story by Anita Moyt
photo by Tom Dearen
Imagine a father so proud of his son and daughter, he beams. Imagine a grandfather, with pride in his voice, as he tells of his nine grandchildren, the ones who gave him a Tshirt that appropriately reads, ‘The Best Grandpa in the World.’
Samuel Thomas “Tom” Campbell is one such man.
Campbell was born in Akron, Ohio, in 1940. His mother and father moved their family back to West Tennessee, where they were originally from, when Campbell was a toddler.
“We were church people,” Campbell explained. “My mother went to the Methodist church and my father went to the Baptist church. But they went to each other’s church on occasions.” The young Campbell was always in tow to either of the congregations.
Campbell’s musical skills, especially at playing the piano, manifested very early in life.
“My dad told the story,” Campbell remembered, “that we went to church and I would get home and I would want to play some of the songs I had heard…I would sit on his lap and he would press the pedals and I would play the keys. I was good at remembering songs from church.”
“We always had a piano,” he continued. “I don’t ever remember not liking to play the piano.”
However, Campbell’s natural ability to play the piano by ear did not lend well to standard music lessons.
“When I was in the fourth grade,” Campbell explained, “I was sent to a local lady to teach me piano. She would give me pieces of music to learn. But I played it the way I thought it should sound, not the way it was written. My piano lessons lasted about four months.”
Even today, although Campbell will have a hymnal or sheet music in front of him while playing the piano, he isn’t looking at the music notes. He is actually reading the words to the song.
“I have to hear a piece of music before I can play it,” he said. “I don’t do much sight reading.”
As a young teen, Campbell was offered opportunities to play for others.
“When I was in eighth or ninth grade there was a family who lived in the same town I did,” Campbell began. “They had three daughters who sang together. They needed a piano player at the county fair. I agreed to do it. Due to bad weather, not much happened.
“But on the following Sunday they had a “singing” at the country church. And that was the first time I played for them. Eventually, they added one of their boyfriends as bass. I played with them for a few years. We even had a radio program. It was a good experience and good people.”
Campbell remained in Huntington until he graduated high school in 1957, continuing to play with the group.
Ironically, he quit playing for quartets when he moved to Music City (Nashville) where he lived for a year before moving to Memphis, which has been his hometown ever since.
“I met my (ex)wife at Methodist Hospital Central where we both worked,” he said. “She encouraged me to get a piano and she even helped me buy it.”
Campbell eventually got a job at Kraft, then known as Humco, in 1963.
“I got a job at Kraft a short time after we were married,” he continued, “I started as a clerk and went through a few advancements. I was there for 28 years when I lost my job due to ‘downsizing.’”
Campbell was unemployed for almost two years, as many during that time were. Eventually, a totally different door opened to him.
“I had a chance to go to nursing school,” Campbell said. “It was a really good deal for me. I went 18 months to Tennessee Tech in Ripley. I’ve spent the past 25 years as a Licensed Practical Nurse.”
Campbell discussed his same-sex feelings, which he kept at bay for so long.
“I knew there was something different from when I was very young,” he said, explaining his feelings. “I was called sissy a whole lot. I didn’t care about football and baseball. But I did what was expected of me.
“My coming out experience was late,” he continued. “It was after I met my wife. I didn’t do anything the first few years we were married; I was putting myself to the test.”
Eventually, Campbell’s life met a fork in the road. A fork that many men and women who’ve traveled the same path come to. After marriage and two children, a son and a daughter, Campbell realized he wasn’t happy with marriage, and separated from his wife.
And all within the same few years, as Campbell sought to gain peace with his feelings, he came to understand his own son, Greg, had the same feelings.
“I knew he was gay when he was in high school,” Campbell said of his acceptance of his son’s homosexuality. “Nobody told me anything. I just knew he was. I noticed that all his friends looked like they were gay to me; birds of a feather.”
Campbell proudly tells of his son’s accomplishments as an award winning florist and co- owner of The Garden District.
“Greg is at peace with himself,” Campbell continued. “He has been with his partner for more than 20 years. Greg has never been any kind of problem.
What better words of pride than praise:
“There is no way Greg could be with anybody better (referring to Greg Baudoin, his partner); he is very kind & nice. There is none better. He is such a sweetheart.”
By the way, Campbell’s love of the piano was never lost.
“I became involved with the Methodist church in this city,” he explained. “When I first moved to Cooper-Young, I got involved with the 8:30 am Sunday service at Galloway United Methodist Church.
“At one church service, they needed someone to play piano and lead the music. I picked out some hymns and that started it.
“I did music at the 8:30 service until Living Word Community Church came over and Galloway closed. I’ve been playing keyboard and piano, and singing, as part of the music program there for going on 11 years now.”
Campbell was even able to share that love of music with Russell Johnson, who he was in a relationship with for more than 30 years until Johnson’s passing in 2012.
“One of my accomplishments was to teach Russell Johnson to sing,” Campbell said, explaining that they worked many hours to bring that to pass.
photo courtesy The Garden District
Tom Campbell’s only son, Greg Campbell, has had a close relationship with his dad his whole life.
Born and raised in Memphis, Greg went to the University of Memphis for a short time before deciding that wasn’t the path for him.
“I went to the University of Memphis but didn’t do so well,” he explained. A job as a delivery driver for The Blossom Shop on Madison Avenue led him to an area he found he was quite good at: floral design. Eventually he was employed by John Hoover Flowers.
“I apprenticed under John Hoover,” Greg said, explaining how he learned the floral industry. “When he passed away, me and some other employees bought the business and changed the name to The Garden District. I’ve been co-owner of The Garden District going on 23 years.
“As far as I knew we had a nuclear family,” Greg said of his childhood. “Both of my parents worked very hard. My mother was an RN and worked the night shift; my father worked in the daytime. We took family vacations.”
Greg found out about his dad’s attraction to the same sex when he was a teenager.
“I found out when they told us they were separating,” Greg explained. “I was 17 or 18 when they told us (Greg and his sister) they were separating.
“We all had things we accepted as normal. My mother has handled all this so gracefully and with strength. I remember being very protective of my mom. I had no idea until they told us they were separating.
“He left,” Greg continued. ”We stayed with my mom. He had an apartment (in Memphis). He seemed to really enjoy parts of his new life; like setting up a new apartment. It was hard for him to not be around us. We went to his place to see him.”
It took a few years for reality to set in for Greg.
“I didn’t come to terms with it until I was maybe 19 or later,” he said, telling of a pivotal incident. “It was so not traumatic. I was at the old George’s a couple of years later. (My dad) was there with some friends. He came up to me, hugged me, told me Photo courtesy The Garden District he loved me and he went his way and I went my way. I was a little embarrassed with my friends around me but I don’t remember it being a traumatic experience.”
Greg has been with his life partner, Greg Baudoin, going on 27 years. By the way, the couple is known as Greg C. and Greg B.
“I don’t think we have any issues that another hetero couple would have.”
Greg noted how coming out has eased during the decades.
“I hope the generations after me have it easier than I did growing up,” Greg concluded. “A lot of things are out on the table now. I didn’t know what would be at George’s but it was a safe place for gay people. My father’s generation didn’t even have it that easy.”