Eulogy for my dad, Rick Campbell

Eulogy for Frederick L. Campbell (by Bonnie Campbell)

Photo of Dad taken by Chris Magson on our screen porch.

Photo of Dad taken by Chris Magson on our screen porch.

We are together here, on this day before father’s day, 2013, to mourn the death and celebrate the life of Rick Campbell, father of seven (Mike, me, Thomas, Sheila, George, Erin, Brennen). Other people might have the good sense to keep their comments short, but I’m not going to do that. My father never mentioned my writing his eulogy. He did not think he was going to die, certainly not now, maybe not ever. And neither did the rest of us.  Dad had his home health remedies, and we expected him to keep going to Meijers to pick up a couple of things, to keep lugging bags of topsoil to his garden, and to keep changing his own oil in his truck. We expected him to keep driving around looking for the cheapest gas prices—one time I know he drove all the way to Indiana to fill up. We expected him to keep showing up at our barbeques and parties and going out on my brother Tom’s pontoon boat and making goofy jokes. I figured I’d be making him a carrot cake for his 79th birthday in a few weeks.

Susanna & Five kids, photo by Rick Campbell

Susanna & Five kids, photo by Rick Campbell

My mother is Susanna, Dad’s first wife, and when they met, she was riding a horse, and he was looking up at her. If it was love at first sight, he never would have admitted it.  When he met his second wife Leslie, to whom he was married 31 years, he might have been looking up at her on the roof of a house, for she worked back then as a chimney sweep. That seems a good start, his looking up to a woman. He always looked up to Clarian Campbell, the mother who raised him in Richland a woman who fed and clothed and somehow, with Herculean strength and the patience of Job kept in line five boys: Don, Rick, Phil, Bob, and Jim.

Dad's Senior Picture

Dad’s Senior Picture

On his first or second date with my mom, he drove her from Comstock to a movie at the park in Augusta, and on the way home, there was a car crash that resulted in five fatalities, as Mom put it, “Bodies were spread all over the road.” So Dad jumped out of the car and took pictures, and that was life with a photographer. 

When I asked my little brother George recently for a memory of dad, he said, “Well, I was about ten, and he picked me up at school, we delivered some photos to the Gazette, and then we came across a car accident and we had to stop and pull over. He took photos of the wreck and we had to go back to the Gazette to develop them.”

In his years at the Gazette, Dad photographed not only accidents and ceremonies, but characters from the world stage such as Richard Nixon, Jimmy Hoffa, Richard Dyer Bennet, Lily Tomlin, and Timothy Leary—and that, by the way, is why my brother is George Timothy Campbell.  And he photographed all the local dignitaries as well; through his job, Dad knew just about everybody in town.

Jerry'sRick3Rick took photos for the Gazette for 53 years. He was part of a dream team of Gazette Photographers including his pal Jerry Campbell, Bob Maxwell, Carl Bennett; and later, Duane Scheel and Phil Mitchell, all (and here’s the miraculous part) making regular, if modest, full time salaries with benefits. You don’t see that anymore. It isn’t exactly clear how he became a Gazette photographer. When he was seventeen he was mowing J.K. Walsh’s lawn (that’s the old Gazette editor) and the next year the guy hired him to be a photographer for the paper.

My dad had some famous photos early in his career. He won awards for a photo of a swan fleeing a motorboat, for a picture of a pet deer following a boy to the school bus, for a young woman falling off a horse during a show, as well as for a picture of jobless youths on the north side, which my mom says was completely staged.  Maybe the most famous photo he took was of Arthur Bremer at a Kalamazoo Wallace-for-president rally.  Here I’m going to quote from Dave Persons writing in the Gazette: “A close inspection of Campbell’s photo revealed that Bremer was applauding Wallace from the audience. Bremer, who was convicted and served 35 years in prison for his assassination attempt on Wallace, later revealed he had planned to shoot Wallace in Kalamazoo.” But he hadn’t gotten the chance. 

Dad with all 7 kids at Kalamazoo Gazette retirement party.

Dad with all 7 kids at Kalamazoo Gazette retirement party.

So Dad won awards for his Gazette photography, but those who knew him knew the Gazette material wasn’t his best stuff. My mom has albums full of black and white photographs of everybody we knew.

