How A Heart Transplant Couldn’t Stop One Man’s Passion for Star Wars

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In the ten years that the Rancho Cucamonga Public Library has been hosting its annual Star Wars Read Day, co-founder Allen Callaci has only missed the event once for a perfectly valid reason:

He was recovering from heart transplant surgery.

One month before the event in 2012, Callaci left work feeling ill. After a trip to urgent care then a follow-up at the hospital, he learned he had Type II diabetes. He stayed overnight and the next morning while the staff was filling out his paperwork, Callaci suffered a heart attack.

“It turned out to be a good thing because they found out that I had an artery that had never fully formed,” he said. “I’d been living with it like a time bomb for over 40 years.”

Given only a 20 percent chance of surviving the flight to Cedar-Sinai in Los Angeles for a heart transplant, Callaci made the trip and was given a new heart. He was also given propofol for 10 days to help with his recovery.

“When I came off of it my first words were, ‘Did I miss Star Wars Day?’” he laughs. Callaci spent two months recuperating and missed Star Wars Day, but he did make it to the Star Wars Celebration in Florida later that year.

“I’d written a proposal to do a panel on Star Wars and libraries as an educational tool for reluctant readers,” he said. “It was literally the first week I was allowed to fly, so if it was a week earlier, I couldn’t have done it.”

The annual labor of love (it’s a nonprofit event) now sees thousands of people from Southern California and beyond descend upon the library’s courtyard to engage with cosplayers, meet Star Wars authors and actors, view customized Star Wars cars, create Star Wars arts and crafts, and play games like Whack-A-Jar-Jar-Binks. This year’s event takes place on Saturday, May 27th.

Callaci’s love of Star Wars, though, actually predates the original film’s debut in 1977, when he discovered the Marvel comic book adaptation that was released before the movie.

“I thought the comic was kind of interesting and I just had to see this movie,” he said. “Back in that time, there wasn’t a lot of fantasy or sci-fi, just Star Trek reruns. And once that Star Destroyer comes onto screen, I was hooked.”

As the city’s literacy librarian, Callaci remembered an early attempt to incorporate Star Wars into a tutoring program when only three people showed up. The next time he decided to use Star Wars as a literacy tool, though, was the game changer.

On that fateful Memorial Day weekend ten years ago, Callaci and a skeleton crew of part-time workers decided to put up a Star Wars display in the library. He used the social network choice at the time, Myspace, to ask local cosplayers to show up at the library for a Star Wars Day.

“All of a sudden we started getting a ton of calls,” he said. “We got over 300 people to the library with very minimal advertising. After that, we knew [what to expect].”

A decade later and fans now anticipate Memorial Day weekend for fun from a galaxy far, far away. Set within the Victoria Gardens outdoor mall, last year’s Star Wars Day attracted over 5,000 people. With the help of a local hotel organization, the recently rebranded Star Wars Reads Day (the official event sponsored by Lucasfilm and its publishing partners) hosted everyone’s favorite scoundrel-turned-Cloud-City-administrator, Billy Dee Williams.

“In my wildest dreams, I never would’ve thought Billy Dee Williams would be coming to Star Wars storytime, which is what this started out as,” Callaci said. “And I got to interview him! It was surreal.”

As the event celebrates its 10th anniversary alongside the film’s 40th anniversary, Callaci looks forward to this year’s gathering, which will feature tributes to Carrie Fisher, from craft projects of headbands with Princess Leia buns to actress Julie Dolan (the voice of Leia in Rebels) reading Vader’s Little Princess.

“This event started to attract reluctant readers,” he said. “They might not want to see me read a story; it might not be that exciting. But have Darth Vader read the same story and now [they’re engaged]. I get a kick out of it because I’ve been a Star Wars fan since I was a kid.

“Seeing the throngs of people taking up the entire mall … and now other libraries around the area and other places that have adapted it. I think, “Wow, I’m getting paid to do this?’”

Star Wars Reads Day at the Rancho Cucamonga Public Library is Saturday, May 27th. Information here. Read more about Allen Callaci’s heart transplant story in his book, Heart Like a Starfish.

What are you doing to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Star Wars? Tell us in the comments!

Image Credits: Ruel Gaviola

Ruel Gaviola is a writer and educator based in Southern California. He loves board games, books, cooking, traveling, date nights with his wife, and Star Wars. He reviews games and reports news for and his name rhymes with Superman’s Kryptonian name. Follow him on Twitter.

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