Before we get into the story of Joe Campbell and the kind favor Kamala Harris did for him in 2010, some context and background are necessary.
Campbell is 76 and lives in Glenvar. He and I have been friends for a little more than 10 years. He and his late wife, Cynthia, moved to the Roanoke Valley in 2006, after living and working in Berkeley, California, since the early 1960s.
Cynthia died unexpectedly in November 2009, and Joe and I met a couple of months later.
For most of their time in California’s Bay Area, the Campbells owned a high-end, audio-repair business. In its early days, Joe worked there, too. He gradually pulled away and authored four different computer science manuals and got involved in the dot-com boom of the 1990s.
The Campbells lived in a neighborhood called Thousand Oaks, a couple of miles north of downtown Berkeley. Except for the real-estate values (which are insanely high out there), it’s not too dissimilar to Roanoke’s Raleigh Court community, Joe said.
That’s where they raised their two sons, Ben and Aaron, both of whom attended Thousand Oaks Elementary. One of the boys’ classmates was Kamala Harris.
Although she lived in a different Berkeley neighborhood, Harris was bused to Thousand Oaks in an early experiment in school desegregation. She wrote about that in her 2019 memoir, “The Truths We Hold: An American Journey.”
Harris moved with her mother and sister to Montreal in the late 1970s, when Harris was 12. She graduated high school in Quebec, and later attended Howard University in Washington, D.C., where in 1986 she earned degrees in economics and political science.
Then she moved back to the Bay Area to attend law school in San Francisco. The California Bar admitted Harris in 1990, and her first job out of law school was as a deputy district attorney for Alameda County, which includes both Berkeley and neighboring Oakland.
Joe isn’t sure how Harris and Cynthia became acquainted, and he’s fuzzy about the nature of their friendship, too. Harris was a generation younger than Cynthia, who was the social butterfly of the marriage.
For years, Cynthia served as an elected director of the Thousand Oaks Neighborhood Association. Joe believes that’s how she and Harris became acquainted. It was likely in the 1990s, he said.
Cynthia “knew and was known by everyone,” Joe recalled. “I simply was known as Cynthia’s husband. ... She was gregarious. People never forgot her.”
Flash forward to 2009. The Campbells were living in Glenvar. Harris had moved on, too. By then, she was in her second term as district attorney of San Francisco. That November, Cynthia died suddenly at Roanoke Memorial Hospital.
I wound up meeting Joe in January 2010. He was a reader who wrote me a touching email about the loss of a spouse to whom he’d been married for 45 years.
I drove out to his house one day, where we sat and talked about her for a couple of hours. That was an emotionally wrenching experience. I never wrote a column about it, but we became fast friends. And in the intervening years, Joe told me a bunch of pretty amazing stories — which he could back up.
One involved rock ’n’ roll guitarist John Fogerty. Before Fogerty was known as a founder of the legendary band Creedence Clearwater Revival, he was a broke and fledging guitarist from the town next to Berkeley.
One day, Fogerty blew his amplifier before a big gig for the then-unknown band. Joe fixed it for free, and he and Fogerty became friends. Joe’s shown me emails from Fogerty documenting that.
Another story was about one of Joe and Cynthia’s neighbors in Thousand Oaks named Kary Mullis. He was a chemist. In 1983, Mullis invented a process for copying tiny amounts of DNA and turning them into a useful reference. That invention paved the way for the use of DNA evidence in forensic science.
For that, Mullis shared the 1993 Nobel Prize in chemistry, an achievement he celebrated with Joe and Cynthia. In 2011, when Mullis delivered a guest lecture at Virginia Tech, he and his wife stayed with Joe in Glenvar. I drove them from the university to Joe’s house afterward. (Mullis died last year.)
Which brings us to Joe’s one and only “Kamala Harris story.” I hadn’t heard this one until Tuesday, after Joe Biden selected her as his running mate on the Democratic presidential ticket.
In the spring of 2010, a few months after Cynthia died, her network of friends in the Bay Area decided to hold a memorial service in her honor in Berkeley. It was called “Remembering Cynthia.”
Joe prepared remarks for that event, and he rehearsed them before me, Donna and our kids. Tears ran down all of our cheeks by the end.
“Kamala Harris was invited but was unable to attend,” Joe recalled.
And then came the day when Joe flew out of Roanoke to attend the memorial service. He’d already checked in at Roanoke-Blacksburg Regional Airport, and was waiting at the gate for his flight to depart when an attendant paged him.
“Shortly after I checked in for my departing flight ... I was immediately summoned back to the ticket desk. I assumed I had been bumped.
“In fact, I had been promoted — to first-class — compliments of Kamala Harris.”
I asked Joe for additional details, but he drew a blank on those.
“I can’t tell you much more about it,” he told me Wednesday. “You have to understand what a fog [of grief] I was in at the time.”