AT 14, MACK CALLOWAY EARNED $1,600 a day pushing crack cocaine. Now 19, he makes $4.53 an hour pushing fish and is happy about the switch. “There’s a lot of money in [dealing drugs],” says Galloway. “But I ain’t jumping out there no more.” Part of the reason is a significant change in the quality of Calloway’s clientele: He used to feed addicts; now he feeds four eaglets nesting in a cottonwood tree in the National Arboretum in Washington as part of an AmeriCorps sponsored program designed to bring the national bird, the bald eagle, back to the nation’s capital, which it hasn’t called home for 50 years.
The program, which employs a rotating cast of inner-city kids from Washington’s tough Anacostia district, owes it’s current success to the vision and sweat of Bob Nixon, 43, a five-time-Emmy-winning producer-director of nature shows (and the son of soap opera pioneer Agnes Nixon, creator of All My Children). Six years ago, Nixon set out to do a TV segment on the Earth Conservation Corps, a private group that puts disadvantaged youths to work on environmental projects. He discovered that the program was a mere shell and decided, in one of those life-changing moments, to try to revive it himself. He sold his swank Malibu beach house, told his William Morris agent to hold all calls and moved to Washington, where he now shares a Georgetown townhouse with his wife of two years, Sarah, 27, and their son Bobby, 1. “It was the longest one-year sabbatical in history,” says Nixon, who was planning to return to TV work after a year. (His production company, managed by Sarah, remains marginally active.)
Nixon’s mother (his father, Robert, a businessman, died last year) applauds his midlife sea change. “It was what he saw as his calling,” she says. “It’s just been terrific to watch someone go from a sweet, sweet, gentle boy to a sweet, sweet gentle man.”
Reared in a Main Line suburb of Philadelphia, Nixon struggled in school—he’s certain he’s an undiagnosed dyslexic. “I could never pass a test, but I had a great love for nature,” he says. Graduating next-to-last in his high school class, he went to England to study the ancient art of falconry, then began training the birds for film and TV appearances. Starting in 1976—and with no maternal string-pulling, insists Agnes—he entered the production end of the business, working with ABC’s American Sportsman series and coproducing 1988’s Gorillas in the Mist, in which Sigourney Weaver played his real-life friend, the murdered zoologist Dian Fossey.
It was Fossey, Nixon says, who instilled in him a desire to do more than merely record the environment. After resuscitating the ECC in 1992 with a $50,000 grant from Coors, he recruited nine people from Washington’s notorious Valley Green housing project to clean up Beaver Dam Creek, a feeder of the Anacostia River that was choked with garbage. His group removed close to 5,000 tires from the water. When he learned that bald eagles hadn’t nested in Washington for decades, he had an epiphany. “I thought, ‘What’s wrong with this picture? This is the nation’s capital.’ ” He cut a deal for space at the Arboretum and began importing eaglets from Wisconsin to raise there. His hope, buoyed by a few returnees so far, is that adult eagles will establish a nesting site in the Arboretum’s 444 acres and nearby.
“When they started baby-sitting those eagles in the woods, I was shocked,” says Jacqueline M. Massey, president of the Valley Green project. “These were old gang members!”
“I was a hustler. I was a street person,” says Rodney Stotts, 26, who was a Corps member in 1992—there have been 50 in all. He’s now married and works as a driver for a meat company.
Such transitions no longer surprise Bob Nixon. “If you give nature half a chance, it’s going to come back,” he maintains. “And if you give a young person half a chance, some great things can happen.”
JENNIFER MENDELSOHN in Washington