Found out the other day that I’m one rung closer to the top of that ladder of newspaper columnists, if there is indeed just such a ladder.

But if there is, one of the best ever put down his pen last week. Bill Campbell wasn't so much a newspaper columnist as he was an incendiary device.

You see Campbell, which was the name he'd always refer to himself as whenever I'd get one of those rare telephone calls from the rural reaches of Warren County, Illinois, was from the old school of newspaper journalism.

One of his favorite sayings, and he had a million of them, was that journalists are on this Earth to ''Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comforted,'' which I’m sure he heard somewhere along the road in his better than 30 years as a newspaper man and simply expropriated.

You might even say that those few words were the guiding principal that kept him going throughout his long and storied career. And believe me, Bill Campbell overcame more than just a few obstacles to practice his craft.

Another of Campbell's favorite little truisms had it that ''There's no such thing as a slow news day, there's just days when you don't catch the bastards.''

And catching the ''bastards'' was something nobody could do like Campbell. Whether it was a self-important politician, police chief or local civic and/or historical promoter, he could use his cynical sense of humor and skill with turning a phrase like a surgeon's scalpel and end up gutting ‘em like a blue gill.

Campbell's subtlety, which could come on like a sudden summer shower and end up drowning his prey in a deluge, was something I never was quite able to pick up in all the years I knew the man.

And he used to make endless fun of me for that fact. When I took the job of editor at the Monmouth Review Atlas back in the 1990s, Campbell and I were reunited. We had first worked together at the Quad-City Times, then the Times-Democrat in Davenport, back in the early 1970s.

At the time I took over at Monmouth, I immediately went to an rough-hewn log house where Campbell held court out in the woods behind Yorkwood High School, and allowed myself to be immersed in all the local lore at the master's feet.

It was shortly after we'd been reunited in our chosen professional gigs so to speak that he described me as a man who couldn't let a surgical strike suffice when I had a perfectly good ''carpet bombing'' that would do the job.

So subtlety was not and never has been one of my social skills. But Campbell was the master of the subtle touch. He could dress you up in the most magnificent of finery and fashion in the first few paragraphs and then end up leaving you standing naked in the village square by the final line.

One of his finest works of art, and I call them art because that's exactly what they were, involved a local militia leader, who fancied himself a true American warrior, defender of the Constitution and keeper of the flame of liberty.

In lines that could have been crafted by a poet, Campbell told of happening upon this ever vigilant individual, disguised as a bush, while on a walk in the woods on the acres out behind his rural Little York home.

Now what was really remarkable about that piece, was not so much the humor that it invoked, and believe me it was enough to make you want to lie down on the floor and scream, but the fact that because of his vivid imagery and skill with the language, no one would ever know that Campbell couldn't walk.

Since a horrific vehicle crash in the latter 1970s, Bill Campbell was confined to a wheel chair, paralyzed from the chest down. And only with the help of a homemade device with a pencil hooked to the back of his hand, could he write by banging out one letter at a time on a laptop computer on a makeshift stand attached to his wheel chair.

Before the accident Campbell was one of this nation's rising young cartoon talents. And that was what I first knew him as, the editorial cartoonist for the Times.

But he'd got his start as a beat reporter, at my hometown newspaper as it so happens, the Galesburg Register Mail.

I am told that there were two different Bill Campbells — the one before the accident and the one after. But, I only knew one.

He was a newspaper man without peer and an inspiration that I called upon so many times when I found myself up against some particularly hard personal or professional problem.

Even though I could probably be persuaded that his passing, after years of physical struggle and unimaginable hardship, is probably what many would refer to as the best thing, I have my doubts.

He told me once that ''Stiles, if this (the crash and its results) ever happens to you, pray that it kills ya’.'' So I am certain that there is a relief or some sort of release in all of this.

But, I’m sorry, I can't help feeling an awfully big ache right in the center of my soul. Because even though I know he'd have been spared so much misery if that late-night appointment on a rural Illinois highway had gone ahead and finished the job it so cruelly started, I wouldn't trade the last couple of decades of knowing the man for anything. Not even to spare him that suffering.

So I guess that bares another of my glaring weaknesses — selfishness — to the entire world.

But how many of us would be the worse off for not having known this man over the last two decades plus, either personally or through his wonderful words.

I know I'd be a lot less of a person and/or a journalist without those precious but painful decades. In fact, I'd just as soon not move up on that mythical ladder I was talking about if it'd bring him back.

Uploaded to The Zephyr website July 17, 2002

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