Transformation of Robert Campbell
Robert Campbell's friends had a hard time getting from Houston to the little Panhandle town of Claude to bury him. It was St. Valentine's Day, and snow and ice had closed the Amarillo airport. Along with Campbell's parents and brother and sister, they were stuck in Dallas for several hours, worried about whether they would make it in time, and whether Campbell, clad in the white robes of a Dominican brother and resting in an unfinished pine box in the airport's cargo area, would be late to his own funeral.
They might have remembered what Campbell, a physician and artist who dedicated his medical practice and art to the poor, had said to them many times: God provides. The storm abated, and friends and family caught a plane to Lubbock instead. They crowded into two rental cars and drove for an hour and a half to Claude, reminiscing about their beloved son, brother, companion, artist, doctor, humanitarian, social activist and possibly, some of them thought, saint.
The death of a loved one always affects those nearest to him, but Robert Campbell's death rippled beyond his closest friends and family. Before he died of AIDS two months ago at age 39, Robert Campbell had accomplished the work of four people. First diagnosed with the disease in 1984, he channeled his energies into helping others. While practicing medicine in public health clinics in Texas, he had established three medical centers in poverty-stricken villages in Central America, recruiting volunteers and raising money from across the country. At the same time, he had steadily produced paintings and sculptures that expressed his spiritual and ethical concerns. A Catholic convert, he was inspired by the great Christian and Asian mystics. He encouraged himself and others with Gandhi's saying: "God never occurs to you in person, but always in action."
His friends remembered a man who died with dignity and without fear; and a man who, in the final dementia that often comes with AIDS, thought he had returned to his childhood home, and busily gave directions on the back roads of Claude.
By the time his friends and family reached the little country cemetery on a dirt road a few miles from the house where Campbell had grown up, they were close. The obstacles to their journey, thought one of Campbell's medical colleagues, had drawn them together.
Campbell's art dealer, Martha Claire Tompkins, had brought a crucifix of dried hydrangeas and gomphrenas, Campbell's favorite flowers, to the cemetery. The crucifix fit perfectly in a cardboard carton that had held a new stovetop she'd just bought, and she had had to argue with the flight attendants about carrying it on board. Now it rested on the pine coffin that a carpenter friend of Campbell's had built soon after Campbell died.
The officiating priest, Father Michael Burke, had cut a budding branch from a tree in the Campbells' front yard, and used it to shake holy water on the coffin. In his burial sermon, he told a story about a caterpillar who feels the call within to go into a cocoon and, by dying, be transformed into a butterfly. Campbell, Father Burke said, had undergone that process and was leading the way for the rest of us.
Through their tears, the friends looked at the endless, flat landscape of the High Plains, so serene, like Campbell's last abstract paintings. The winter had burnished the green pastures and fields to tawny shades of yellow, gold and sand.
So this is where his journey started, thought Tompkins. Now I understand. He couldn't have come from anywhere else. He has come full circle.
Far to the east they could see storm clouds vanquished by the steady wind. Overhead hung an immense, cloudless sky. The Buddhists, whom Campbell studied and admired, talk about emotions being like clouds. Through the practice of meditation, we learn to let them pass, until we see with clarity our true nature. At the end of the service, three flights of cranes flew overhead. To the Chinese, cranes symbolize prosperity and longevity. Robert Campbell had neither. In the blue stillness, the mourners far below heard the cranes calling to one another.
Robert Campbell lived the last three years of his life in a small, two-bedroom, frame rental house on Yale Street in the Heights. From there he ran the volunteer organization that supported his clinics in Guatemala. He didn't hesitate to do the drudgery. He packed medicine for shipment south, he typed the newsletter, he made the phone calls. From strings stretched near the ceiling of the living room, he dried flowers for his art. In the back yard Campbell built a lush rose arbor and planted raised beds with flowers and herbs.
