Chaplain helped families during some of their worst moments

Photo by John Gessner

John Campbell, wearing the familiar blues of the Burnsville police and fire chaplaincy, retired in June at age 82.

Former pro football player retires from service to Burnsville police, fire

In his 82 years John Campbell has been a national college football champion, a pro linebacker who knew his way around a barroom and a police and fire chaplain who delivered death notices, responded to suicides and comforted families thrown into the worst moments of their lives.

He’s also been a jokester.

“I think that being a chaplain filled more vacancies in my life than pro football ever did,” said the 56-year Burnsville resident. “Of course, the fact that I played for Pittsburgh had something to do with that.”

If his run as a starting linebacker from 1965 to 1969 came during a particularly bad patch for the Steelers, consider Campbell’s high school career.

“You’ve got to understand, I came from Wadena,” he said. “In Wadena, we would lose games before the flip of the coin. Or at least we’d be down. I was 139 pounds, also.”

The underachieving achiever finished his career in 1969 with the Baltimore Colts. He left the game after going unclaimed on waivers and made life changes that led to his chaplaincy.

Campbell joined the Burnsville police and fire chaplain corps in 2004 and served in Bloomington also. He retired from chaplaincy in June.

Campbell applied for the Burnsville corps at the urging of chaplain Dan Hall, who later became a state senator. Former Chief Bob Hawkins brought Campbell on and quickly made him lead chaplain.

The chief and the chaplain — who stood 6-feet-2 with a top playing weight of 225 pounds — were both new at their jobs, and they bonded.

“When I first met John, I found out right away he was engaging, very personable, had a great sense of humor, and he just had this presence about him,” said Hawkins, who retired as chief in 2012. “He made you feel comfortable and he made you feel safe, and what a wonderful attribute for a police chaplain.”

Campbell is “a man of strong character and integrity and lives our mission and values every day,” current Police Chief Tanya Schwartz and Fire Chief B.J. Jungmann said in a statement. He continually sought training opportunities to better himself and the other chaplains, they said. Tom Gilbertson now leads the corps, whose six members rotate weeks on call.

“What we love about John is his faith and his focus on God, his compassion and caring, and his great sense of humor!” the chiefs said. Though he won’t be going on any more 2 a.m. calls, “we look forward to his continued visits with us, his prayerful guidance on how we can best serve our community and one another, and his appreciation of the dangerous work our police and fire teams do.”

‘Never a superstar’

Campbell served for three years in the Navy and was a 21-year-old walk-on at the University of Minnesota. He played defensive and offensive end on the 1960 team that won the national championship and the 1961 team that beat UCLA in the 1962 Rose Bowl.

“I was never highly sought, but every time the bell rung, I seemed to be on the roster,” Campbell said. “Never a superstar.”

An 11th-round draft pick of the Minnesota Vikings, Campbell was backup to linebacker Roy Winston during the 1963 and 1964 seasons. He played for Pittsburgh from 1965 to 1969, starting at linebacker and serving as player rep for four of his five years.

“It was a wonderful experience, lousy team,” Campbell said. “They were the last team to be the beer-drinking, bar-fighting professional football team.”

He recalled one evening when the team doctor came along and fumbled the business end of a cocktail called the Flaming Chartreuse.

“The next thing you know, his whole head is on fire,” Campbell said. “He looked like a tiki torch.”

Campbell said he was finished with that life once football was finished with him.

“I needed to have a change in my life, which I did,” said Campbell, who has raised two sets of adopted twins with his wife, Sue. “I went through a spiritual awakening, and that’s when I started going to classes and studying. That’s how I became an associate pastor at the church I’m at and how I kind of qualified for doing chaplain work.”

Campbell took a ministerial internship through the Church of God and served 10 years as associate pastor at Life Church in Bloomington. Post-football activities also included owning a business, JCA Media Packaging, which sold custom-made three-ring binders.

Looking the part

As lead chaplain, Campbell developed procedures and training regimens for the volunteer corps and instituted a Burnsville chaplain’s uniform that included a blue shirt, with insignia, and blazers and windbreakers, Hawkins said.

“When John took over, the reputation of the Police Department as far as our chaplains went really started to spread,” he said. “Because an agency of our size to have one good chaplain, you’re very blessed. We had a number of good chaplains, and John was a big reason for that.”

Campbell said he wants chaplains “dressed to be noticed,” whether accompanying officers to a death notification or attending the funeral later. Officers responding to those calls offer families chaplain services, which they can accept or decline, Campbell said.

Without going into much detail, he recalled a few suicides and death notices he has worked over the years.

“You’ve got to like people,” Campbell said. “You’ve got to say, ‘Maybe I can help. I can’t touch people and bring them to life, but maybe I can help you get through something that you don’t practice and you didn’t expect, and here we are, and let’s go through this together.’ ”

Chaplains also respond to large fires, particularly apartment fires that displace residents.

“They’ve got to bring the bus in, get the people out, get them in the bus, and that’s when the fun starts because they’re not patient people,” Campbell said. “And I don’t blame them, because when they’ve left their meds up there and now they can’t be back in the building because of the smoke damage, we try to keep them calm. That’s basically what we do.”

Chaplains aren’t there to preach when they respond to a crisis, he said.

“I didn’t mention anything about churches or religion or God yet,” he said. “But at the end, before we leave, we say, ‘Do you want me to pray for you because of the situation?’ Most of them say yes.”

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