Remembering Will Campbell, a spiritual brother

Some years ago, songwriter and poet Mickey Newbury sat down to pen a song about Cortelia Clark. With the background full of sounds of distant trains and despair dripping from the trees, he led with this verse . . .

“I was just a kid the year the Bluebird Special came through here, on it’s first run south to New Orleans. A blind ole man and I, we came to Guthrie just to see the train — he was black and I was green . . .”

I’ve never put my finger on why the initial bridge and first words of this song always make me think of Will Campbell. But every time I hear the song I am transported to a little log cabin off Vanderbilt Road in Mt. Juliet, Tenn.

Perhaps due to Newbury’s haunting melody, perhaps the allusion to New Orleans, just downriver from where Will and I both were born — he in Amite County, Miss., and me in Natchez. My heart tells me, though, that I am transported back to that little cabin when hearing this tune due to the timing of my initial introduction to Will. In 1986, when I first pulled into Will’s drive and headed across the field to the little log cabin, I was all of 16 years old, wind at my back, in love for the first time, and to my way of thinking he was just this “ole man.”

I’d been sent to his doorstep by a family friend named Joe (a counselor) — one concerned that I was about to do something to harm myself or possibly someone else. And had it not been for Will, that very likely might have occurred.

But I went to school in that little one-room cabin, for months on end and many times since, with Brother Will doing the teaching. He offered advice on love and religion and race and politics — but most especially on love, because he knew that’s what was consuming my thoughts and fears. In moments when I thought I was losing my mind over a breakup with my first girlfriend, or when I couldn’t seem to find anyone who understood what I was going through, this “ole man” listened with the ear of a counselor, prodded with the fork of the devil, and pastored with grace unencumbered. I never needed an appointment, I would just call him up on the way home from my nearby high school and he’d say “Yeah, sport, come on over for a while.” And he knew and so did I that “a while” might mean an hour, or two or three. And with that, I was invited into the life of a legend, though I wouldn’t understand fully the magnitude of who he was until many years later. To me he was just Will — friend, mentor, counselor . . . and brother, too.

With the many more important things that surely occupied his mind, he found time — a lot of time — for this little 16-year-old boy with seemingly the weight of the world and heartbreak on his shoulders. But he never appeared rushed, never disinterested, never caring that anything else was going on except our conversation at hand. And I have heard from others who knew him well that my experience was far from extraordinary. It was just his way of living in the moment, of putting people over places and things. He was such a good friend and I feel honored to have known him at all.

God’s blessings on Will this day. The world will be a lonelier and harsher place with his passing.

In final tribute to Will and paraphrasing Newbury . . .

“You’ll find him Lord this morning, he’ll be stepping from the still, and would You save a street in glory Lord, for my Brother Will.”

 This blog appeared originally as a post on Todd Heifner’s Facebook page. It is published here with the permission of the author.

Todd Heifner

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Todd Heifner is a founding director of Hope Manifest, Inc. a non-profit organization providing fundraising counsel, board development and strategic business planning to non-profit organizations. He and his his wife Kit raise their two sons in Birmingham, Ala. and are members of Baptist Church of the Covenant.

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  • Suzann Smith

    What an incredibly thoughtful tribute to your friend. I had no idea. Blessings on you and all who grieve for this giant among men. We love you. Suzann

  • Adell-Jerry Martin

    Todd, Didn’t know of your friendship with Will. Thanks for your personal testimony; what a witness to Will’s memory. Hope to see you at CBF. Jerry & Adell