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The Deacon Blog

A magazine staff blog with news of alumni and the WFU community

Maria Henson

Remembering Will D. Campbell, a Wake Forester and renegade

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.

Rev. Will B. Dunn of "Kudzu"

Rev. Will B. Dunn of “Kudzu”

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.

Campbell's senior photo in The Howler

Campbell’s senior photo in The Howler

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.”

Kyle Webster's portrait of Campbell for Words Awake!

Kyle Webster’s portrait of Campbell for Words Awake!

Campbell was truly a distinguished alumnus, ahead of his time, and, through it all, as brave in the cities as in the backwoods.

Inside Out: Wake … A documentary

Just before 11 p.m. last night, one of my students, Kovi Konowiecki, a soccer player and kind-hearted junior from Long Beach, Calif., sent me an email about the latest triumph for him and his two classmates, sophomore Lindsay Hudson Ortyn and junior Sean Wilkinson.

The three surprised the campus in March when they worked with friends all night to paste the photographs of five upperclassmen from different backgrounds on the wall overlooking Manchester Plaza, aka Mag Quad.  The photos depicted students the artists said showed “the well-rounded Wake Forest community” and embodied Pro Humanitate.

We awoke on morning to find this art on Mag Quad

We awoke one morning to find this art on Mag Quad

The public art display was scheduled to remain for two weeks on the wall, but its popularity led the powers-that-be to allow it to stay up until the rainy weather had its way, shredding and curling the images.  I hated to see it go. It was fresh and edgy, and I loved that it was a surprise for the campus, initiated and organized by our students.

Now there is a film that explains its inspiration, the motivation of the students who were photographed and the all-nighter pasting party. (All this was happening as the artists juggled their regular course load.)

“We have put a lot of passion and sleepless nights into the making of this documentary, and we hope to make an impact on the Wake community and world at large,” Kovi wrote me last night. “Even though it is 15 minutes, definitely watch the entire thing. It will be well worth your time.”

Regard the faces of Wake Forest and the creativity of an idealistic band of students who had a collective vision and brought it to life. My takeaway: the faces of this campus reflect the world and, through it all, a Wake Forest heritage of heart. Exhibit one is a band of three artists.

Raising a school in South Sudan

Hauling school supplies, soccer balls and jump ropes, Phillips Bragg (’93) of Huntersville, N.C., made his first trip to Africa last month to see the school he, his wife, Leslie McLean Bragg (’91), and their friend James Lubo Mijak dreamed about for years.

Students head to the school last November

Not quite finished but already welcoming students — and on Sundays, church-goers — the school is among the first built in Unity State in the new nation of South Sudan. Not only that, Phillips was told by a local near Nyarweng: “It is the first permanent building in this area since the beginning of man.”

That is a fact nigh impossible to verify but not outlandish when one hears Phillips describe “the ridiculously rural” area that in some ways remains “a desperate place.” It is where students used to have school under a tree, where huts need to be rebuilt every two years after the rains and where the South Sudanese rely almost exclusively on their traditional nomadic livelihood of herding cattle. “The people were beautiful. Where they can, they wear beautiful colors. And in Dinka (the local language), they said were grateful for the school,” Phillips said.

The dream emerged as the Bragg family grew close to Lubo, one of the Lost Boys of Sudan who fled for their lives during the last civil war, dodging militia from Khartoum and lions in the scrubland. Lubo became one of the 3,800 Lost Boys the U.S. government invited to resettle in the United States. In June 2001, Lubo made his way to Charlotte and, eventually, to the Braggs and their St. John’s Baptist Church filled with caring parishioners. Phillips and Leslie answered the church’s call to be mentors. They became more like family.

Phillips and Leslie Bragg and their sons, from left, Claude, 9, John, 5, and Kirby, 11, and dog “Ernie” gather for a photo with James “Lubo” Mijak at their home in 2011

“I have been a witness to their care and love since I came,” Lubo told me in 2011.

Lubo worked two jobs, including one at Bragg Financial Advisors Inc., and studied, earning a bachelor’s degree at UNC Charlotte. He yearned to see a permanent school built in his home village of Nyarweng in Unity State. Phillips and Leslie loved Lubo, and wanted to help. He was like a brother. They enlisted the Charlotte nonprofit Mothering Across Continents to guide them. The nonprofit shepherds dream projects that can serve as sustainable global models for change. Raising Sudan — now Raising South Sudan — was born. Phillips committed to help raise the money for a school in Nyarweng and another one an hour away in Aliap championed by Lost Boy Ngor Kur Mayol.

Today Lubo lives in South Sudan and works for the government as a community development officer assigned to a Chinese oil company about three hours from the new school. He showed Phillips around his country, and everywhere the two went they ran into someone who knew Lubo from the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya. Lubo arrived there in 1992.

Phillips said he was amazed and heartened by the work that has been done in Nyarweng. But he knows the school will be an ongoing commitment. “It’s discouraging how helpless the people are in this place. It’s so war torn. They’re not in a position yet to do for themselves with the illiteracy rate of 90 percent, and a lot of the younger people have grown up in displaced persons camps so they’ve never done anything for themselves. Our uphill battle of introducing microfinance — (it) has to follow literacy. They can go hand in hand a little bit. These people who say, ‘You need to teach the man to fish,’ I totally agree but they can’t even read the instructions.”

Phillips believes an educated population will be important “not only for the governance of their country and preservation of their new democracy but to do business. We feel like we’ve done the right thing.”

“It’s been really hard, I’ll tell you that,” he said. “It’s hard asking your friends for money when you have no good evidence that you can pull it off, and it’s hard after one school to say, ‘Hey, we want to do it again.'”

Phillips with South Sudanese children last month

But one thing Phillips, Leslie and Lubo have shown: One can have faith in the unseen and deliver on the promise.

 

 

The Genesis of Ode to Reynolda Gardens

The idea came to me in June when I interviewed Rogan Kersh (’86) about his returning home to Wake Forest to become provost. All these years he had been away as a scholar and administrator at Yale, Syracuse and New York University. What were his favorite spots at Wake Forest, those places he had missed? After all, he would be able to revisit them at his leisure (on the rare occasions a provost has leisure) once installed in his new post in Reynolda Hall. He said, not surprisingly: “Some of them are almost clichés, I guess. Reynolda Gardens, an extraordinary place to walk or run or lose oneself for a while when things are going poorly or especially well.”

There it was again. Reynolda Gardens topped an alumnus’ list of memorable places. Reynolda Gardens has the force of gravity, pulling our Wake Forest community to the earth as well as to the woods, the paths, the wetlands and, on certain meditative runs, tranquillity. I recalled how many times alumni mentioned to me their deep affection for the place. The latest issue of Wake Forest Magazine celebrates the gardens through the photography of Travis Dove (’04), who studied communication and studio art and now works as a freelance photographer in Durham, N.C. His work appears in the latest issue of Our State magazine. Rolling Stone, National Geographic and Newsweek have featured his photographs as well. I noticed on election day he was shooting from Raleigh for The New York Times. Having escaped to the gardens as a student, Dove understands the emotional connection many of us feel for the place. You will be delighted by his photographs in the spring issue of Wake Forest Magazine. Space prevented us from featuring them all in the issue, but we don’t want you to miss a single image. Deputy Editor Janet Williamson has prepared a slideshow of all the Reynolda Gardens photographs Dove shot for us last summer, accompanied by music from the music department’s Flute Fest. I hope you will enjoy it.