, Anne, "the greatest thing that's ever happened to me." They've been together for 38 years. Callahan earned a degree in oceanography from Humboldt State in 1977 and worked at American Shell Corporation and Pacific Harvest Seafood before opening his own 25-acre shellfish farm, Intertidal Aquafarms, in 1983.
In his heyday, Callahan worked five markets a week, shucking thousands of bivalves alongside his beautiful assistants, "the angels," and dishing out his soy ginger and cilantro vinaigrette sauces. He also dished out a merry assortment of stories, songs, and yes, science.
"It's a show," he chuckled. "Because I have a degree in it and I've been doing it for so many years, I'm happy to share almost everything that happened to your oyster before you got it."
In 1997 Callahan started his latest career, as a science teacher at Watsonville High, where he's introducing students to the science and business of catfish farming.
"This is a dream of mine," he said, proudly displaying four bubbling tanks next to the school's garden. "You can lecture kids to learn something," he explained. "Or you can say Keep those fish alive' and suddenly there's a reason for the learning."
His colorful stories have a place in the classroom, too. "I use the stories to tell them, look, no one handed me this. I built it over 26 years. It's hard work. But business is fun if you're willing to do the work."
Callahan sold his fish farm in the late '90s and stopped doing the markets to enjoy time with his wife and take better care of his health. He's lost more than 150 pounds in the past three years. He still teaches full time, sits on the board of the downtown farmers market, takes Spanish lessons at Cabrillo College twice a week, and takes his oyster bar on the road to private parties, concerts and charity events.
"I loved the farmers markets," Callahan said. "But to quote the great James Brown, Papa's got a brand new bag.'"