Robert M. Campbell, 1919-2018

SAXTONS RIVER, Vt. – Robert M. Campbell of Saxtons River, Vt. passed away Dec. 23, 2018, just seven weeks shy of his 100th birthday. Despite some mobility issues, he remained fully engaged with the world and his family until just before his death. He was a former director of development, trustee, and Trustee Emeritus at Vermont Academy. He started the first commercial film company in Vermont in 1956, resurrected the Saxtons River Inn in 1974, was a former trustee of The Grammar School in Putney. He was a summer resident of Wellfleet, Mass. and a talented sailboat racer. He was a generous supporter of Main Street Arts in Saxtons River. All this while being father to 11 children.

Bob was born Feb. 16, 1919 in Brewer, Maine, the only child of Percy Anderson and Ada Mosher Campbell. His father, a native of Litchfield, N.H., was a professor of animal industry at the University of Maine. Shortly after Bob’s birth, he took the job of managing Wawa dairy farms in Wawa, Pa. When his father accepted the position as head of feed research at Eastern States Farmers’ Exchange, the family moved to Springfield, Mass. where Bob enrolled in Classical High School. A decision to attend Vermont Academy in Saxtons River for his senior year became, in retrospect, a defining turn in his life. He graduated in the class of 1937 and was accepted to Dartmouth College.

Once, returning to school, he and his father set out for Hanover, N.H., they had no idea they were about to be chased up Route 5 by the hurricane of ‘38. He recalled arriving at the common in Hanover to witness undergraduates cheering as each mighty elm slowly succumbed to wind and gravity.

He remembered his Dartmouth years with great affection – and thought many years later that co-education was a good thing. He made important lasting friendships and began his interest in photography and film.

They were also tumultuous years. A serious illness led to the removal of one kidney and a missed semester. The attack on Pearl Harbor put the college on war footing with year-round classes. So, in 1942, he graduated with both an undergraduate degree and a master’s degree from the Tuck School of Business. Rejected by both the Navy and Army for medical reasons, he spent the rest of the war years working for Remington Firearms in Bridgeport, Conn.

While working in Bridgeport, he met Mary Elizabeth Miller. As the war ended, they married and moved to Manhattan where he worked for Willard Pictures, an industrial film company. In 1948, when Vermont Academy offered him the job of director of development, he returned to Saxtons River with his wife Beth and two children – Robert Jr. and Elizabeth – in tow. By 1953, there were five more: Averill, Michael, Peter, Sean, and Margaret.

To support his growing family, he took advantage of his New York contacts and began doing freelance film work. In 1956, he turned his part-time filmmaking into a full-time occupation. Campbell Films specialized in producing films that supported nonprofit organizations, chiefly schools and colleges. Clients included Dartmouth, MIT, Amherst College, Williams College, Middlebury College, Spelman College, the University of Vermont, and Syracuse University. He was particularly proud of the many films he produced for Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Mass. His film, “The Anne Sullivan Story,” about Helen Keller’s teacher at Perkins School was a notable film and perhaps his favorite, though other films made for Perkins including “The Children of The Silent Night” were award-winning productions.

In 1963, he purchased the Forristal Farm at the edge of Saxtons River and worked out of a corner office there, surrounded by the Vermont that had become his home. The addition of Charles, William, Sarah, and Matthew brought the total of children to 11. He now had a growing pool of labor and was not afraid to use it. Children were enlisted in various enterprises and property maintenance. They became ditch diggers for water lines, cottage cleaners, toilet fixers, boat maintainers, house and barn painters, production assistants, envelope stuffers, fence builders, hay stackers, and eventually Christmas tree planters and harvesters.

Perhaps his most famous family saying was “Be part of the group!” He was always interested in bringing a child back to the fold and eager to come up with new ventures to accomplish that.

The Saxtons River Inn could be considered his most successful. In 1973, he purchased the inn, which had become a somewhat derelict private residence in the center of town. He had a chef in his daughter Averill, and a decorator in his wife Beth. Others were put to work scraping, painting, and papering. The New York Times gave it flattering coverage and wrote, “It was a kind of super barn raising that lasted a year with the family, townspeople, weekend friends and relatives pitching in.” Its restoration gave the town a new focal point, and it became known as a place where patrons from every walk of life gathered.

Bob and Beth Campbell were both keenly interested in assuring that Saxtons River was a vital and viable small village and were generous to its causes. They both quietly helped a number of families in their moments of need or opportunity. He loved being sought after for advice and wasn’t afraid to say, “You know what you should do.”

After a marriage of 71 years, Beth Campbell died in November of 2016. Bob was determined to live to 100 and had aspirations to get to 107. He came close. He was determined to live in his own home until the end and, thanks to family and caregivers, he achieved that. Bob Campbell is survived by his 11 children, 12 grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren.

There will be a remembrance and memorial service held Feb. 16, 2019 at the Saxtons River Inn in Saxtons River, at 2 p.m. Memorial gifts may be made to The Bob and Beth Campbell Art Fund, Vermont Academy, P.O. Box 500, Saxtons River VT 05154.

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