Some of the photos are good just because we like seeing the people in them, and there are way too many pictures of kids with spaghetti sauce and chocolate frosting on their faces. Others, however, are brilliant works of art, some of them portraying a single kid looking so earnest, so vulnerable, so windswept that you want to cry. His best photos might be the groups of kids and adults.  He demanded that people pose for his photos and he was quick and bossy about it. Go there, do that, he’d say, and we’d do it because we were a photographer’s kids. He could capture in a birthday cake photo a smorgasbord of emotions: heartbreak on one kid, pride or fear on another, and giddy excitement on yet another. Snap. And he did this on film—some of you remember film.

Dad & other Kalamazoo Gazette photographers.

Dad & other Kalamazoo Gazette photographers.

Jerry Campbell explains how it was in the beginning, back when they started at the Gazette, before film came in rolls, when it was in “holders.” He says, “We had a limit for how many photos we could take. For a headshot you were only supposed to take one or maybe two photos.  If we went out on a regular assignment in those days, we never shot more than four or five max. It meant that you had to really pay attention to your subjects, predict their movements, keep track of them and hope you caught them in good pose.” We take photos differently now.


In the early seventies, Dad was able to capture something quintessentially American and Midwestern in his photos He took some amazing pictures of groups of kids in 1976 (and I think we have some copies here), the year of the bicentennial, when everything in America was a little brighter and sparklier and funkier and funner than it was before or after.  I remember spending time with him in the maze of Gazette dark rooms, where he dodged and burned during the enlarging process so that faces would be brighter, backgrounds darker.  

In his last ten years or so at the Gazette, he mostly did advertising shots, rather than news; he said this allowed him to be creative in a different way. And one of his coworkers (Kim “Mac” MacKellar—I guess he lives in Florida now or he’d be here) wrote “Rick was THE GUY I always requested for photo shoots both in studio and at advertisers’ businesses. He had a knack for putting the most persnickety client at ease and they were always dazzled by the results of his keen eye for the best shot. In addition he was a heckuva NICE GUY.”


My mom says she turned Dad from a conservative to a liberal. She says it was partly those years 1956-60 they spent living just off the Donaldson Air Force base in South Carolina, seeing Black citizens living in brutal poverty, having to drink from separate fountains, having to attend separate movie theaters and schools. Mom says that while they were there they might have been shot dead by their white neighbors for the fraternizing they did with Black neighbors. Dad then spent a tour of duty in Weisbaden, Germany and he became an Airman First Class. Leslie has made arrangements for some of his ashes will be to laid to rest at Fort Custer National Cemetery in Augusta, where there will be a marker for him.

Dad photographed by Chris Magson at Bell's Brewery.

Dad photographed by Chris Magson at Bell’s Brewery.

My granny, Betty Herlihy, my mother’s mother loved my father, and not just because he was so handsome. She called Dad “a real trencherman,” which is a phrase in my family for a hearty eater.  My mother tells me that she never had a leftover the whole eleven years she was married.  Leslie says Dad was a great help to her in cleaning her plate all through their marriage. He really favored chicken, and gradually  became an artist at the barbeque grill.  He brought the beer-butt chicken into many of our lives—in case you don’t know, beer-butt refers to a method of cooking a chicken on a grill by sitting it upright on an opened can of beer and then the chicken cooks from within (with steaming beer) as well as from the outside.  He actually perfected the method to make the wine-butt turkey, which was sensational—he used a big soup can instead of a beer can, and put sherry wine in it.  He would sometimes even bring his own grill to my brother Tom’s, so his turkey or chicken wouldn’t be disturbed by somebody else’s brats and burgers. Dad always liked to be with people eating and laughing.


I asked my little sister Sheila for her favorite memory of Dad, and she remembers way back in the day, when all five of us kids and Dad would climb up on the big green couch that used to be in our kitchen. We’d all pile on and he’d play the guitar and sing “Puff the Magic Dragon” and a song he made up himself called the “Da da” song. And she also remembers being at the Gun Lake cabin that he and Jerry Campbell had for two summers, 1968 and 1969.

