When I was in grade school, I had a classmate named Mike Campbell. While we weren’t unfriendly, we weren’t friends. We didn’t do things together, or play on the playground together, or interact other than in classroom fashion. I seem to recall him being quite an artist.
Mike lived one block due south of Lake Elementary, with his older brother, his younger sister and his parents. I think I knew his dad had sled dogs, but that’s probably all I knew. My sister Terri, who was not in the same grade as Mike’s sister, nonetheless became friends with Mary through sports. It turns out, the entire Campbell family was serious about their sports.
I got to know Mary through sports as well, probably starting when we both signed up for the same volleyball officiating class. We ended the semester as the two students selected by Virginia Harris, our teacher as well as longtime volleyball coach for Western Then State, to officiate her varsity-alumni match.
Mary likely was an undergraduate at Western when she signed up for this class. I was in the class because I had recently taken over sports reporting duties at my new job at the Gunnison Country Times, and I didn’t know the first thing about most sports.
I was on more social terms with Mary than I ever was with Mike, to the point that when she had a bad break-up with her boyfriend, I took her out for a drink to try to cheer her up. It didn’t work, and I got chastised for taking all night to get through not even one beer. But everything mended on its own; she got back together with her boyfriend; they got married; and now they have four children, two of them grown.
But it was really Mary and Mike’s dad who became the Campbell in my life. His name was J.W., and of all the men I have known, he is the one who most epitomizes the word “gentleman.”
He was done with the sled dogs by the time I got to know him as anything other than an abstract “Mike’s dad,” and had taking up wood turning instead, producing lovely aspen vases, lights and tables (or at least the legs). But that’s what he did in his “off” hours, of which he didn’t seem to have many, because he was busy day, night and weekends as a one-man stop for information at Western.
Nowadays, which is the way things work, there is an entire marketing department, and an entire sports information department, both of them with multiple people employed full-time, but back in my day (way back in my day) there was J.W. Campbell and his trusty assistant Kim. Along with some student assistance, such as Mary’s future husband.
He was both the information director and the sports information director, so I saw a lot of him. And he saw a lot of me. I wore the carpet out on my way to his office, and he was well-versed with the location of the newspaper. We both eventually found our way to various locations on campus on Monday mornings, where J.W. arranged for the various coaches to meet in succession with us to get their take on the weekend’s athletic activities.
There was one coach who would meet with us every Monday when his team was in season, and every time something had gone wrong, it was the officials’ fault. It took J.W. and I both longer than it should have to connect the dots, because we both liked to give people the benefit of doubt, but we eventually got to the point where the coach would make his usual assertion about the poor officiating, and J.W. and I would look at each other and smile, and leave the blame out of our reports.
This was my favorite thing about J.W.: he walked everywhere, back when I drove everywhere, but if he saw me driving — usually going the direction opposite his — he would flag me down and say, “Why yes, I will take a ride.” And I would give him a ride, even if it meant going the way I had just come.
But this is the day J.W. impressed the socks off both Kim and me: I was in his office with Kim, waiting for his return, and we were peering at the page-a-day calendar, trying to parse out the day’s word. Eleemosonary. It’s not really pronounced the way it looks. The syllables break different from the way I try to do it: el-ee (eh)-mos-y-na-ry. Kim and I were sounding it out, wondering who on Earth would ever come up with such a word, when J.W. breezed in, took one look and said, “Eleemosynary. It means charitable, doesn’t it?”
How could you not be impressed by such a feat?
Sadly, J.W., a company man down to his toes, was very poorly treated by his last administration, under a mercurial president who let you know where you stood by the proximity of your office to that of the president. I think only the former president knows why, but J.W. got banished from the second floor down to the basement, and Kim was put in an “office” that had previously been a broom closet.
J.W., who did the preaching at his church, was never one to say a bad word about anyone, ever, for any reason (a shining example I rarely heed), and he kept to himself about the way he was being “rewarded” for a lifetime of service to a school he believed in body, mind and soul. But he did quietly retire much sooner than I think he otherwise would have, because he loved everything about Western and his job.
He and his wife Joanie, who never met a Western wrestler she didn’t want to feed, built themselves a house in town down by the river, finally moving from one block south of my elementary alma mater. But then a spot on his back turned into terminal cancer, and he died before he got much of a chance to enjoy his retirement or the grandkids he was bursting with pride over.
His service took place in the 500-seat Taylor Hall Auditorium, and the place was jam-packed. One of the speakers said, “Probably the only person who would be surprised to see so many people here today would be J.W. himself.” I still think about that often, because it was just so completely true. While J.W. thought nothing of extending the hand of friendship to anyone he met, he was so humble that he probably had no inkling just how many of us he deeply touched.
For many years it surprised me how often I thought of J.W. and how much I missed his courtly manner, charming personality and his gentle wit. I’m no longer surprised, but there are still days, like today, when I think of him for no real reason at all other than I was glad to have him in my life and sad it wasn’t for longer. I may not have been anything more than a collegial classmate with Mike Campbell, but I’m very proud to have called his dad my friend.