By Beth Anne Piehl
If you make lunch plans with Robert Campbell, it might be a good idea to actually eat before you go. There's really no time to fit in food when Campbell gets on a roll.
Within seven and a half decades, Campbell has amassed volumes of personal stories and he's blessed with the memory to back them up. Details from events 30 or 40 years ago aren't just recited, they're re-enacted — vividly (sorry to the people in the nearby booth about the recollection of the accident that ripped the skin off his shins down to the bone.)
(And for the booth-side demonstration of an out-of-control chainsaw that nearly severed his head.)
(And for the sex ed talk.)
If there ever was a person to embody the ideal of eking the life out of every moment on Earth, it's Campbell. And according to the Petoskey man, at age 74 he's only about two-thirds done. He plans on living until he's between the ages of 105-130.
"It's physiologically possible because of the dynamics of the human body," he posited. "People lived that long before all the sugars and fatty foods."
Aside from common sense and moderation in all things but storytelling, the ingredients that will get him to 130 include a dash of grandmotherly advice that he's carried with him. "Rule No. 1, my grandma said, was this: 'Robin (a nickname), remember that if you don't take care of yourself, no one else will."
'You must have discipline'
After moving from downstate to Indian River 25 years ago, and to Petoskey 15 years ago, he's continued to take part in the activities that drew him and his family northward for decades: hunting, snowmobiling, snowshoeing, archery and being outdoors. When his father died of natural causes at age 87, and his younger brother Jim unexpectedly of a brain tumor later that same year in 1985 at age 41, health concerns rose to the top for Campbell.
"I learned from my father that you must have discipline and you must have the mindset to not only survive, but to enjoy life in good health," the septuagenarian said.
Among his many claims to physiological fame, aside from surviving multiple near-death catastrophes, is the fact he hasn't been to the doctor for a health problem in 40 years.
"Two years ago I had to get a physical to be a bus driver, so I went up to Quick Care. The doctor said I was healthy as a moose," Campbell said, adding that he hasn't even had as much as three common colds in four decades. "I haven't even taken 40 or 50 aspirin in my lifetime."
He wasn't always the picture of health. For 25 years he was smoker, starting at age 26. But since he hit 51 and kicked the habit, healthy choices have been his focus.
When we talk about trying to squeeze in a bowl of soup during our meeting at Big Boy, his first reaction is, "Well it depends on what's in the soup."
"I'm very careful of what I eat," he continues. "I eat as many fresh vegetables as I can, and I grow my own. You must have a regular diet. People need to eat what's good for them and not what they like all the time. Everybody's going to go off their diet once in awhile, but you can eat one slice of pizza instead of three. Just try it. Have two beers instead of six."
Ease up on the carbohydrates, he continued, stay away from sugars whenever possible, add healthy spices like garlic and onions, try working in vinegar and honey when possible. Longevity vitamins, including the full B-complex, are also part of his regular routine, along with walking four or five miles a day five days a week.
Keeping active has long been part of his lifestyle.
A skilled master carpenter, Campbell wielded the chainsaws that carved the Indian River totem pole next to the chamber of commerce office on South Straits Highway. For three months in 1988, the then-52-year-old toiled in record heat to turn a 6.5-foot wide, 36-foot-tall tree into a community landmark that still stands today. "The things I start, I complete," he said, of the Herculean, volunteer effort. "But sometimes I should learn to keep my mouth shut! I said that about 5,000 times during the project."
Exercising his mind is an equally important activity. He attests to test-driving a half-dozen different religions and learning about them before landing on the term "spiritual" to define his religious beliefs today. For 30 years he owned hair salons downstate, managed the former Northern Gym and Fitness center in Petoskey and lectured nationally for Redken Laboratories.
When he was 42, he went back to school to get his Ph.D. in biochemistry and physiology at the University of Southern California. He's used that knowledge specifically how it applies to the human body.
"(Being healthy) starts right here between your ears. You must be forthright and strong enough to stand by your convictions and replace those old, bad habits with new ones. You have to make it a priority, and unfortunately, you have to work at it."
A youthful outlook tends to draw him to the younger crowd rather than his peers when it comes to socializing, and he mentions that he's thrice divorced.
"When I talk to people my age, they're talking about 'Maybe they'll be healthy enough to take a trip next year' and I've already booked mine. Or they talk about their golf scores," he adds, launching next into a discussion about menopause.
(Sorry again, nearby diners).
"My friends have told me, 'Bob, you must write a book some day.' And I say, when I have one foot in the grave and the other on the rocking chair, I'll have time to write that book. But I'm really only middle age. I have a lot more living to do."