Kay and Bill Campbell. Bill is wearing what they consider his most outrageous Kentucky Derby Festival blazer.
A Profile of Bill Campbell
Bill Campbell tells his story of a life filled with color, energy and innovation which, according to him, is a consequence of pure chance. “Actually my entire life I have been incredibly fortunate to be surrounded by incredibly funny, great people—and all I do is stand around and listen.”
There isn’t any doubt that he has spent a lot of time rubbing elbows with people with the right stuff. After college Bill and his wife Kay headed for California, where Second Lieutenant Campbell was the Administrative Officer for the 6510th Field Maintenance Squad at Edwards Air Force Base in an era when pilots were routinely making and breaking speed and altitude records in the high deserts of California. About joining the Air Force in 1960 he says, “What did I know about aircraft and fixing airplanes? –nothin’! — so that’s where they thought they ought to put me.” Green recruit or not, it was certainly the right place to put Bill.
The 7-acre Edwards hangar was the second largest in the world, and there was no larger shop anywhere: more than 4 1/2 acres. The squad could build, repair and anticipate problems with any aircraft in the Air Force inventory, even if they had to create the situations themselves. “We had to fix all these things people would break—and we’d break them on purpose, too, of course.” With responsibility for the lives of pilots and the stewardship of a fortune in hardware in his hands, Bill contributed his intelligence and skills toward everything from maintaining the giant C-130 Hercules transport to the testing of the North American X-15.
Fans of the movie The Right Stuff will remember the bar in the desert, The Happy Bottom Riding Club. Bill was there—once; it was all but the exclusive territory of the pilots. Bill tells a story about Scott Crossfield, a legendary pilot, designer and developer of hypersonic aircraft working at the base at that time. He told Bill he had come within a hair’s breadth of leaving the atmosphere and entering space during test flights, but he knew if he ever passed the threshold, he would burn up trying to re-enter the atmosphere.
Bill was at Edwards during pivotal years. In July and August of 1963, pilot Joseph A. Walker pushed the X-15 envelope to 50 miles in altitude, earning himself USAF astronaut wings, but the first class of NASA astronauts was already preparing for the Mercury program at the flight test school on the base. At the same time Edwards was testing the first stage of the rocket that would carry the first Americans into space.
After his discharge, Bill and Kay returned to Kentucky with their two-year-old son, Clay, and moved into his parents’ home. He thought he was finished with the Air Force, but he found out the Air Force wasn’t finished with him. He received orders forwarded from Edwards informing him he had been promoted to Captain. He politely told them thanks, but no thanks, and proceeded to translate the knowledge he had gleaned about broadcast frequency in the Air Force into a career in radio and television.
After a brief foray into radio, he looked around and decided a job in sales for a new, small Louisville T. V. station would be more lucrative. WLKY rented space in the basement of United Electronics Institute in Shively, where they could take advantage of U. E. I.’s broadcasting tower. The location, however, left a little to be desired. In the center of the sales office stood the United Electronics ping pong table. Every day at 3 p. m. the sales team had to clear out and make way for the ping pong players.
More importantly, the station was in a low spot that made reception a problem. Unlike radio waves that bend with the curve of the Earth, T. V. signals travel in straight lines, and geographical barriers will block them. It was move or die, so in 1968, WLKY moved to new studios on Mellwood Ave. The station was the first in Louisville to have color cameras in their studio, and a huge electric overhead door made it possible to bring large items like boats and cars inside for broadcasts. Getting used to the door took a little adjustment. Bill describes the third night after the move into the new studio: “On the 5:30 p. m. news, somebody hit the door opener on the air. You hear, ‘On the news tonight—GRRR–ERRRRRRRRRR.’” The outside door opener was soon disconnected.
Bill worked for WLKY for about 22 years, advancing from salesman to General Sales Manager to General Manager. Entertaining celebrities, investors and clients at the Derby was both a perk and a responsibility. During the years Combined Communications owned the station, John Lewis was Chairman of the Board. Lewis was a member of the S. C. Johnson family, and Bill declares him both the nicest and the richest person he has ever known. The year Lewis wanted to come in for the Derby in the morning and be home in Chicago for dinner, Bill made it happen—with the help of a police escort.
