Wake Forester Will D. Campbell died Monday at age 88 in Nashville. I first met him in the funny pages but didn’t know then he was a Demon Deacon. He was the inspiration behind the Rev. Will B. Dunn in “Kudzu,” the syndicated comic strip created by my late friend and fellow Charlotte Observer editorial board veteran Doug Marlette.
Marlette had the eccentric cartoon version of Campbell tell it like it was. In one strip, Rev. Dunn said, “Lord, I know we’re called to be fishers of men. But I want to throw ‘em all back.”
In a 1992 article, journalist David L. Langford described Campbell this way: “Here’s a whiskey-swilling, tobacco-spitting, guitar-picking Baptist preacher and truck farmer who is a widely respected writer, thinker, humorist and ex-officio chaplain to the Grand Ole Opry crowd. He doesn’t have a church — a steeple as he puts it — and doesn’t want one.”
Last year, during Words Awake!, Wake Forest honored an inaugural class of inductees to the Wake Forest Writers Hall of Fame. Campbell (’48, L.H.D. ’84) naturally was among the honorees. His “Brother to a Dragonfly” was a finalist for the 1978 National Book Award and named one of the 10 best religious books of the 1970s by Time. But our Wake Forest notable author was unable to attend the ceremony. His son, Webb (’81), returned on his behalf to a campus where his daughter, Kyle (’14), attends, to be joined this fall by brother and freshman Will D. Campbell II. We didn’t know then that the Rev. Campbell was struggling to recover from a stroke he suffered in 2011. What we did know and laud was his national, historic reputation as a voice of conscience in the South’s struggles against racism.
Campbell was born to Mississippi cotton farmers in 1924 and became an ordained Baptist minister at 17. He served in the Army during World War II and arrived at Wake Forest afterward, majoring in English. You can find no activities listed under his name in The Howler of 1948, but Campbell more than made up for that omission in his unparalleled life of social activism and advocacy for the marginalized.
He attended Tulane University, earned his theology degree from Yale Divinity School, pastored a church in Louisiana, became an integrationist chaplain at Ole Miss and served as a field officer for the National Council of Churches. He was the only white person present at the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Wherever there were momentous events in the civil rights movement, Campbell typically had a role: counseling Freedom Riders; participating in boycotts and sit-ins; challenging the clergy to step up on behalf of society’s forgotten ones; helping escort the nine black students through angry mobs at Central High School in Little Rock.
In 1984, along with Eudora Welty, he came to Wake Forest to receive an honorary degree at Commencement. Wake Forest Magazine welcomed him “home to his college,” adding in an article that year: “In a pickup truck, carrying a Gibson guitar and whittling a cedar stick, and wearing a black plowman’s hat, Campbell preaches and sings and saves.” As The New York Times noted in Campbell’s obituary yesterday, his friends and followers called him “hilarious, profound, inspiring and apocalyptic” as he stomped around “uttering streams of sacred and profane commentary that found their way into books, articles, lectures and sermons.” In 2000 Bill Clinton awarded him the National Endowment for the Humanities medal. A PBS documentary, “God’s Will,” profiles his life.
This week Bill Leonard, the Divinity School’s founding dean, who holds the James and Marilyn Dunn Chair of Baptist Studies, offers a must-read remembrance of Campbell called “The Freedom of Will” at ABPnews.com. Leonard examines the paradox of a man who witnessed unspeakable “meanness” all around him in the turbulent South but who never gave up on grace.
He also recounts a fine Wake Forest anecdote: “Will once told me that he fully understood the name “Demon Deacons” for the Wake Forest University mascot. ‘Hell,’ he commented, ‘anybody who’s ever been in a Baptist church knows at least one demon deacon!’ Will could sanctify profanity like no one else.”
Campbell was truly a distinguished alumnus, ahead of his time, and, through it all, as brave in the cities as in the backwoods.