Mike Campbell, 1976

Mike Campbell, 1976

My big brother Mikey lived with my dad his last three years of high school.  He says my dad encouraged his creativity. Electronics was something Dad had learned from his dad, Harold, and he encouraged Mike to build his own radios, and also to play piano and draw. Mike says, “I was drawing a doodle at the table one day, and Dad liked it so much, he gave me a calligraphy pen and India ink and poster board, and I still have that first drawing. It took me three months to finish it.”  Dad signed Mikey up to be in an art show in Bronson Park when he was about 19, so he could display his work. Mike says that Dad also encouraged him to be a “mad scientist” in the kitchen and devise his own cuisine.

People feel sorry for kids of divorce, and they did especially back in 1969, but we figured we kids had it made.  Before the divorce I’d never even been to a restaurant, but Dad took us out to eat, took us camping, and took us to downtown apartments that had shag carpeting and beads hanging down instead of interior doors, and then to his house on Fourth Street, near Red Arrow Highway. For quite a while, I knew my dad as a swinging city guy, with his microwave oven, and candle-making, and his knowledge of what yin yang meant.  He often had a rakish mustache and a Sonny Bono haircut, and for a while drove a Firebird, and then he married the lovely Leslie, so I remember the moment many years later when I realized he had really changed.

Photo Dad took of Sheila and pals playing softball.

Photo Dad took of Sheila and pals playing softball.

There was an old Saturday Night Live skit called “Middle Aged Man” and Mike Myers was a super hero who would dash in and show people how to hang gutters, how to protect a car’s battery from corrosion.   He knew where all the appliance warranties were. So my dad came over one time when I was trying to build a raised garden bed in my front yard, and he told me that I should use a garden hose to outline it to figure out just how I wanted it to be, for that would allow me to mess around until I got the right shape and size. And then he told me how to prune my lilac bushes.  I realized, in that moment, that Dad had become middle-aged man. He knew how to operate a Coleman lantern.  He could install a water pump in his truck, and just a year ago, he helped my brother install a well pump in my mom’s house. The only difference was that my father was still handsome, unlike the Mike Myers character.

Dad shaved head

Dad shaved head

Rick’s dad, my grandfather Harold, was a Freemason, so we know he had a secret life. Rick was not a Freemason, but there was a part of him that was mysterious and secretive. Maybe it was a kind of shyness that would make him hold part of himself back. Maybe it was because of the mystery of his birth mother, Marcella Loesser Campbell and his first year and half of his life orphan ward of Borgess Hospital. (My mother says he was cared for there by Mary Florence Harrington.) I  got the impression that Dad was always questioning, keeping his mind open to the mystery, poking around for something more, something spiritual, maybe even something magical. I think that seeking part of him is what came through in those perfect compositions he created with his camera, those perfect frames of groups of people and individuals, filled with life. His best pictures were his visions of the wilder worlds he could imagine, more beautiful and strange and revealing worlds. Through his photos, we can see his secret self.  

One of Leslie's favorite photos of Dad.

One of Leslie’s favorite photos of Dad.

He wasn’t a person who would be bossed around. A lot us wish tried to get him to go to the doctor in these last 35 years, just to see the lay of his land, maybe to have those old arteries checked, but my dad lived on his own terms. And he was able to heal himself for a lot of years.


Dad was Dad to a lot of people. Certainly to my husband Chris Magson and Sheila’s husband Matt Schwartz, both of whom had lost their own fathers too young.  Family friends as well knew him as Dad, the man at the barbeque. And we usually had a barbeque to celebrate Dad’s birthday around the fourth of July.  A family friend Gina Betcher posted a poem about Dad, and it starts out:  “July is going to seem different, as though he’s gone off to the store, and will be coming back.”

Erin, Leslie, Bonnie at Dad's memorial at Susanna's.

Erin, Leslie, Bonnie at Dad’s memorial at Susanna’s.

So thank you Dad for all the beautiful photos that will last forever because we’re finally scanning them. Thank you for helping and advising us with our home improvement projects. Thank you for giving Chris and me the crab apple tree to plant after Chris’s mom died. Thank you, Dad, for helping my brother Tom in 1997 when both his legs were broken and filled with hardware and when he was fighting infection, when the doctors said Tom might never walk again—Dad, you cleaned bedpans and cooked food, gave moral support and physical support, and you are a big part of the reason Tom can walk today, and not just walk but climb ladders and earn a living in his chosen trade. You nurtured him and taught him how to heal himself. 


