In this Empire file photo from June 2009, Ellen Campbell, 87, at her West Juneau home, talks about being awarded a Congressional Gold Medal for her time flying planes for the Women Airforce Service in the early 1940’s. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

In this Empire file photo from June 2009, Ellen Campbell, 87, at her West Juneau home, talks about being awarded a Congressional Gold Medal for her time flying planes for the Women Airforce Service in the early 1940’s. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

‘A force of nature’: Ellen Campbell helped people find the best in themselves

Longtime Juneau resident was WWII pilot, faith leader, re-entry advocate

Ellen Campbell seemed to see things that others couldn’t.

Talk to friends of hers, family members or even employees at the home she lived in near the end of her life, and that theme will keep coming up. Talking via phone Monday, Campbell’s son McKie said his mother seemed to see everyone as their best, truest selves.

“Without being naive at all, she was convinced that everyone was good and had that potential and always saw the best in people,” McKie said.

By the time of her death at the age of 96 last month, Campbell had worked with and encouraged people from Georgia to Virginia and all the way up to Juneau. She came to Juneau when her husband Charles came up to work for the Department of Corrections. He retired as the head of the department in the 1980s.

During her time in Juneau, Campbell was known for taking action through her faith. She ran a weekly Bible study group at Lemon Creek Correctional Center, where she and fellow volunteer Ramona Ignell would meet with inmates.

Through these interactions and listening to the stories of the women who struggled to get back on their feet once they were released from prison, Campbell and Ignell found the inspiration for starting Haven House. Haven House, a nonprofit ministry that helps women re-enter society after being in prison, is still operating. Campbell and Ignell helped found Haven House and remained involved for the first few years of its existence.

There will be a memorial service in Campbell’s honor Tuesday at 5:30 p.m. at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, and anyone is welcome.

Lori Stenberg, a longtime friend of Campbell’s, said an interaction with Campbell was enough to make anybody feel better about themselves. She devoted her full attention to you when she talked with you, Stenberg said, and always saw people as their best, truest self.

“In that same way that she would give you her full attention, she was like that with the person who bagged her groceries to any of the politicians she talked with,” Stenberg said. “That was just her way of being in the world.”

In that same vein, Campbell seemed to live in the moment and not look toward the past too much, longtime family friend Mary Alice McKeen said. In World War II, for example, Campbell served in the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASP). When planes were repaired or needed to test flown for other reasons, she would pilot them on test flights.

As a result, she earned one of the nation’s highest civilian awards, the Congressional Gold Medal. McKie said his mother didn’t talk much about her time in the service, though her husband Charles — who fought in the Battle of the Bulge — was “extraordinarily proud of her,” McKie said. Charles died a few years ago.

McKie said there would be moments where that flying experience came out. He recalled riding in a car with his mother heard a souped-up car go by and remarked, “Boy, that engine sounds good.” She spoke a bit about her time in the service in a 2009 Empire article, and tied it back to her view that serving others is a vital part of being alive.

“The most rewarding part was something I think God built into everybody — and that is service, feeling that you’re helping,” Campbell told the Empire at the time. “It was the joy of feeling you were being helpful and the excitement and the delight of flying.”

Campbell and her husband were very active at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in downtown Juneau and made many close friends there. McKeen was one of them, and was impressed by Campbell’s determination to help others.

McKeen visited Campbell late in life when Campbell lived at a home in the Washington, D.C., area. When McKeen arrived, Campbell apologized for not having refreshments ready for McKeen.

“She was unfailingly gracious,” McKeen said. “But underneath that, or part of that, was a strength and firmness in her faith and in her desire to help other people.”

Campbell died peacefully on Oct. 15 with her daughter Cami Seward by her side. Seward’s eulogy at Campbell’s memorial service a few days later included impressive stories about her mother. Seward said Campbell had thought about her death for many years, and was fully embracing heading to the afterlife. She’s survived by two daughters (Seward and Chandler Carlson) and two sons (McKie and Charlie Campbell).

McKie said it’s impossible to sum up his mother succinctly, but he did his best as he reflected on stories about her.

“She loved everyone,” McKie said, “and was a force of nature in her own right.”

• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at 523-2271 or Follow him on Twitter at @akmccarthy.

Ellen Campbell in the cockpit in 1943. Campbell was awarded a Congressional Gold Medal for her time flying planes for the Women Airforce Service in the early 1940’s. (Photo courtesy of Ellen Campbell)

Ellen Campbell in the cockpit in 1943. Campbell was awarded a Congressional Gold Medal for her time flying planes for the Women Airforce Service in the early 1940’s. (Photo courtesy of Ellen Campbell)

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