Claire Campbell, 100; tested self and life

Claire C. Campbell
Claire C. Campbell
Posted: January 29, 2013

That Claire Clifford Carroll Campbell lived to age 100 is something of a miracle.

The odds favored a short, if thrilling, sojourn on Earth, one that could have ended in the 1930s when the daring Philadelphian got her pilot's license and barnstormed out of Boulevard Airport, wing-walking on a biplane because, she explained, she "would try anything."

She rode a motorcycle, worked as a hospital nurse amid deadly contagions, traveled to five continents, and at 80, went to Antarctica, crossing the Drake Passage in a monstrous storm and traipsing over ice to mingle with penguins.

She so liked it, she went back at 84.

Mrs. Campbell survived her own venturesome spirit. On Wednesday, Jan. 16, she died of renal failure at Hamilton (N.J.) Continuing Care Center. She had lived in Seaside Park, Ocean County, until November, when Hurricane Sandy displaced her after more than 40 years there.

She was born into an era still clinging to Victorian convention. But she was also born into a family of three brothers; that trumped any social constraints on young ladies of the day.

Her father, George Clifford, chief engineer at Episcopal Hospital, and her mother, Mary, thought nothing of letting her get a driver's license at 16, watching her zoom off on a motorcycle, or giving her a ticket for her first airplane ride.

Mid-trip, the pilot asked whether she was enjoying it. Yes, she replied, but the plane wasn't going fast enough.

Soon, Mrs. Campbell was taking lessons at Boulevard Airport in the Far Northeast. By 20, she had her license.

In 1934, she teamed with another flier in a barnstorming business, performing in air shows, selling rides and cheap thrills to audiences struggling back from the Depression.

"The thing was, nobody had any money," her daughter, Billie Moore, said. "People would ask to touch the plane. But nobody would pay a dime."

Mrs. Campbell, luckily, wasn't dependent on aerobatics for a square meal. A graduate of Franford High School and Episcopal Hospital School of Nursing, she worked as a registered nurse in various hospitals, including the Philadelphia Municipal Hospital of Contagious Diseases at a time when lethal germs were mainly battled with rigorous cleaning and sunlight.

In 1937, she married Bill Carroll, manager of Boulevard Airport and a professional mapping pilot, and moved to South Dakota. Widowed in 1945 and back in Philadelphia with her young daughter, she got a job as a nurse and, later, safety engineer at the H.K. Porter rubber plant.

In 1955, she married Joe Campbell, also a pilot and a member of the Highway Patrol.

Retiring in 1967, they moved to Seaside Park, where they decorated the living room wall with the eight-foot wooden propeller from the Flying Jenny in which she learned.

Mrs. Campbell's feats were not limited to derring-do. At 50, she set out to master Chinese - speaking, reading, writing - from books her daughter brought home from college and then classes in Chinatown. Along the way, she developed a widely admired skill at calligraphy.

For all her international travels, a total of 26 nations, she never went to China, nor wanted to.

The destination she most dreamed of was Antarctica, a fascination since she was a child listening to radio. At 80, she booked a three-week tour and, unescorted, flew to Argentina. Mrs. Campbell hated boats but boarded one for the last leg to the bottom of the world.

The storm that blew up was, the captain claimed, one of the worst he had seen, yet Mrs. Campbell professed to being not the least bit frightened. Four years later, she returned for a two-week excursion.

She was a devotee of Charles Dickens - having read each book at least 15 times, her daughter said - and was a member of the Dickens Fellowship in Philadelphia.

In addition to her daughter, Mrs. Campbell is survived by a grandson. Her second husband died in 2004, also at age 100.

Donations may be sent to Friends of Animals, 777 Post Rd., Darien, Conn. 06820.

Contact Kathleen Tinney at 610-313-8106.

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