Lewis, who was a big contributor to Ronald Reagan’s campaign, was appointed Ambassador to England by the President. Sometime after he left for his post, Bill received a call at work, “I have a call for you from the Ambassador of England,” said the very British assistant before he transferred the call. After a moment of catching up with Bill, Lewis got to the point: the Queen Mother had never been to the Kentucky Derby. Bill recalls, “He said, ‘Bill, you are the only one I know who knows all about the Derby.’” He was flattered, of course, but Bill was not anxious to navigate international protocols or deal with the Secret Service. When he suggested calling the State Department, Lewis answered that he already had—and had given them Bill’s name. He got a reprieve, as it turned out; the Queen Mother never took that trip to see the Run for the Roses.
Bill left broadcasting to work for the Chamber of Commerce as Director of Membership and Marketing. In 1987, he was Chairman of the Board of Louisville’s premier promotional extravaganza: The Kentucky Derby Festival. In those days volunteers did most of the work. Among his many responsibilities, Bill secured a commitment from Louisville actor Ned Beatty to lead the Derby parade as Grand Marshall, and supervised the vetting process for float designs. Kroger Advertising Director Ben Harper submitted a design that too closely resembled one submitted by Phillip Morris. Undaunted, Harper vowed to bring Bill “the Rose Parade,” and Kroger flower shops put abundant resources at his disposal. When he couldn’t get them locally, Harper had a plane load of poinsettias flown in from California, and kept them watered with 8 miles of plastic tubing. “I’m telling you the guy was the Barnum and Bailey of Louisville. If you asked him for anything and he would deliver.”
Harper was the man behind the Thunder Over Louisville fireworks display. The original idea was to have Kroger sponsor opening ceremonies for the 1988 Kentucky Derby Festival during the They’re Off Luncheon. When Ben told Bill of his plan to do a fireworks display at noon Bill replied, “Where did you get the black fireworks, Ben?” Undeterred, Harper was confident that the closed circuit system of 2 cameras and 2 giant screens would capture the pyrotechnics and wow the attendees in the Galt House dining room. When the show ended up being little more than a broadcast of puffs of smoke, the fireworks were moved the next year to Cardinal Stadium on Friday night.
Earlier in the year, the Operations Manager at Opryland invited Bill to witness the inauguration of the new water conservatory at the resort. He was settled in anticipating a spectacle, but the minute the show started he was looking for an exit; the interior of the dome was filling up with exploding fireworks! His host blocked his retreat, assured him he was safe, and told him the secret: heatless fireworks.
Bill brought the idea back to Louisville in time to initiate the signature display at subsequent Thunder programs; for the first time Festival goers saw a firefall, cascading from the roof that covers half the Cardinal Stadium seating area. As startling as it was beautiful, it initially scattered the crowd directly underneath. But the display was magnetic, and the abandoned seats filled again. The only unhappy Louisvillians were the few folks on Eastern Parkway whose lawns were singed by cinders of conventional fireworks blowing from the Fairgrounds.
The Ohio River is pretty hard to set on fire, so the following year the Fireworks were launched from a barge on the water, and the cascade fell from the Second Street Bridge. The Zambellis, miffed with New York for hiring another fireworks company for the celebration of the reopening of New York Harbor, made Harper an offer to mount an even bigger show for Thunder for one fifth the price. Bill, who by this time was a seasoned pro at foreseeing potential P. R. pitfalls, asked Ben, “What will you do the next year?” Two weeks later Harper reported he had landed a 3 year contract with Zambelli. The rest is glorious history.
Americans and especially Louisvillians have a lot to thank Bill Campbell for: assuring that the aircraft and the routines at Edwards that laid the groundwork for space exploration ran smoothly, doing his part pioneering development of Louisville into competitive, 3-network television market, and promoting our city to the world. Now, as his neighbors at Cornell Trace, we have the pleasure of enjoying his wit and prowess as a storyteller. Bill and Kay have been married for 57 years. His 2 sons, Clay and Neel, are both married with 2 children a piece. We are proud and happy to include them all in our community. Welcome home, Bill.