Sunday, April 29, 2012

A Great Man Passes

I was about 15, hanging with the gang at the home of my friend Andrea. Her father, the Great Man, waved me over. He was always quiet but imposing, with a sardonic smile and eyes that squinted and twinkled and pierced.

“So,” he rumbled. “What do you think about those Sandinistas down in Nicaragua?”
I don’t recall how I replied. I can’t imagine I did, knowing nothing about Sandinistas and consequently having no opinion about them at all. I had disappointed the Great Man. I squirmed away and later learned enough so that the next time he asked what I thought about those Sandinistas down in Nicaragua, I’d have something to say. The subject never came up again, but I was ready.

* * *

I was about 25, newly married and moving back to my hometown jobless after working a couple of years as a small-town newspaper reporter. I called on the Great Man for advice. He said he could get me an interview with the editor of the local newspaper—a union shop, much larger than the little daily for which I’d covered the city and education beats—and we talked about editing, stringing, freelancing, all sorts of opportunities for a kid with my experience. I’d taken at least an hour of his time, and gratefully rose to leave.

“So,” he squinted and twinkled and pierced. “What’s your plan?”

I don’t recall how I replied. I can’t imagine I did, being planless and all.

Maybe he didn’t actually shake his head and sigh, but that’s how I remember it.

“Here’s your plan,” he said, sitting me back down and laying out a multi-step approach to tackling the next phase of my life. He had me repeat it back to him to be sure it’d sunken in. I wasn’t leaving his home without a plan.

* * *

Douglas Campbell died Friday at the age of 90. He was the father of a good friend, a war hero, an educator, a writer, an editor. Enormously well-read and cultured. Less tangibly but most significantly, he was hugely respected and influential in the community. Andrea’s friends half-teased that her dad’s name, spoken in the same tone with which God addressed Moses on the mountain, could shake loose favors and open doors throughout half the state. Only half-teased because we’d seen it happen.

He was also the first adult outside my family who took an interest in encouraging and challenging me in the absence of any evidence I was worth the effort, offering opportunities I was too young and dumb to fully appreciate or grasp. Mr. Campbell (I’d never presume to call him anything else) was a mentor, one of a few I’ve been lucky to have in my life. I later realized he’d taken a lot of people under his broad wings over the years, which says less for me but a lot more for him.

Our local newspaper’s feature obit for Mr. Campbell tells some good stories about him, some of which I knew and others I didn’t. My favorite is of him lying in a hospital bed in 1945 receiving a Silver Star from Gen. George Patton himself. Patton read over his citation. “Did you do all that?” he asked, impressed. Mr. Campbell acknowledged that he had. “Why, you are a goddam fightin’ son of a bitch!” Patton exclaimed.

He later taught high school English and, by the time I met him, was the school district’s director of secondary education. He also moonlighted as a newspaper copy editor for nearly 40 years. I learned not to misuse the word “decimate” in his presence. Teaching was the common thread, I think, the one-word summation of his 90 years, apart from the few he spent single-handedly saving the world from the Nazis. The death of his wife Elizabeth in 2009 ended one of the best husband-wife partnerships I’d seen. It was my great fortune to know him.

* * *

I was 41, attending Andrea’s wedding on a beautiful September afternoon. I congratulated Mr. Campbell and shook his hand, and said words I don’t remember. They were something to the effect of: You were important to me. You made a big difference in my life. Thank you.

And he beamed, and might’ve said something like, “Well, my goodness,” and introduced me around to all his friends, squinting and twinkling. No piercing. After 25 years, I had not disappointed the Great Man after all.

3 comments:

Marion said...

Oh, Brian. Very moving and heart-warming.

ronnie said...

A lovely tribute. It makes me wish I'd known him.

Unknown said...

Thanks for sharing those memories, Brian. He did see some potential in you, even back in your long-haired youth. He was glad to see your work published, and bought both Mom's Cancer and WHTTWOT.
My siblings and I are missing him a lot, but tributes like yours help us remember and smile.