Miss ya, Dad.

1 Jul

Twenty years ago today, my dad, Donn Campbell, passed away.  Hard to believe it’s been 20 years.  I was only 30 years old when he passed – my wife Robin was pregnant with my now-about-to-turn 20 years old son, Joel.  He was born only six weeks later.  I’m 50 now.  Hard to believe how time flies.

I wanted to write about my Dad today for a number of reasons.  There are so many people in my life now that never knew him, and I’d like to introduce you to him.  Obviously, another reason is simply in memory of him.  And, well, I miss him. Earlier this week, an old friend from my hometown, Sharil, wrote a beautiful missive on Facebook about her dad, who had passed in 2005.  I never met him but after reading her story, I felt I did.  So, thanks for being my muse today, Sharil.

I’m going to attempt to introduce you to my dad today.  This isn’t a sad story about a life ended too early (It was.), or a tearful drone about missing him (I do.) – instead, I’m just going to tell you about him.  And hopefully, you’ll get a glimpse into who he was, what he was about, and why everybody who knew him thought he was pretty much the nicest guy they had ever met.  I’m going to try to make this NOT sound like a eulogy.  We’ll see how I do.

My Dad was sort of the epitome of the song “Small Town” by John Mellencamp.  In that song, Mellencamp talks about a guy who was born in a small town, lived in a small town and will probably die in that same small town.  My dad was born and raised in Newton, IA and lived his entire life there, and well, died nearby, and is buried there as well.   He was fiercely proud of his hometown, his state and his alma mater.  Out traveling, he’d be the first guy to proudly speak up with “we’re from Iowa”.

Being one of those rare folks that lived his entire life in the same small town, he was immensely proud of his town. Newton IA is a tidy little town, 30 miles outside of Des Moines, with a population of about 15,000 people.  When my Dad passed, Newton was still riding pretty high – Maytag Co. hadn’t yet overgrown its opportunities and gotten sold off to Whirlpool, dealing the town a hard blow.   He went to the local high school, where I graduated as well, and played football there.  He had season tickets to the Cardinals and went to nearly every football game there, following them like someone might follow an NFL team.  Newton’s football nights are the embodiment of Friday Night Lights, and without the presence or distractions of nearby pro sports, it’s everyone’s outlet for sports fan activity – an outlet my Dad always enjoyed.  He was actively involved in a number of aspects of the community and I think was one of its most ardent supporters.

He was a broad-based sports fan in general – he’d pore over the Sports section in the Des Moines Register every morning, especially the stats page – that’s a habit my son Joel has today.  He was also a tremendous fan of his beloved Iowa Hawkeyes – he had season tickets to the Hawkeyes for years, and when I was in school, my favorite thing was to roll out of my dorm or frat room bed and head across campus to my parents tailgate bashes.  He rarely missed a home game for the Hawkeye football team, and frequently made it to Iowa City for basketball as well.  When he went to Iowa, he was part of the championship-winning team in that era, as a manager.  He was still wearing his letterman’s jacket years later – I remember him wearing it when we’d go sledding.

After college, he went into the US Air Force – he was in ROTC in college and went in as an officer – a 2nd Lieutenant and left the service 3 years later with the rank of Captain.  My dad was fiercely patriotic – shortly after we moved to the house my mom still lives in – in 1971 – we erected a 20 foot flagpole in the front yard and proudly displayed the Red White and Blue every day.  We’d have an epic 4th of July brunch every year with a flag-raising party.  I think that was one of his most favorite days of the year.  Those that know me locally know that ever since I’ve had a single family home (20+ years now), I’ve had a 20-foot flag pole in my front yard too.  And it displays Old Glory every day.

His career, and his “other” life was his business – Maytag Dairy Farms – makers of the delicious Maytag Blue Cheese.  His dad/my Grandfather helped the Maytag family found the Blue Cheese business in the late 1930s/1940s, and when my dad graduated from Iowa and returned from the Air Force, he worked for the Maytag Company for a few short weeks before the Dairy Farms hired him to work at his dad’s side.  When my grandfather retired as Chairman, and died shortly after, in 1973, my dad ascended to President of the company and ran it until his death 20 years ago.  He loved that business – loved both the cheese and the farm operations side of it (in addition to making cheese, Maytag Dairy used to have a championship-winning Holstein dairy herd.  He had a strong partnership with his “boss” – Fritz Maytag, who is widely known now as the father of the craft brewing movement.  Together with Fritz, they built Maytag Blue Cheese into the brand that is widely known today, and expanded production, introduced new products, build brand buzz through press, restaurant menu distribution, events and more.  I was never given the opportunity to work there, and in fact when I asked my Dad about it two years before his passing, he discouraged me from it, saying he believed that I would be bored there.  He was probably right. But it was his favorite thing.

