Alexander James Campbell was awarded the Carnegie Medal after making a heroic drowning rescue nearly a century ago, and his actions continue to receive accolades by his family and the Mt. Sterling, Ill., community where he lived on his 240-acre farm.
Campbell was awarded the Carnegie Medal in 1920 for rescuing a 15-year-old girl from a creek while the girl and others were on a picnic. An exhibit featuring the medal was put on display at the Whistle Stop Depot Museum, which is on the grounds of the Brown County (Ill.) Fairgrounds, and coincided with the Aug. 4-9 dates of the fair. In addition to the medal, the exhibit included the Hero Fund’s award certificate and a copy of its special agent’s 1920 “case minute” on the rescue. The timing of the exhibit also fell in line with the anniversary of the rescue act, which took place on Aug. 8, 1918.
On that day, Campbell, 69, was near the bank of Crooked Creek about 10 miles northeast of Mt. Sterling when he heard screaming and became aware of the girl’s plight. The girl, Bernice M. Kirkham, and another girl, both non-swimmers, were struggling in water eight feet deep about 20 feet from the closer bank. Campbell entered the creek and waded and swam to Bernice. Bernice got a hold of him and submerged him to the bottom of the creek, but he was able to swim five feet toward the bank while under water. Another man entered the creek and assisted Campbell and Bernice to shallow water, but the other girl drowned.
When awarded the medal for his actions, Campbell informed the Hero Fund that he was not interested in a monetary grant. A later biographical account said that the medal “carried national publicity with it, which in the tranquil precincts of Brown County was a source of pride to all. Many medals have accrued in the family since, but none has had the impact of this one.”
Campbell’s great-grandson, John Campbell of Redmond, Wash., said he has heard the story of the rescue many times, but that it never gets old. “I learn something new every time I hear it,” he said.
The medal was passed down through the family after Campbell’s death in 1944 at age 95. John Campbell gained possession of the medal in 2007 and this year decided to give it to the Brown County Historical Society. “It was so nice to be able to do this for our family,” he said. “I know it would mean a lot to my father and his brothers.”
Margaret Scranton, chair of the depot museum and member of the historical society, assembled the exhibit, finding out in the process that her great-aunt, Meribah Clark, was the person who nominated Campbell for the award. “I came to the bottom (of the Commission’s case report) and saw that it was submitted by (Clark), our dearest great aunt, who was responsible for gathering, writing, and editing wonderful Brown County history books,” Scranton said. “What a treat for me!”
“We treasure having the story and medal back ‘home,’” Scranton said. “It is so rewarding to see how appreciative the family is.”—Melissa A. McLaughlin, Case Investigator