Dad & I at Kellee's wedding.

Dad & I at Kellee’s wedding.

Thanks, Dad, for taking Sheila to meet movie star Jon Schneider with your backstage pass—that’s Bo Duke from Dukes of Hazard, for those of you who don’t know. Thanks, Dad, for coming around when we needed cheering up, and for always offering your help. Thank you for coming to every grandkid’s and great grandkid’s and son-in-law’s birthday party in the last dozen years with a wrapped gift. Thank you for Christmas of 1967. That was the year you hung the Christmas tree upside down from the center of the ceiling of the living room and let us decorate it that way.  Thank you for setting up the jungle gym in the kitchen, so we kids could play on it in the winter, as well as the summer. And thanks for the da-da song—if I’m not mistaken the full set of lyrics was “da da da da da da.” And I wish I remembered the tune. Thank you for being our handsome, helpful, mysterious artistic dad. We’ll raise our glasses to you later today and tomorrow on Father’s day, and we’ll tell stories about you in a few weeks on your birthday—maybe over some carrot cake—and we’ll think about you and miss you every day.

Dad & Thomas at the lake.

Dad & Thomas at the lake.


(Next Erin spoke at length, told some wonderful stories about Dad, including stories about Dad and their various family pets.)

About bonniejocampbell

I'm the author of ONCE UPON A RIVER, AMERICAN SALVAGE, MOTHERS TELL YOUR DAUGHTERS, Q ROAD, WOMEN & OTHER ANIMALS. I love Michigan, donkeys, black walnuts, blackcap raspberries, Flannery O'Connor.
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15 Responses to Eulogy for my dad, Rick Campbell

  1. Barb Modrack says:

    This was lovely.

  2. Pete Cuipenski Fanning Springs,Fl. (Shawn's step dad) says:

    PERFECT !!.

  3. Donald Allen says:

    That is exactly how every good person should be eulogized!! What an amazing person he must have been and I see where you get at least the foundation for your talent. Photography and writing are equal partners in expressing life as we see it. I want to write some more and this has been an insperation to do both.
    I know he is very proud of you and thinks you covered his life very well in this celebration of his relationship with his loving family.
    Thank you for sharing.
    Don Allen

  4. David Frost says:

    Thanks for sharing.

  5. shirleyhs says:

    Thank you, Bonnie, for sharing these words not only with the lucky ones who knew your dad but also with those of us who didn’t — but who see the qualities you loved most in you.

  6. Bonnie, this was lovely. I was so struck by how much Brennen looks like your dad in the photo you have labeled one of Leslie’s favorite photos.

    I’m Leah’s sister, Brennen’s wife, and on the board of the Kentucky Women Writers Conference. We’ll be meeting in September! I met your dad at their wedding, and it was in reading the story about your dad’s death that I realized the connection I had to you; I had just finished reading Once Upon a River right before the wedding and in fact had considered asking the Michigan contingent if they knew of the places I had just read about! Small, small world.

    Looking forward to meeting you. I’m in the middle of American Salvage right now; I do love good short stories.


  7. Jeanne O'Malley says:

    When you were just a little girl, Bonnie, I was a teenager trailing around after your Dad and Susie and Margo and Toni and…I still have and treasure the photos he took of me at the Woodstock party. They look like me AND they look good – only a master could achieve that. A good good man.

  8. Patricia Willis says:

    Bonnie, of all the years I have known you through my late daughter, Karen Willis, I now know where you got your writing talent from and I too live on the River and enjoy every day of it. I so enjoyed your wonderful tribute to your father, who I also remember as being a wonderful photographer but never realized he was your father. I have lost three children, which is horrific, but losing a parent is such a different loss – they have been there forever and they seem invinsible. We lived in the plat behiind the Covenant Church on East Main and 26th for over thirty years and I think you were there years ago as I remember Karen always talking about your talent. Always remember, no one can take away your memories and you, like me, cherish them daily. And, of course, we will see them again.

    Kindly, Patricia Willis

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