Community service has proven to be a shortcut to meeting and knowing effective people who are engaged with life and they often can be authentically identified as the movers and shakers of a community.

I have long admired former Tempe Mayor Rudy Campbell, who is about as decent and as giving a human being as one could know. I received Tempe Community Council’s Don Carlos Humanitarian Award in 1995, and Rudy took it home in 1996. Each year, we are both on hand to honor the newest honoree.

A few months ago, Rudy called me to tell me that he and wife Greta were at a concert and sat next to a woman, a stranger. They started up a conversation. They said they were from Tempe. The lady said she had a former high school classmate who lived in Tempe. Did he know Lawn Griffiths? Why, sure, Rudy said.

Denise White turned out to be part of our tiny class of 47 graduates in the Class of 1964 at Parkersburg (Iowa) High School and star forward basketball player who took us to the Iowa Girls Basketball Tournament in Des Moines that year.   Greta occasionally recruits me to be a fill-in driver for the Tempe Meals on Wheels routes she oversees every six weeks. (I’m a regular driver for the week my own church has the four routes).

Recently, my wife found Rudy’s book for sale at her dentist’s office in Tempe. She called me and asked whether I wanted it. “Absolutely, pay the $10 and bring it home,” I told her. She did. The book is a treasure. “My Four Worlds – Autobiography by Rudy E. Campbell” was published in 2011. The 156-page book is dedicated to his parents, Napoleon Bonaparte Campbell and Jodie Campbell, and his sister Imogene Campbell. All three died in a car accident when a train struck their car on the tracks on Rural Road north of Broadway Road in Tempe on December 30, 1942. The 70th anniversary of that tragedy comes in a couple weeks. Rudy will turn 90 on Feb. 9, 2013.

In Rudy Campbell comes the quintessential model of self-realization. Born into a dirt-poor rural family in Oklahoma, Rudy and his family scraped for pennies work in the fields picking cotton and melons. Driven west by the great Dust Bowl of the 1930s, they landed in Mesa in 1935 with little to their name. “We were really one big family of Gypsies in our migration,” he wrote. “We never ate in a restaurant or slept anywhere except on the ground at the side of the road…. Several times I killed a rabbit with my beanie flipper soon after we had camped. I would clean and skin it before bringing it into camp for Mama to cook.”

Rudy found Mesa to be a Mormon-dominated town where he did not fit in and where his shyness prevented him from much engagement with others. With great detail, he writes about his family’s going to Colorado to harvest crops in the summer months and back to the Valley for the winter. Rudy changed schools constantly. His heart was back in rural Oklahoma hills, woods and small-town life.

A great voice for singing and some athletic skills helped him gain self-esteem. The family lived in various tiny houses in the poor neighborhood on Macdonald south of Broadway Road in Mesa, and Rudy tried hard to not reveal how poor he was to his schoolmates. He developed numerous skills from knocking around, landed jobs here and there. He was too poor for college. Resonating in his mind was his mother’s command to make something of himself.  Rudy got jobs in a Mesa tire store and later managed and kept books for  a Mesa oil and gas supplier.

The abrupt and tragic loss of his parents and sister in 1942 left him with his 5-year-old brother to care for. In time he re-connected his with Colorado girlfriend, Greta, who moved to Mesa. They would marry in February 1943 and struggle economically in their first years together.

When the draft came along, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy in early 1945 but only had to serve part of a year because the end of World War II came quickly. The last half of the book showcases Rudy Campbell’s tenacity to find jobs and then move to better ones. From a tire store to selling farm machinery to a 20-year career in banking and then the rest of his working years as owner of his own insurance agency, later teaming with Bob Schoneberger in the Campbell Schoneberger and Associates firm.    Rudy would find himself in the thick of civic life, starting with the Mesa Jaycees, then Rotary, Toastmasters community theater, church choirs and Chamber of Commerce roles. He moved to Tempe in 1953 and his life flourished. He was named vice president  and manager of The First State Bank of Tempe at 617 S. Mill Ave.

Rudy would take over Tempe with his business savvy, easy personality and hard work. By 1956, he ran for the Tempe City Council and ran alongside two charter members of my Tempe Kiwanis Club — Jim Harelson and its charter president Harry Burger.  Only Rudy, among them, won a seat on the council.  He would be president of the Tempe Chamber of Commerce, later a charter member of the Tempe Diablos and leader for the Tempe Rotary Club. He would note repeatedly in this book that somehow he always seemed to float to the top of  the countless groups and take his turn as president or chairman.    And so it was when governors named him to the Arizona Highway Commission and two separate stints on the Arizona Board of Regents.   He was in the thick of creation of the Arizona State University Research Park, the Karsten Golf
Course, the redevelopment of parts of Williams Air Force Base into ASU East and now ASU Polytechnic Campus.  He shares his joys of wide travel, of hunting, golfing,  camping and developing summer homes on the Mogollon Rim. He amassed numerous awards, including an honorary degree from ASU, even though he never earned a college diploma.

In the mid-1960s, Rudy helped the city transform to a City Charter system.  And in 1966, he would be the first mayor of Tempe elected by the people under the Charter system. Theretofore, the members of the City Council had chosen the mayor from among their ranks.  He chose to only serve for one term, or two years, a time where he confronted a messy city workers’ strike.   During his term, he pushed hard for expansion of the city and attracting industry.   He was involved in the alignment of U.S.60 through Tempe and the development of the industrial parks on the west side of the city and The Lakes community. He was involved in decisions to build a new City Hall (the upside-down pyramid) downtown while the library/community center would go down to the “center” of the town at Southern Avenue and Rural Road.

With Rudy coming up on 60 years as a Tempean, his prints are everywhere.

In the title, Rudy’s book talks of his “Four Worlds.”   I think he’s had a universe of experience on his road from poverty to success.

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