Today, four Tibetan prayer flags flutter in the front garden, which is spiked by a large maguey cactus and abounds with flowers. Inside, on a rustic table in the small dining room, Campbell's companion and partner, Ricardo Avila, has created what amounts to a shrine to Robert Campbell's memory. He has spread bunches of dried hydrangeas and gomphrenas on a table, and arranged rose petals in the shape of a cross. There is a framed snapshot of Campbell and Avila from when they toured Asia a couple of years ago, and visited such holy sites as the Ganges River, sacred to the Hindus; the headquarters of the exiled Dalai Lama; and Buddh Gaya, India, where the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, found enlightenment. That trip culminated in New Delhi, where they had an audience with Mother Teresa.
In another snapshot, Campbell is a boy of ten or 11, wearing a cowboy hat and boots, feeding a calf with a baby's bottle while two kittens arch and preen at his feet. And there is another of a lightly bearded Campbell toward the end of his life. His beautiful, wavy hair is nearly shaven, and he's smiling while lighting a candle, a signature symbol in his final pieces of art. He looks lean, pared down and luminous as a Byzantine icon.
This is not the house of a pros-perous physician, which Campbell, a neurologist with a medical degree from Baylor, could have been. (One colleague recalled that Campbell turned down an offer from a neurologists group that would have paid him half a million dollars a year.) Nor is it the cell of an ascetic monk. Rather, it is the house of a rare kind of person in America today: a religious aesthete. The house is crammed with wooden statues of saints and crucifixes, Latin American retablos and black-and-white Latin American art photography. The study is furnished with a computer, a television and a Spanish-colonial secretary crammed with books. A metal building in the back of the lot houses a library and studio. The arrangement reflects all of Campbell's interests in art, religion and medicine.
The foundation of Campbell's life was laid in the innocence of the agricultural town of Claude, where he was born on July 7, 1955. His parents, Phil and Mary Jane Campbell, are sturdy, quiet, dignified people, who built a prosperous ranch and farm, raising cattle, wheat, milo and hay. (Mounds of fragrant hay would figure in Campbell's large art installations.) As a little boy, this scholarly, spiritual man was the class cutup. Educators now believe that a sense of humor indicates a creative intelligence. He set up his chemistry set in an outbuilding behind his parents' house and performed experiments. Even as a boy, he wanted to be a doctor, though not necessarily for altruistic reasons. One of his classmates recalled that Campbell once said he wanted to be a doctor for the "gold."
Campbell was a good enough high school football player to win a scholarship to a small college, but he chose instead to attend the University of Texas, where he was an honors major in English literature, graduating in 1977. He was also interested in Latin American literature, and when the great blind Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges visited the Austin campus, Campbell was assigned to be his escort. At the same time, he was a self-described "frat rat" who had lots of fun.
Although friends told him he couldn't do it, Campbell sought relief from the grind of his medical studies at Baylor College of Medicine by simultaneously taking art lessons at the Glassell School. Years later, he would say, "Art feeds into medicine and medicine feeds into art. Art should be socially responsible and it is a part of the healing process. Medicine is more technical, and having lost a lot of its humanity, regains it through art."
Sometime in 1984, while he was finishing his residency in neurology, Campbell learned that he was HIV-positive. We now know that the average life expectancy of infected people is ten years, but based on the information he had available then, Campbell couldn't have expected to live more than two or three years. He had become a man under pressure to do something with the rest of his short life. His most important need was to resolve the conflict he felt between being a physician and an artist.
He thought he would have more time to make art if he worked in a public health clinic, where a doctor's workweek can consist of three long, intense days. From 1985 to 1987, he wove the elements of his life together by working in clinics in the small South Texas towns of Cotulla and Carrizo Springs, which sit a bare hour's drive away from the Mexican border. The Mexican vaqueros who worked on his father's ranch had always impressed him with their dignity. Now, at his clinics, he was working almost exclusively with migrant Mexican farm workers.
Campbell had grown up in the Disciples of Christ First Christian Church in Claude. During college, he had attended an Episcopal church, but was disturbed there by what he saw as an emphasis on affluence. During medical school he quit attending church, and by the time he began his medical work had stopped thinking about God.