So, what was my dad like?  He was just a great guy.  Very simply.  He was always that guy that would invite you to join into whatever he’d be doing at the time with a hearty smile and a firm handshake.  My best memories of him as a kid are a mix of adventures – such as hiking in the Rocky Mountains, fishing in Northern Minnesota lakes, and of parties and entertaining.  It seems, as I look back on being a kid, that my folks were always entertaining people – from their epic Hawkeye game tailgates, to parties, to simply having others to our home for dinner or even just a beer on the patio in the afternoon, my parents were the consummate hosts.  My mom, of course, has much to do with that, being an incredible cook, and an even better host, but my dad was an equally willing partner.  This is something that has carried forward, of course, with me.  I would much rather cook and serve dinner for friends in our home than go out to dinner.  People ask Robin and I where we get that, and it comes from our families.  It’s what we do, because it’s what we’ve done for our entire lives.  And I can put a lot of that inspiration on my Dad.

My dad was also naturally outgoing,  a “friendmaker”.  He would make a new friend everywhere he went, and naturally engaged strangers in conversation, and of course within seconds of the start of the conversation, two points would be made that a) he was from Iowa, b) have you had Maytag Blue Cheese?   And everytime, he made a friend.  I can’t imagine anyone ever meeting my dad and afterwards saying anything derogatory about him.  He also generally had a great sense for people, and well, a bit of a naive trust that everyone was a good to the core, and as nice and well intentioned as him.  My favorite “dad made a friend” story comes from one of our Colorado skiing vacations we took during high school and college.  He had ridden the chairlift with a couple of interesting guys from Columbia, who were staying in what was at the time in Breckenridge, the ritziest condo development in town.  Later that day we were invited to their condo, and of course it was incredibly opulent.  My mother and I, being the skeptics in the family, started putting two-and-two together when we were hearing that these guys flew to Breckenridge in their private jet, had houses in multiple cities, etc.  These were cocaine moguls.  My dad would hear none of that, though a few years later would just chuckle and say “Yeah, well, that’s probably right.  But hey, they were still nice guys!”

My dad loved life.  He liked both simple pleasures and big times as well.  He loved home improvement projects like painting the house because it allowed him to just relax and do things – a pleasure I understand well.  He’d derived just as much pleasure from a good walk after dinner as he would from going to a big event at their local country club.  His favorite thing was to provide for others – treating you to dinner, entertaining you in his home or at his tailgate, providing cheese for a charity event, or just volunteering.  I write a lot about “the little things” in this blog.  I learned this from my Dad.

At my dad’s funeral, our next door neighbor, who was the Chairman/CEO of Maytag at the time (Leonard Hadley), came up to me and gave me a big, uncharacteristic hug (this guy wasn’t a hugger), and with tears in his eyes (again, incredibly uncharacteristic), said to me “Your dad was the nicest man I’ve ever met.”  Wow.

I think a lot of folks would agree.  As would I.  For those that never met him, I hope after reading this, you’ve gotten a sense of that as well.

Miss ya, Dad.  Love you.

As you were,

Stew

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4 Responses to “Miss ya, Dad.”

  1. Lois Cox July 1, 2012 at 8:51 am #

    Incredible story, Stew. I’ve never seen that picture of him. It sort of tells it all, doesn’t it. My regret is that he and Dave never had a chance to become really became good friends, though they would have, I’m sure. Donn didn’t know a stranger.

  2. Linda Covert Campbell July 1, 2012 at 3:09 pm #

    Small addition here…..but the 2 Spanish speaking guys were from Guatamala…or maybe Nicaragua…they said. And they said they had both been shot at one time or another…..and when we departed our week skiing, they gave us boxes of frozen seafood…shrimp, lobster, stone crab etc. We had to buy an extra cooler to take them home. We spent a long trip home stopping where we could to fill the coolers with ice. I remember going into a motel or 2 and filling up from their ice machine.

  3. porter hamilton August 22, 2012 at 10:49 am #

    stew’ thanks for the story about Don. i only recently got my own computer. i hate to type. Kristin sent your blog. best regards to you and family, port h.

  4. porter hamilton August 22, 2012 at 1:01 pm #

    sorry i misspelled Donn, port

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