If you lived, worked, played, performed, married, matriculated, scored, or served the public in Greater Kalamazoo from the mid-1950s through the early 2000s, chances are pretty good you’ve seen or been seen by Jerry Campbell.
He was the bearded man with the red hair, casual gait, and approachable smile who captured images of life in and around Kalamazoo for more than 50 years as a staff photographer for the Kalamazoo Gazette. And later as a studio and free-lance photographer.
He took your picture. He took everyone’s picture.
According to a former colleague, photographer Jerry Campbell will be remembered, “Not only for all of the moments he captured, but for the wonderful man that he was.” He is shown about four years ago at The Fly Inn restaurant in Plainwell.
Check the small print. That’s Jerry Campbell’s name below the photos in hundreds of newspaper clippings — yellowing in family photo albums, laminated next to trophies on mantles, and framed in dens, hallways, and bedrooms from South Haven to Sturgis and from Wayland to White Pigeon.
Check the memories. To mention his death at age 85 on March 28 -- after illness took him from his three adult children and wife of 61 years, Sally -- is to hear the legacy he created: “Oh, man! He shot our team!” or “He took pictures of us in the parade” or “I still have the pictures he took years ago.”
He was stage-right for performances at Wings, Miller, or Cheney during the ’80s. He was above the press box for dozens of football games during the same years. He was below the risers for political speeches and rallies. And he was crouching by the jury box or near the podium during major court cases and long city commission meetings.
A Jerry story: Upon realizing that a tornado was imminent on May 13, 1980, Gazette City Editor Lane Wick decided it would be good to have pictures. A quick newsroom discussion ensued. Jerry headed to the roof. That was minutes before everyone else in the newsroom was ordered to head to the basement to find secure space to ride out the twister. I fled after I watched the tornado spin the signs off the top of the Comerica Bank building four short blocks away. (It was called the ISB Building at the time). Five people were killed, two within a four-block radius of the Gazette building. Jerry never explained how long he was on the roof or how he survived it. But he got pictures.
“I think he will be remembered for a long time,” says Bradley S. Pines, “not only for all of the moments he captured but for the wonderful man that he was.”
A proud Scotsman, Jerry Campbell was an active member of The Clan Campbell Society of North America. He is shown during the 2004 Scottish Festival at the Kalamazoo County Fairgrounds.
Pines worked with Campbell (which Jerry was sure to tell you is properly pronounced Camp-Bell) for 20 years at the Gazette, serving as its chief photographer. Jerry served as the photo department’s supply sergeant, equipment repairman, and best studio portrait shooter. He was also a role model for generations of photo interns.
“He helped them certainly in the studio,” Pines says. “But he also helped them by showing them work ethic.”
He was courteous to them, Pines says. He taught them how to protect themselves from all the toxic chemistry they had to use. But above all else, he taught them to respect their subjects and he was unrelentingly positive.
“When he would go and photograph someone, whether it was in his studio, whether it was in our studio, or whether it was in their living room, he showed everyone a pleasant person to meet and he was respectful of every person regardless of their station or position in life. And that’s one of the greatest lessons that he taught by example to a generation of people who came and got their first work experience at the Kalamazoo Gazette.”
Another Jerry story: An off-duty state police trooper tried to shoot a massive pit bulldog on June 14, 1987, to force it to release its grip on a hound dog that had been trotting past with its owner. The shooting was prevented by a woman who drove her car between the gun-toting officer and the marauding dog. The pit bull was spared. The hound dog was killed. The off-duty police officer escaped being run over. And the driver, who said the pit bull belonged to her boyfriend, was facing felonious assault charges. A less-then-courageous Jerry Campbell was standing next to me at the bottom of that woman’s porch stairs when she asked if we’d like to meet the pit bull. She described it as a docile animal, although it had all but amputated one of the hound dog’s legs. Before we could answer, she released the 60-lb. dog onto the porch, where he was at eye-level with Jerry. I heard Jerry suddenly inhale and swallow his chewing gum. The dog’s head was as large as Jerry’s. I don’t remember when Jerry exhaled. But he probably would have set a Kik Pool record.