Then, on a vacation to Santa Fe in 1985, he met a priest at a restaurant who introduced him to liberation theology, an approach to religious thought that had taken hold among many Catholic prelates in Latin America. A key tenet of that theology is the "preferential option," in which the materially rich person embraces a spiritual poverty, seeking to become an equal with the poor. In doing this, one is turned inside out, creating a moral imperative to improve the material condition of others. In Latin America, some priests who have called for social reform have been ostracized by the ruling classes as communists, and on occasion even murdered by military cliques.
Liberation theology requires an imaginative commitment, and a sincere engagement with the self. Among other things, it requires a fully felt sense of one's own mortality. It emphasizes the ancient Christian tenet that through serving others, one becomes whole.
Campbell's discussions and correspondence with his new mentor led him to study art history, particularly that of the Renaissance. He was especially taken by the work of 15th-century painter and Dominican friar, Fra Angelico, whose directness, naivete and purity of color distinguished him from the more sophisticated artists of his time. As a result of this study, Campbell was led to paint a series of small, figurative frescoes with religious themes. In one, a physician examines a patient under the gaze of the Virgin of Guadalupe.
During this period, Campbell became friends with Michael Tracy, a well-known Catholic artist living in a tiny village near the Rio Grande who was producing tormented, anguished sculptures and paintings that grew out of a Latin American sensibility. In one of Tracy's works, currently on display at the Menil Collection, a 4-foot-high cross has been decorated with dozens of metal, heart-shaped milagros, pierced with hundreds of spikes and nails like an African fetish, and stabbed with knives and swords. Tracy's work seems to embody a religious ecstasy of brutality, pain and martyrdom.
Inspired by Tracy's immersion in religious and folk imagery, Campbell took his own direction, one that moved toward tran-quillity, repose and peace. His figurative work grew more abstract and symbolic, emphasizing the contemplative quality of colors and textures. Cru-cifixes, retablos, sacred hearts appeared.
As Campbell began healing his split between art and medicine, new opportunities to serve others arose. In 1988, he was working at Casa de Amigos, a Harris County public health clinic, when a friend told him about refugees in Belize who had fled the unspeakable cruelties of El Salvador's civil war. Several thousand of them had established a village in a remote Central American rain forest, where they were living in thatched huts with dirt floors and clearing small fields to plant corn.
They called their community the Valley of Peace. The government of Belize, working with United Nations relief agencies, was struggling to provide the settlement with shelter and water. The refugees had almost no medical care.
The refugee effort was directed by Father Lazarus Augustine, an articulate and well-educated Belizean priest who had been schooled in the United States, Ireland and Rome. Campbell and Father Lazarus met in Houston; within months, Campbell was raising money and flying to Belize to work in a new clinic. Campbell named the organization he created for this work Sociedad San Martin de Porres, after Latin America's patron saint of the poor and marginalized. During a two-year period, the Sociedad supplied volunteer clinical workers, two ambulances, a lab, generator, radio, water wells, books and training for health workers. Then it turned the clinic over to the control of Belize's government, which has since continued the work.
During his quarterly visits to Belize, Campbell talked with Father Lazarus about spiritual matters. Campbell had been attending an Episcopal church in Houston but was restless for more answers. Campbell was strongly oriented toward religion, Father Lazarus says, but he was very reserved.
"Gradually he began to unfold, but I don't think I got the whole story," Father Lazarus says. "There were elements of his life he did not necessarily share, and I am not necessarily inquisitive. I am more of a listener, and you are free to tell me, but seldom do I inquire."
When he asked Campbell about his thoughts about marriage, Father Lazarus recalls, "He simply said to me, 'I am gay.' I accepted him and never talked about it. For you see, from the vantage point of my community, that would have been taboo, and that could have undermined the good he did."
Perhaps this simple acceptance enabled Campbell to embrace a church that still condemns homosexuality. Campbell's conversion was a gradual thing, Father Lazarus says. Finally, Campbell asked for baptism, which Father Lazarus performed with the approval of the bishop of Belize.
