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A Joplin church's stained glass marks beginning, end for glazier's career

Monday, November 2, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CST
Kenny Campbell's silhouette is seen as he works on a stained-glass window from inside the First Christian Church in Joplin, Mo. As Kenny Campbell works at First Christian Church in Joplin, he is on familiar ground. Or rather, high above it on 30-foot scaffolding as he restores the luster of a large rose window on the church's south side.

JOPLIN — As Kenny Campbell works at First Christian Church in Joplin, he is on familiar ground.

Or rather, high above it on 30-foot scaffolding, restoring the luster of a large rose window on the church's south side.

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Thirty-two years ago, Campbell worked on these same windows. He has a deep respect for the historic stained glass, with its vivid daffodils and roses, flowing vines and the flying dove in the center. Campbell proudly notes that the original glass in the church came from the Wissmach factory in West Virginia, where Louis Tiffany bought much of his glass.

"It was the first church I had ever done," remembers Campbell. "You build a little stained glass window, it's no problem. A 10-foot or a 29-foot-across window, now that's a little different animal."

In 1977, Campbell was working for the Miami Glass Co. First Christian Church contacted the company to do repair work after a storm damaged several of the building's historic stained glass windows. The company didn't want the job, but Campbell was interested in the project. He had done smaller stained glass windows, but never anything of the church's size before.

"It was a learning process. The church was very patient with me," Campbell said. "I learned a lot on that job."

Campbell started repairing and releading the large stained glass on his own. The storm had blown out and broken several of the panels. Plus, there was a lot of restoration to be done on the historic windows, which had been around since the church was built in 1901. It was a lot for one man to do, and at one point Campbell enlisted his wife to help him refire and paint the glass. She even traveled to Kansas City to take classes in the art of stained glass restoration.

"I wouldn't have had any career in church restoration if it hadn't been for that job," Campbell said. "It gave me the experience to continue."

The work launched Campbell's career in church restoration.

However, around 1994 Campbell was forced to retire. He had contracted ocular histoplasmosis, which robbed him of most his center-field vision and depth perception. Campbell was told he got the disease from pigeon droppings, which were plentiful in the eaves and bell towers of churches. He settled into a new career selling linens to nursing homes and assumed he wouldn't take a restoration job again.

Enter Loren Smith, who co-chairs the property committee at First Christian Church. Smith had initially hired Campbell to repair the church's windows 32 years ago. Last December, Smith started looking for someone to repair the windows after they had been damaged by vandals with BB guns. Smith first contacted Campbell to do the repair work, but was disappointed to learn he had retired. After checking around with some other glass companies, Smith was having a hard time finding anyone to take the job.

"There's not that many companies that do this type of repair work. Honestly, I just gave up trying to find someone," Smith said. "But I just had a suspicion, a hunch that Kenny would want to come back and do it again."

And Smith was right. After initially turning down the job, Campbell contacted Smith this past summer with a bid to do the restoration work.

"A long time ago, I worked on these windows without thinking about it," Campbell said. "It was just another job. But when I realized the shape the east window was in, it put this whole project in a different light."

It was a conclusion Campbell reached when Smith took him through the church last December. When Campbell inspected the stained glass, he realized BB holes were the least of the church's problems. Some of the windows were in serious danger, especially the east rose window.

After examining that large window, Campbell noticed there was a 4- to 6-inch gap showing daylight. Taking hold of the window's center ring, he could move the glass about 3 feet to either side. He feared any storm with a strong east wind would easily take out the east window. Campbell said the window most likely could not be reproduced. It would have been a tragic loss for the church and the community, he said.

"To see a big old window do that is pretty scary," Smith said. "And there's a lot of value and history in that window. When the sun comes in from the east, it's very beautiful inside the church on Sunday morning."

Observing the dire condition of the east rose window changed Campbell's mind and motivated him to come out of retirement.

"There wasn't anyone in the immediate area capable of saving this window, and we didn't have a lot of time," Campbell recalls. "I had to ask myself, 'Am I going to watch this window land in the street, or am I going to just do this job?' I didn't want to see something that old and preserved for so long, destroyed. It's very hard to describe how much danger that window was in."

With a lot work, Campbell has been able to secure the original glass and reinforce the window's structure so that it doesn't sway. Over the summer and early fall, he has also repaired other broken windows, as well as resealing and cleaning many of them. Now, Campbell has a partner to help him with the restoration work and to guide him as he scales the scaffolding.

"It feels great to be up there again," Campbell said. "My partner always asks me how I did this by myself the first time. It's strange to think that I once did this all on my own."

It's nostalgic for Campbell to return to the church that started his career.

"It feels a little funny knowing that it was the job that started me off. And it's probably my last big restoration job. After this, I'm going to retire from climbing on scaffolding. I might take on some more jobs, but I'll let Justin (his partner) do a lot of the work, and I'll just oversee them."

Campbell said it's a shame that modern church design has gone away from large stained glass. Cost, energy efficiency, and lack of skilled craftsmen have lead to this decline, he speculates. The large, colorful windows of First Christian Church are a dying breed.

"I just love the old churches," Campbell said. "I think they're a thing of the past."


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