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The Rev. Walter Campbell built bay-area bridges

CLEARWATER — In 1974, members of two churches — one mostly black, one mostly white — combined to form a third church on the fringes of a crime-ridden housing project.

It was just the sort of task for the Rev. Walter Campbell, who would go on to lead Bayview Baptist Church, one of the first interracial churches in Clearwater, for 36 years.

The Rev. Campbell also served for 12 years as president of the upper Pinellas branch of the NAACP and in more than a dozen church and community organizations.

He initiated personal encounters with a broad smile and often ended them with a joke.

The Rev. Campbell, a longtime community leader who persevered with unsinkable optimism, died Dec. 28 at Morton Plant Mease hospital of congestive heart failure. He was 71.

"He had an uncanny grasp of not only his local church but the city as a whole," said former Clearwater police Chief Sid Klein. "He knew what the issues were, he knew who the players were, and he was very diplomatic in a very godly way of being able to tackle some really tough issues head-on."

Leon Russell, who directs Pinellas County's Office of Human Rights, remembers the Rev. Campbell as a man who could win over any crowd.

"Everybody was his brother or his sister," Russell said. "That's the way he treated people and that's the way he greeted people."

Said Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard: "He was just one of those guys who brought different community groups together."

It was a trait that helped him to launch Bayview Baptist.

In the early 1970s, it seemed that only drug dealers were minding the store at Condon Gardens, a sprawling housing project. Boards replaced windows and weeds replaced grass.

"Back in those days, Condon Gardens was literally like the wild west," said Klein, who would open a substation in the complex.

The Rev. Campbell helped by talking to different groups of tenants. He even lined up Vietnamese food and translators for a meeting of Vietnamese tenants with the chief.

In 1983, the church bought 2 acres on S Meadowlark Lane, across the street from Condon Gardens. It would take until 1995 before it raised enough money to build a sanctuary.

"It was faith," the Rev. Campbell said in 1996, as the church completed its building. "We knew we didn't have enough money, but there was no question in our mind we'd build it."

He told friends he would never surrender to "worryation."

The death of his only son, Walter Campbell Jr., at age 37 in 2000, of a brain aneurism, provided perhaps the stiffest test of his beliefs. The Rev. Campbell based his eulogy on the trials of Job.

"That's when I saw the real strength of him," said Isay Gulley, the president of Clearwater Neighborhood Housing Services.

Walter Cornelius Campbell was born in Pahokee, Fla. The family moved to Dixie, Ga.

He married Annie, his childhood sweetheart, at 18 and moved to Clearwater two years later. In 1974, he led members of the mostly black Mount Carmel congregation as they joined with some members of the mostly white Skycrest Baptist Church to form Bayview Baptist Church.

In the 1980s, he earned bachelor's and master's degrees. From 1990 until 1996, he also worked for Clearwater Neighborhood Housing Services as an outreach officer. He later helped found Faith and Action for Strength Together, an interdenominational civic group.

Over the years, the Rev. Campbell also was given more than 20 civic or church-related awards. He retired from Bayview in September, but stayed active in the community. He was also writing a book for young ministers.

In recent weeks, he talked excitedly about a celebration he wanted to have when he left the hospital.

"Between the hours of 2 and 5 a.m., he would awaken and start talking about this great celebration," said his daughter, Cynthia Campbell, 45. "He said it would be a large crowd of people, and we would have a 'shoutin' good time.' "

Those words have taken on new meaning in the days since his death. As a pastor, his daughter said, the Rev. Campbell never preached a sad funeral. They expect his service Saturday will be packed with people who will be full of jubilation as they celebrate his life. They plan to do a lot of singing.

"We'll do just what he wanted," his daughter said, " and have a shoutin' good time."

Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or ameacham@sptimes.com.

.Biography

The Rev. Walter Cornelius Campbell Sr.

Born: March 1, 1939.

Died: Dec. 28, 2010.

Survivors: Wife Annie; daughters Erma Boateng, Janice Harrell and Cynthia Campbell; sister Constance Hallman; brother Thomas Campbell Sr.; two grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

Service: Visitation 5 to 8 p.m. today Bayview Baptist Church, 201 S Meadowlark Lane. Funeral 2 p.m. Saturday; Calvary Baptist Church, 110 N McMullen-Booth Road, Clearwater. In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations to the Calvary Baptist Church Building Fund.

The Rev. Walter Campbell built bay-area bridges 01/06/11 [Last modified: Thursday, January 6, 2011 8:42pm]

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