On most days, Jim Campagna’s starts the day driving himself tovmorning Mass at either Cathedral of the Holy Spirit or St. Mary’s Pro-Cathedral in Bismarck, North Dakota where he is a parishioner. Not bad for someone who will turn 100 on December 21 this year.
"I put God first in my life.” he said in an interview after Mass. “I know every day might be my last day, but as long as I’m ready, that’s all that matters.”
When he was born in 1923, life expectancy was 56.1 years for men and 58.5 for women. Antibiotics had not been invented yet—that would happen in 1928 with penicillin— so childhood illnesses and tuberculosis were leading causes of death.
When the Great Depression began in 1929, Campagna, the seventh of ten children, was only six years old. He’s the only one left now. “We walked about 1 ½ mile to school where I went to first grade. I remember the rough winters,” he recalled.
“A widow lived a mile north of us on the top of a hill and one day Mom told me to go check on her,” he recalled. “I was 6 years old. She was okay and gave me a slice of boughten bread. It was so sweet. Oh, was it good.”
Back then, sending a young child a mile away was not out of the ordinary. He was close with his brothers Albert and Reynald who were 4 and 6 years older respectively. In mild weather, the three of them slept up in the barn where a goat would follow them up the steps and sleep with them. Campagna remembers the first prayer he said on his own was after he grabbed a horse’s tail and was kicked into the air. “When I came down,” he said, “I Iost my breath. I prayed, ‘God, I don’t want to die,’ and my breath came back.”
His family moved into town in 1932 when he was in the fourth grade at the public school. He assumes their pastor told his parents the children should be at the Catholic school, so he switched to St. Mary’s school. To earn spending money when he was 14, Campagna would buy newspapers for 2 cents and sell them downtown for a nickel. “I remember if I had 20 cents if felt like a lot,” he said.
When his father died on May 7, 1938, Campagna quit school junior year to go to work. “In Oregon, railroad jobs paid 50 cents an hour,” he said. “I went there, and we worked 10 hours a day, 6 days a week, $30 a week. Boy, that was big money.”
In 1942, he joined the Navy during World II and was a gunner on supply ships. “They called us the armed guards,” he said. “We’d take supplies to the islands and come back. I was on five merchant ships. We went everywhere— Mariana and Marshall Islands, the Philippines, and Guadalcanal. We’d only stay a day or two, take supplies off, and go.”
“One island I remember is Guadalcanal where we saw Eleanor Roosevelt,” Campagna said. “She was the first lady. She came up and got some coffee from the ship and left.” After the Navy, Campagna decided to join the Merchant Marine, working on tankers for 6 years, paid twice as much as he had earned in the Navy.
While home on a visit to Bismarck in 1949, he met his wife who worked with one of his sisters as a telephone operator. “When I met her, she was different than anything I had ever seen,” he said. The two kept in touch through letters. She moved to San Jose, California with her sister. Campagna also moved there and the two of them worked at a cannery, each staying in the respective dorms for men and women.
They married at St. Joseph Church in San Jose in December 1952, continuing work at the cannery for $1 a day until Campagna landed a job with the U.S. Game and Fish on Grizzly Island in the San Francisco Bay area. He was in charge of irrigation to enhance feeding for the waterfowl. Campagna worked there for 16 years but moved back to Bismarck with their four children due to his wife’s illness. “Her perceptions were off,” Campagna explained. “We needed to be closer to family for help. In 1984 she went to Jamestown State Hospital. They took care of her until she died Thanksgiving Day 1993.”
Campagna worked with Job Service until retirement in 1988 and has lived in his home in Bismarck since 1984. “A grandson has lived with me for the last 10 years,” he said. “He takes care of everything. He keeps the place clean and makes me lunches. If it wasn’t for him, I don’t think I would make it.” Campagna said he has 10 grandchildren and 4 great-grandchildren..
Since 1969, Campagna has attended daily Mass. “I go because God loves me and I get to receive him every day,” he said. “I’ve had many trials and tribulations. I need him in Communion to get through the day. God is good to me. He gives me the strength. Without God we can do nothing but sin. With God, we can do all things. I know it, that’s why I’m here.”
When asked what advice Campagna would like to give to others he shared, “Find God in your life because without God there’s nothing.” He said it hurts him to see people ignoring God and caring about finances more than their soul.
“Pray every day, morning noon and night for your salvation,” he advised. “It’s the most important thing you can do.”