In Houston, Campbell affiliated with Holy Rosary Church on Travis Street, a conservative congregation where the music has always been traditional, and where one can still hear the Latin mass weekly. Holy Rosary is also a Dominican church, the order to which two men who were major influences on Campbell's life belonged: the artist Fra Angelico and the healer San Martin de Porres. At Holy Rosary, Campbell joined the lay order of Dominicans, a group that meets monthly to discuss spiritual questions. Having grown up in a relatively austere Protestant denomination, Campbell now embraced the rituals of Catholicism, serving as a lector and acolyte.
Reflecting on Campbell's life, Father Victor Brown of Holy Rosary recalls a devout man who laughed easily, and who was reticent about his personal life. Brown chuckles at the thought of a physician who didn't seem to own a necktie and who drove a small pickup truck. He seems bemused by the sacrifices that many artists regard as requisite in order to create. Brown recalls going to one of Campbell's first installations in 1989, when Campbell was part of the Commerce Street artists' cooperative in an old warehouse on the edge of downtown.
"It was in this terrifying area, and I recall passing a mangy dog and wondering if it would let me by," says Father Brown. "It was freezing cold, but he had lit a path into the space, and this vast interior gloom was lit with candles. I asked him 'How do you keep warm?' and he said, 'I'm afraid I don't.'"
Campbell's friends often remarked that he seemed capable of doing four things at once. In his examination room in Houston, he might be composing a letter for a Central American clinic, reading a book in Spanish, handling a phone call and talking with a patient, yet he was able to shift his focus from each task to the next with total concentration. He wrote newsletters and networked on the telephone, and handled the tedious work of his organization without complaint. When he asked people for something they almost always complied. Sometimes he didn't have to ask. People simply volunteered, from an artist who knew how to do plumbing and wiring to a retired Guatemalan politician with government and UN contacts.
"Robert produced money as if by miracle," Father Brown says. "He would come to me with sheaves of checks from all over the country, some for as little as five dollars. I would ask him, 'Robert how do all these people know about your work?' and he would say, 'I don't know, I don't know. God provides."
While preparing to turn the Belize clinic over to the government in 1990, Campbell searched Guatemala for another place that required his services. He found it in the town of San Miguel Pochuta near Lake Atitlan. The lake is dazzlingly beautiful and deep, a tourist attraction surrounded by rugged volcanoes. It is fringed with a dozen villages named after the apostles, most of which are populated by desperately poor Maya who still speak their native dialect. During the last 20 years, human rights activists have estimated that as many as 120,000 Guatemalans have been killed and another 46,000 "disappeared" as three successive military governments have attempted to quash a handful of armed leftist guerrillas. Many of these murders, including that of a revered Catholic priest, have occurred in this area. Volunteers to the clinic are strictly advised never to talk about politics.
The agricultural workers at Pochuta served in near peonage to 37 coffee fincas. They were malnourished, lacked potable water and had not even the basics of sanitation and health care. Campbell began his work with a three-room clinic that was quickly overwhelmed by need. When that clinic was destroyed by an earthquake in 1991, the Sociedad San Martin raised more than $100,000 to build not only a clinic but also a hospital. Campbell raised a large chunk of that money when he sold a small frame house in Woodland Heights that he had inherited from a patient. In 1993, the rebuilt medical center was also turned over to local control, with funding assured from an outside source. In 1994, the society opened a new clinic in another village near Lake Atitlan, Santa Clara Laguna. Working with the local Catholic bishop, the Sociedad has created a community board that will ultimately take full responsibility for operating that clinic.
While doing this work, Campbell was sometimes ill, but he was selective about to whom he revealed the ultimate cause. Father Brown says he didn't know Campbell was seriously ill until long after he had known him. "He had such equanimity in the face of this disease," Father Brown recalls. "There was no bitterness in his spirit, no resentment toward God."
