Transformation of Robert Campbell

From Panhandle flatlands to Guatemalan mountains, Houston doctor and artist Robert Campbell searched for a life with meaning.When he died, many said that life was his.

In an effort to highlight the sanctity of contemporary people, Pope John Paul II has canonized more saints than any other pope in history. The Dominicans, for example, once had 18 or 20 saints, says Brown. Now they have 200. These contemporary saints serve to remind believers to examine their own lives, that sainthood is not just something that happens in a distant time and place.

So Father Brown seems not at all surprised that Campbell is being regarded with unusual reverence. "I don't doubt that," he says. "This is no usual man."

Was Campbell a saint? "Most naturally," says Father Lazarus. "I look at a saint as one who does ordinary things in an extraordinary manner, with a kind of intensity that is motivated by God and the love of neighbor." Then he quotes the 17th-century French thinker Blaise Pascal: "He who tries to become an angel becomes a brute."

"You are human," Father Lazarus adds. "That is what we must build on."
Father Michael Burke, who heard Campbell's private vows, also says Campbell was a saint, a man who made him a better priest. "Who is to say what will happen after he is gone?" Father Burke asks. "That depends if miracles happen with his intercession. He was a saintly man, an authentic person. In this day he could have gone a totally other direction."

Campbell's friend and medical colleague Robert Fowler recalls a man of great kindness with an impish quality, a man who loved to tease him when they worked in adjoining examination rooms at the Casa de Amigos clinic. Campbell would leave funny notes in his exam room and play gentle tricks on him, but never with a mean spirit. His patients loved him, recalls Fowler. Referring to him as "mi doctorcito" they would leave his examination room holding a flower he would give them from a five-gallon bucketful bought from a wholesaler.

Once, in his illness, Campbell raged at him, then apologized, Fowler says. He was not perfect. That was the point.

During the autumn of 1994, Campbell's illness grew worse. He needed a cane to walk. A neuropathy had crippled his painting arm. He grew blind in one eye. A group of friends organized to cook for him, each friend picking a day of the week to show up with food. Fowler became his medical consultant, talking him through the choices he needed to make and, at the end, deciding with Avila that Campbell needed to go to the hospital.

When people get dementia, Fowler says, their core personality comes out. They're in another world somewhere, but it's still them in that other world, and Campbell continued to be sweet and loving.

Fowler, who grew up Catholic and attended Notre Dame University, brought Campbell a rosary during his last days in February.

"I had always thought the rosary was kind of caca," Fowler says. "I thought it was stupid. But he had said the rosary every day, so I got my rosary and asked him if he would like to say the rosary, and he moved his head, yes. Robert couldn't say it with me, but he would look at me with his eyes, and I could see he was moving his lips and praying."

The night before Campbell died, Fowler was with him at the hospital. Finally, exhausted from watching over his friend, he went home to clean up. For a few months Fowler had been growing a goatee. That morning he decided to shave it off.

"One thing I learned from Robert," says Fowler, "is not to try to be who I'm not, but just be present. So I decided it was really kind of silly to grow a goatee. What am I, some beatnik artist hanging out in Greenwich Village? So I decided to shave it off, and as I took the first stroke out of the mustache, I just had the strangest feeling that Robert was dying, right then. And then I thought, 'Oh come on fella, you've watched too many B movies. Get real. This is silly.'"

When he heard later that morning that his friend had died, he discovered that it happened at 8 o'clock that morning, February 10, when he was shaving.

"All of a sudden I had this feeling that Robert had come to say good-bye to me," Fowler says. "Man, people had told me this before and I had laughed. Not to their faces, of course, but inside I had thought, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah. What drugs are you on? Where is this peyote coming from?'

"But this was real for me. All of a sudden I felt that Robert had come to kiss me good-bye and give me his blessings as he left ... All of a sudden, it all worked. I just felt a sense of peace that I had never in my life had before. Then it all became clear to me. That's what I had been looking for from Robert. Where did he get this peace? Where did he get this sense, that yes, things are unjust, things are wrong, things are terrible in some ways in the world, but there is an underlying love to it all, and that he had found it?"

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