More than half of Jerry Campbell’s career as a photojournalist was cropped and toned in black and white images, well before digital technology made everyone believe they could be a serious shutterbug.
More than half of Jerry’s career as a photographer was cropped and toned in black and white images, well before digital technology made everyone believe they could be a serious shutterbug. It was a time when people joined a company in their late teens and stayed until retirement. Professionals wore shirts, ties, or skirts, and pumps. And there was nothing wrong with being nice. “You may not agree with something, or even like someone, but it doesn’t cost anything to be nice,” he said.
That culture carried on in Jerry, who was the last of a nucleus of four photographers who worked together at the Gazette from the mid-1950s to the early 1990s. They included Robert Maxwell, Carl Bennett, and Rick Campbell (no relation).
Jerry documented countless house fires, public meetings, and car accidents. Perhaps being a serious photojournalist is what inspired him to work as a whimsical funnyman. Jerry performed for more than 30 years as Jerry the Clown. He was a fixture at the annual Kalamazoo County Fair for all of that time, into the 1990s. And he, oftentimes with his wife and their three children, entertained in parades, at hospitals, and at other carnivals and fairs.
They also staffed a popcorn wagon, called Sally’s Corn Crib, at locations in Plainwell, and volunteered to visit children at area hospitals.
“We did the art fairs, the mud runs (and) the biker shows out at the fairgrounds,” Jerry’s daughter Shelly K. Zbikowski says. “We did parades. We did all the Gilmore (annual holiday) parades. The whole family clowned at one point.”
She says Jerry was already a volunteer firefighter in Cooper Township when he took a turn at being the dunk-tank victim during a fire department fund-raiser. The water-soaked post cane with a clown suit. Jerry discovered he really liked making people laugh and that was the start of his career as a clown, his daughter Zbikowski says.
He was steady and dependable in the work he tackled. Along with being an award-winning photographer, he was a former president of the Michigan Press Photographers Association and he was a founding member of the Grand and Glorious Mid-Michigan Galaxy of Clowns.
He was very proud of the A-frame house he built himself in Plainwell and shared for many years with his wife, Sally, and their children, Zbikowski, Sean M. Campbell, and Kasey L. Styrna. He was also a very proud Scotsman and was very active in the Clan Campbell Society of North America.
Along with all that, he was somehow, almost always in the studio -- at the old Gazette building on South Burdick Street or at the studio he maintained for 25 years at the Park Trades Building on Kalamazoo Avenue.
“When I first moved here in 1989 I would be on assignment for the Gazette, introduce myself, and immediately someone would say, ‘Oh, well listen, when you get back to the paper be sure to say Hi to Jerry,’” Pines says. “I had just met Jerry. But everyone in town knew Jerry Campbell. In every town there is a collection of wonderfully quirky characters that make that place a cooler place. For more than half a century, Jerry was one of those characters that made Kalamazoo a much better place.”
Of Jerry, he says, “He was the kind of person he, himself, would do a story about.”
A final Jerry story: On Children’s Day at the Kalamazoo County Fair in 1994, I took our eldest child to the fairgrounds early to avoid the crowds. I had only seen Jerry fully frocked as Jerry the Clown one time before. He was in full makeup, wearing huge shoes and doing balloon tricks and silly faces that easily made kids laugh. It occurred to me that there was a lot to know about Jerry and I wondered how a family man could work full-time as a news photographer and work long hours as a clown. On that day, I was a hero however because I knew him. According to our then-6-year-old, I seemed to know everybody. Jerry stayed, made goofy animal balloons, and talked with us. He treated us special. I supposed he did the same for a lot of people.
Richard Gerald Campbell died of natural causes on March 28 at his home in Plainwell with family members by his side. He is survived by his wife Sally and their three adult children as well as three grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. The family asks that memorials be made to St. Jude's Children's Hospital and/or the Humane Society of Huron Valley in Ann Arbor. A ceilidh (a traditional Scottish gathering) is to be scheduled to celebrate Jerry's life.