This lack of resentment may have stemmed in part from working with the poor and impoverished. Whatever the Maya lack in material goods, Campbell felt, they make up for in spiritual richness. He was particularly attracted to the fervent pageantry of their feast-day parades, when costumed men pay for the privilege of carrying a huge icon through streets, trampling the alfombras, carpets in complex designs made of flower petals and colored sawdust. Campbell's fascination with the Mayan culture was reflected in his final art exhibition, Tierra de Vida (Land of Life), which occupied the entire exhibition space at DiverseWorks in December and January.
Art, Campbell said, was the place where he worked out his innermost thoughts, and in the DiverseWorks exposition, thick with the smell of copal incense, he revealed how in seeking to heal others in the Guatemalan highlands he had healed his own spiritual afflictions. In the front gallery, Campbell created a chapel to San Martin de Porres. One of its central features was a mound of dirt fringed with corn and dried grasses. In the center of the mound, machetes -- their handles wrapped with white bandages -- pierced corn tortillas. The work, called O Tierra, Esperame (Oh, Earth, Wait for Me), embodied many of Campbell's social and personal themes.
For the Maya, the raising of corn is a sacred enterprise, with centuries of ritual behind it. But in Guatemala, the ownership of land is a contentious issue. A small number of people, some of them from old colonial families and others, increasingly, from the ranks of military officers, control the vast majority of land. In Campbell's art work, the piercing of the tortillas recalls the piercing of the body of Christ, and the suffering of the poor. The machetes, which are used to clear land, seem to suggest a latent threat, implying, perhaps, that one day the Indians of Guatemala will arise as they have in the Mexican state of Chiapas. And of course, there was the implication of the burial mound that awaited the artist, already in the final months of his illness.
On the surrounding walls Campbell mounted the traditional 14 stations of the cross, each consisting of abstract cerulean squares flecked with gold and draped with silk chalinas from Mexico. He also added a 15th station, one representing the resurrection of Christ, that was in white.
Campbell was especially inspired by the ceremonies of the cofradias of the Guatemalan villages around Lake Atitlan. The cofradia is a Spanish religious fraternal organization adopted by the Maya to incorporate their traditional gods into Christian ritual. Each of the old gods is identified with a Catholic saint. On certain feast days, the cofradia may even parade a pagan idol through a town. Members of the cofradia act as intercessors for families, saying prayers while amassing dozens and dozens of candles on the floor of the town's cathedral. The next morning, the amalgam of stubs is scraped away and melted for use again. Such ceremonies amount to an alternate liturgy and, by the dogmatic, might be viewed as heretical.
Campbell, though, saw in the activity an affecting beauty. After witnessing a ceremony at the Church of St. Thomas in Chichicastenango, Campbell piled his final works with molten masses of candles, whose drippings and expired light were meant to represent the fragility of life. He urged the people who purchased these works to add candles and take them off when they deteriorated, just as with other works he urged owners to replace the dried flowers and tortillas he had incorporated. The effect was that instead of making a permanent, untouchable work of art intended to last for hundreds of years, Campbell made art that, like the soul, requires constant renewal.
This art, like his actions, touched a number of people. Judith Pearson, a graduate student in art history at Rice University, decided to write her master's thesis about Campbell's work. Pearson, along with photographer George Hixson, helped Campbell organize his last exhibition. As Campbell's dealer, Martha Claire Tompkins had the responsibility of seeing that his work ended up in the right hands.
But of all the people who have felt renewed by Campbell, Ricardo Avila has been among the most blessed. He lived with Campbell until he died, saying morning and evening prayers, working for Sociedad San Martin. Avila, who grew in El Paso, met Campbell through mutual friends following a 1991 AIDS conference. A hairdresser and stylist, Avila had worked with models on fashion photography in Houston and New York and at the Michael Kemper Salon, an upscale salon in River Oaks. He was looking for someone who shared his desire to help others.
"I had gone through three or four years of horrible relationship stuff," says Avila. "I didn't come on this planet just to find the perfect partner to make me happy. So I said I was going to give that up, and I was going to dedicate myself to helping the poor, but I didn't know how that was going to happen."
