(Ed. note: This story was published in the Sept. 22, 1996, edition of the Herald-Review.
BIGFORK — Nearly 50 years ago, Gordy Campbell of Bigfork was the most dominant high school miler the state of Minnesota had ever witnessed.
In the late 1940s, Campbell brought fame upon himself and his tiny hometown of Bigfork by winning two state championships in the mile run and placing second another year. Now, nearly a half-century later, Campbell sat at his home in Lawrence Lake and reminisced about that time long ago when he held the state record in the mile run.
Campbell, 65, a 1949 graduate of Bigfork High School, remembers how he began running track for Bigfork High School.
“I think I was a sophomore when I started competing in track meets,” said Campbell. “I started out in the dashes and did the broad jump and the mile. I did pretty well in the other events, but I kept winning the mile so I stayed with it.”
While he was in high school, there was no track available to practice on in Bigfork, so much of Campbell’s training was one on the country roads that surround the community. He grew up about a mile out of Bigfork and he would run to and from school, which eventually began to pay off in state championships.
Campbell worked at his uncle Scott Holycross’s business, the Red and White Store, which was located in Bigfork. He would run from the farm he grew up on into work, work a couple hours, then go to school. After school, he would work a couple more hours before running home to complete his day. Even with this busy schedule, Campbell also found time to win his state championships and also be named salutatorian of the Class of 1949 at Bigfork.
As a sophomore, the unknown Campbell came out of o place second in the state meet. He recalls, “I placed second in the state meet as a sophomore. I was very close to the winner. He set the state record and I was right on his tail.” The new state record time of 4:32 last just one year as Campbell began his reign as king miler the state.
During his junior year, Campbell again qualified for the state meet and this time he set state record with a time of 4:30.6 to win his first state championship. After that season, he was presented with the Gold Track Shoe Award, the first-ever recipient, by Jim Kelly, then the head track coach the University of Minnesota.
“I think it was the first state championship Bigfork ever had, and people treated me kind of like a celebrity,” Campbell recalls.
During his senior year, Campbell again was blowing away the competition until he injured his knee in an automobile accident. Campbell’s wife, Mercedes, his high school sweetheart, remembers the night.
“The accident happened on graduation night,” said Mercedes. She explained that her and Gordy were passengers in a car bringing her home when the driver of the vehicle lost control and the vehicle into the ditch on the Scenic Highway. Gordy injured his knee in the accident, which was something that was key in marking the end of his running career.
“I think the town of Bigfork was very proud of him,” explained Mercedes. “He was a hometown boy and he had done well. It brought Bigfork a little ink, too.”
Campbell also served as captain of the Bigfork basketball team during his high school years, and he said he looks back with fond memories of playing the sport, also.
Another highlight of Campbell’s high school athletic years was being able to run track with his younger brother, Darrel, who placed in the top 10 at state in the mile for two years. He currently lives in Warba.
After winning his second state championship as a senior in 1949, Campbell received a scholarship from the University of Minnesota to continue his running career. He moved down to the Twin Cities, got a job and lived with his aunt and uncle. However, he had to have surgery on the injured knee early in his collegiate career, and he never returned to running after the surgery was completed.
Campbell returned to work at the Red and White Store for a time, then took a job as an assistant custodian at Scenic State Park for a year. In 1952, after going to work for M.A. Hanna Mining Co. at Keewatin, he packed up his family and moved to Keewatin. He worked in Keewatin for 10 years before leaving for Peru where he worked for a little more than two years. He returned to Keewatin and in 1965, went to work for Eveleth Taconite where he stayed until “retiring” in 1986. Even after his retirement, he worked six to eight months out of the year for Eveleth Taconite on special maintenance projects.
“In December 1991, we had just moved to Lawrence Lake and Gordy was working his last week before he was to retire for the umpteenth time and he was hit by a train,” recalls Mercedes. “So, he was in the hospital for eight months, in Rochester and Duluth, and had two surgeries.”
The Campbells have five children, Anne, Bud (Gordon Jr.), Bruce, Mary Beth and Bill, and 12 grandchildren. The Campbell sons were all good athletes while growing up, something which rubbed off from their father, according to Mercedes.
Looking back at his career, Campbell summed it up by saying, “I really felt good winning the state championships. My philosophy was just to run. I just ran, tried to get ahead of everybody and then I tried to stay there. That’s all. But, the running was a chance for a poor farmer boy to do something right. I certainly am proud of my running career.”