You’d see him walking down Stone Drive or Eastman Road, sitting on a bench or eating in a fast-food restaurant. Maybe he asked you for some “coffee change.” If you didn’t have any, Jack might have given you some.
It’s been years since Jack was able to walk the streets of Kingsport and now he’s no longer with us. Jack Campbell, one of the city’s most well-known personalities for nearly 40 years, passed away on April 25.
He was 80 years old.
Jack’s obituary was rather simple and to the point. It read that Jack Lee Campbell was a lifelong resident of Kingsport, attended Kingsport City Schools, worked in construction, and served a stint in the U.S. Army. Jack also attended two local churches and was survived by two sisters and a host of nieces and nephews.
But there’s more to Jack Campbell’s story. Much more, according to the friends and family members he leaves behind.
YOU DON’T KNOW JACK
The Times News spoke with Jack’s two surviving sisters — Gaynell Smith and Patricia Galloway — and two of his nieces — Mindy Davis and Mary Ann Goins. The ladies describe Jack as a man of few words, a strong man who worked odd jobs and construction during his early years and someone who absolutely did not like being confined to the four walls of a house.
Jack was the fourth of seven children, all of whom were born and raised in Kingsport. Their father came to America from Syria, stowing away on a ship and arriving in Canada, the sisters said. He worked his way down the East Coast of the United States, working in the mines and selling dry goods, until he met a Kentucky woman working at the hosiery mill in Kingsport.
The couple wed and eventually had seven children. In the ’50s, the family had a confectionary store at the corner of Sevier and Center and over the years lived in Lynn Garden, on Gravely and did two stints in Cloud Apartments.
Jack attended John Sevier Middle School, but after he completed eighth grade, the sisters say, he dropped out and worked construction and odd jobs. He then went into the U.S. Army for some period of time and eventually received an honorable discharge.
He began to travel around when he came back to Kingsport in his 20s, the sisters say.
“He started working and before we knew it, he’d be gone. He just traveled all over,” Gaynell said. “He thumbed and hitchhiked and worked all over the place.”
Jack lived that way until he was 33 years old — the year his mother passed away.
WALKING THE STREETS
Gaynell and Patricia said their father passed away in January 1972 and their mother died in December 1973. That’s when Jack changed.
“Momma could handle him, make him take a bath and keep him clean,” Gaynell said.
“After she died, (Jack) went a little berserk mentally,” Patricia said.
That’s when he started traveling more, staying gone for months at a time. The sisters say Jack traveled and lived in Orlando for a few years, since two of their brothers lived in Florida at the time. After their mother died, the sisters say the family kept an apartment in Cloud for Jack, but he rarely used it.
One of his nieces tried to take him in, but the sisters said Jack couldn’t stand it, that he was claustrophobic, and that he always kept the door to a house or apartment open. Jack preferred to stay outdoors and wander throughout the town and beyond.
“He used to come to our house for the holidays. He would come early and take a shower so we could have dinner together. He would love to come eat at the holidays,” said Mary Ann. “I guess I didn’t realize he was such a celebrity because we just knew him as Jack. So many people have stories to tell about him.”
EVERYONE KNOWS JACK
According to the sisters, Jack never married and never had kids. As far as they know, he never voted, never owned a vehicle nor had a driver’s license. He had few possessions when he passed.
“It’s hard to believe you can make it through life this way,” Gaynell said.
Jack did have money most days though, from Social Security, as one of their older sisters set that up for him years ago. The sisters said Jack was schizophrenic and at times could fly off the handle. However, as long as you didn’t touch him, chances are Jack would not cause any problems.
Fast food was what Jack enjoyed and oftentimes folks would see him sitting outdoors at Hardee’s or McDonald’s eating. He also attended church from time to time, going to Kingsport First Assembly and Pleasant View Baptist Church. According to one of his nieces, Jack had a great singing voice.
Anyone who lived in Kingsport from the ’80s onward probably saw Jack on a fairly regular basis. And many of these folks have stories to tell about Jack. It’s something his family didn’t realize until his passing.
“We’ve heard many stories, and it amazes me how a man of few words made such an impact on so many people,” said Mindy. “For him not to project himself on anybody, he’s one of the most well-known people in Kingsport. There’s just so much hype surrounding him.”
The good Lord took care of Jack through the people of Kingsport, the sisters say. A business on Idle Hour Road built a lean-to for him to sleep in at times, while the Econolodge on Stone Drive and Cleek’s Motel would also let Jack spend the night. Restaurants would give him food, people would give him money and good Samaritans would offer him a ride.
HIS FINAL YEARS
Jack walked the streets of Kingsport for more than 30 years, but his life changed dramatically about seven years ago.
“A good friend of Jack’s helped get him an apartment on Center Street and would bring him church. One day it got cold and Jack took a walk, fell and had to go to the hospital,” Patricia said. “When they took him to the emergency room, that’s when they found out about his foot.”
“We didn’t know he hurt his feet,” Gaynell said.
When the doctors took off Jack’s shoes, his right foot had gangrene and looked like it had been burned. The doctors had to amputate his right leg below the knee. Otherwise Jack could have died from the infection.
At that point the family moved Jack into a local nursing home — a place he came to love.
“I thought it would bother him, but (the nursing home) took him in under their wings and they all loved him,” Patricia said.
At one point, the doctors talked about getting Jack a prosthetic for his right leg.
“I said, ‘Don’t you dare,’ ” Gaynell said. “ ‘He’ll walk out of here.’ ”
Jack walked the streets of Kingsport for decades, minding his own business and living the life he wanted to live. The sisters say when they would ask Jack why he was living this way or why he would be gone for months at a time, the response was always the same.
“He would ignore you or wouldn’t answer and go on to something else,” Gaynell said.
“I never asked him,” Patrica added.
Jack was a grown man after all. Plus, the sisters say, it’s not like you could keep him indoors.
“Jack chose the life he wanted to live, and you just had to give him over to the Lord,” Gaynell said. “To this day, we believe that — that God put him in a place where they could take care of him.”