Campbell seemed to be the answer to his prayers. Campbell did almost all the work of organizing a constant stream of volunteers to Guatemala. He picked them up at the Houston airport, briefed them, sent them off to Central America, and then picked them up again on their return and debriefed them. He wrote the newsletters and the fund solicitations. Avila started sharing these responsibilities. After several months, Avila moved in with Campbell.
On his first trip to a Guatemalan clinic, Avila recalls, he found himself standing between Campbell and a nurse, holding a box of medicine and being crowded by patients who wanted help. "I told them to be patient and that after they had been examined there would be medicine for them," he says. "And I knew that I wanted
to be able to do more than just stand there and hold that box."
Campbell encouraged Avila to finish his college education and pursue a medical degree, which he has been doing. Yet the most important encouragement that Campbell gave, says Avila, was spiritual. "What Robert did for me was to re-fire,
re-spark all the beauty of the rituals of Catholicism," Avila says, "all the ceremony and the prayers that I grew up with and was so accustomed to, things I had taken for granted."
With Campbell's death, Avila has become the director of Sociedad San Martin de Porres. Some friends are gently urging him to dismantle his shrine to Campbell and get on with the hard work ahead.
Others fret that a cult of personality is growing up around Campbell. They saw Campbell's conflicts and his weaknesses, his regrets and his longings. Such skeptics tend to be intellectuals, and intellectuals tend to require perfection, not just in saints, but in everyone else. Campbell's cures, after all, were not miraculous, they were wedded to technology, to clean water and sanitation and antibiotics, to the physical world of human action. Campbell loved good food and wine and conversation and art. He believed in action. He was someone like us.
Sainthood is often identified with martyrdom, sacrifice and miracles. San Martin de Porres, for example, was known for his kindness to animals. In his stained-glass depiction at Holy Rosary Church, rats are shown at his feet. The story goes that when rats invaded the pantry at the monastery, Martin told them that if they would leave, he would feed them in the garden, and they did. And he did. Although many miraculous cures were attributed to Martin during his lifetime in the early 17th century, he was not beatified until 1837. In 1962, at the time of Vatican II, Martin was canonized.
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?"
At the burial service, Campbell's friends from Houston shared stories with people who had known him as a boy. Claude, Texas, is the kind of town where a child knows all 35 or so of his classmates, and goes through his whole school career with them. One of Campbell's classmates recalled how awkward and self-conscious she had been in high school because of some medical problems. A big party was coming up and she knew she wasn't going to have a date. But Campbell, who was wildly popular and one of the most attractive boys in the class, asked her to go with him, though they weren't dating at the time. And he spent the whole evening focused on her, making her feel important, making her feel cared for. It was the kind of attention he seemed able to give everyone.
After the burial service, Campbell's brother and sister and father drove the friends around the town, which is tidy and painted and neat as a Swiss village. There was the florist's shop, whose owner gave Campbell petals from hydrangeas that were to become his signature flower. There was the church with a rose window designed by Campbell's uncle, an artist who had studied in Chicago and Europe.
It was growing dark when Campbell's father had an impulse. "Let's take them to the canyon," he said. The Palo Duro Canyon, one of the most spectacular pieces of natural scenery in Texas, was a good 20 to 30 minutes away. There might not be enough time to see it, but they went, as if like Campbell, they were pressing against time. Campbell's brother accelerated across the wide plain to the lookout point. Arriving just before sundown, they got out of the car and looked over the rim.
During the course of a million years, the Red River has cut a deep gorge into the caprock. It is as if the skin of the earth has been gashed to reveal a glorious wound. In the waning sunlight, the canyon glowed with salmon and gold and rust and green like the green of patinaed bronze or copper. The darkening sky was streaked with purple. A full, yellow moon blossomed and shone. A white mist rolled gently through the canyon. Robert Campbell was still with them. They stood there, feeling blessed.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.