ENID, Okla. —
These days, it’s not unusual for John Campbell to be up until dawn working in his dark room.
“I’ll look around (in the morning) and think, ‘Wow, it got kinda light out,’” Campbell, of Enid, said with a hearty laugh Saturday. “My son (Doug Nakvinda) will come in and say, ‘Dad, did you stay up all night again?’”
Located in the back of his house — beyond little pink bicycles and toy houses of his granddaughter on the carpet, dozens of eagle figurines and photos of his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren — the office contains what Campbell calls his “legacy”: upwards of 500,000 photographs, slides and negatives of planes, mostly military.
And, as a reminder that things could be worse, a framed photo of Albert Einstein sits over his desk, “because that’s a bad hair day,” he said.
He doesn’t have an exact number of the size of his archive, though.
“Back in 2007, I pushed through like two-thirds of this collection, and I couldn’t get through it,” he said.
Even though Campbell since has moved to digital file archives, he keeps all the airplane photos, negatives and slides in colored binders, filling four or so bookshelves. He doesn’t know how many binders line them.
“Everything’s going digital. I used to hate it, but I got stacks of discs this high now,” Campbell said, spreading his index fingers a foot apart.
The walls of the room not covered by bookshelves have been lined with framed photos of aviators, famed sound barrier-breaker Brig. Gen. Chuck Yeager among them, as well as airplanes, including a restored B-29 at Tinker Air Force Base (during the investigation of which he broke both his arms).
His latest collections include photos of Russian airplanes, placed in red binders, and three boxes of photos of the Navy’s Blue Angels demonstration team, who change pilots, but have flown F/A-18 Hornet planes since 1992. Currently, Campbell is doing a write-up of the Fifth Air Force’s WWII 90th Bombardment Group of B-24 Liberators, known as the “Jolly Rogers” for the skull-and-crossed bombs on their tail fins.
Campbell calls himself a “custodian of this collection,” a collection that always has been his pride and joy. A retired Tinker civilian worker, the 65-year-old began gathering photos when he was just a boy of 6. He went to his first air show at Vance when he was 9 with his father, a member of the Army Air Corps.
Campbell receives copies of photos from veterans, veterans’ spouses or significant others, and everyday plane enthusiasts, spanning across the globe. Since Saturday, he’s been emailed 73 more, he said.
“It started as a hobby, devolved into madness, turned into a career, now, it’s a legacy,” he said, pronouncing that with a soft g. “If it’s got wings on it, I’m pretty much interested.”
An author, Campbell also has published 18 books of the photos, which, because they are military planes, are in the public domain, he says.
His first book, “War Paint,” was published in 1991, after his late wife, Donna Campbell, encouraged him to pursue the passion as a career. They shared the byline on several of his books.
“She said, ‘Anyone with a collection this large needs to write a book about it,’ so I said, ‘I’ll go out and get a book contract tomorrow,’” he said.
Four of those books still are available on Amazon.com.
From there, it’s been a whirlwind of public speaking tours, visits to foreign nations such as Russia and thousands of photos, negatives and slides being sent his way.
“It gets … ,” he paused, his squinted eyes stealing a glance down at the pavement of his driveway for a split second, “… overwhelming sometimes.”
Since his wife passed in 1994, Campbell hasn’t had much time for a personal life aside from spending time with his granddaughter, Karma, and his son, who live with him.
“It’s been 10 years I haven’t dated anybody. I’m afraid to, actually — no woman wants to deal with this stuff,” he said, with another hearty laugh.
Indeed, that “stuff” is a legacy, preserved in Campbell’s seemingly endless fountain of stories, photographs, books, talks and autographs. He just doesn’t know where all of his work will end up, but would prefer a museum.
He has seen the care museums put into their collections through his travels to aviation museums like the U.S Air Force Historical Research Agency in Montgomery, Ala., and the National Museum of the USAF at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. So far, Oklahoma State University has approached him about acquiring the archives.
“This custodianship needs to be kept alive,” he said. “You can tell the love and time that has gone into some of them more than others.”
Anyone with photos of military planes can email them to Campbell for him to copy at firstname.lastname@example.org.