John Campbell reflects on nontraditional journey to wealth management role

December 18, 2019

He draws from his past to shape his present and future as a leader at U.S. Bank.

Sometimes when you get past the conventional trappings of a successful banker, you find a person who had to overcome unimaginable adversity to get where they are today.

John Campbell, senior vice president and senior wealth strategist for U.S. Bank Private Wealth Management, is a graduate of Yale University and has a law degree from Tulane University. He came to U.S. Bank in 2014 with impeccable professional experience, including stints at Merrill Lynch and AXA Equitable, as well as positions at prestigious law firms in New York City and Atlanta.

He’s an accomplished leader in Private Wealth Management and has received several honors throughout his career, including most recently being named a Business Leader of Color by Chicago United, a nonprofit that works to achieve parity in economic opportunity for people of color by advancing multiracial leadership in business diversity, corporate governance and executive level management. 

But despite that success, Campbell had a childhood few would envy. He was born in Taiwan to a Taiwanese mother and an American soldier – an Amer-Asian with mixed African American heritage – so he wasn’t considered a Taiwan citizen. His father had returned to the United States shortly after Campbell was born. Because he lacked citizenship, Campbell had no access to an education or a future, further marginalizing him. 

“I always felt like an outcast, like I didn’t belong,” Campbell said. “I started running around in a little gang of outcasts; well, we weren’t really a gang. We were mischievous and pretended we were the guys on Rat Patrol, a TV series in the 1960s about a patrol group of Allied soldiers in World War II, intent on disrupting the German supply chain. In our make-believe world, that meant the local street merchants, who did not take kindly to our ‘heroic’ exploits.”

With an already limited future ahead of Campbell, his mother, Maya Li, became concerned that if he continued on this path and couldn’t get an education, he would end up in an even worse place in his life. So, when he was 7 years old, his mother located his father through the U.S. Embassy, packed Campbell’s bags and sent him to the U.S. – by himself – to meet his father for the first time. Little did Campbell know at the time that he would lose all contact with his mother, until he would find her (and his siblings) again some 28 years later.

Campbell spoke only Taiwanese when he arrived in the U.S., so it was difficult to communicate with anyone. His father, John Sr., was in the military at the time, and when Campbell met him in Louisiana, he was about to be redeployed to Hawaii and couldn’t take his son with him. It was during the Vietnam War, and none of his father’s family would take him, at least in part due to racism, because Campbell was half-Asian.

His father reluctantly put him in a Louisiana orphanage, Sager Brown, which was founded in 1867 by Methodists for children of slaves orphaned during the Civil War. It was here that Campbell learned English, doggedly practicing between lessons with an old Funk & Wagnall dictionary as a pillow and a Gideons Bible he’d been given by an army chaplain. His teachers there were strict, the conditions harsh and some of his duties were abhorrent, especially for a young child.  

“Right next to the orphanage was an old Colored Methodist Episcopal Church with a dilapidated cemetery,” Campbell said. Because of the high water table there, bodies were entombed above ground. The materials for entombment didn’t hold up well and began to decay over time.  

“Our job at the orphanage was to clean and maintain the cemetery. It was then during a cleaning detail that I began asking myself, ‘What is life? Is there something more than this?’”  During this period Campbell found comfort and hope from a passage he stumbled upon in the Hebrew Bible: When my father and mother forsake me, then the Lord will take care of me. (Psalm 27:10). He said, “Also, what it meant to me was, I was of greater value than I thought I was at the time.”

Fortunately for Campbell, there was definitely something more to his life. He learned English, moved in with his father and future step-mother after almost three years at the orphanage, and after completing his elementary and secondary education in Louisiana, was ready to go off to college.

Campbell applied to only one college of choice: Yale University, which has an acceptance rate of less than 7%. He was accepted and went on to get a bachelor’s degree with a major in philosophy and minor in psychology. He then went on to earn a law degree from Tulane Law School.  

In his last semester at Tulane, Campbell was able to find his mother, Maya Li, again, through an article published about him in the World Journal, an international Chinese language newspaper, about a son in search of his mother. After 28 years of separation, Maya Li, who was now living in California, met Campbell again at his law school graduation ceremony. It was an emotional reunion that led to a rich relationship, including trips back to Taiwan together, that lasted until Maya Li died in 2010. 

After Campbell graduated from Tulane, he spent more than two decades in law and finance. He was hired at U.S. Bank in 2014 by Joe Weidenbach, Chicago Market Leader for U.S. Bank Private Wealth Management. 

“John is an indispensable member of our client team in Chicago,” said Weidenbach. “He displays gracefulness and consideration in his dealings with other members of the team. At the same time, he exhibits a wealth-planning prowess that is both crucial and central to the lives of our clients.”

Campbell poses at an award ceremony with his wife Naomi, Weidenbach and colleague Mark Jordahl

Campbell also has been a leader in diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, being a part of the national task forces for his division and the company as a whole. 

“John is a true brand ambassador for U.S. Bank Private Wealth Management in the diversity, equity and inclusion arena,” Weidenbach said. “In his dealings with teammates and the public at large, he is in tune with the importance that it plays in society. John walks the talk.”

That work is important for Campbell; he wants to help lift others up. “It’s not just about having a more diverse workplace. We need to make sure everyone is dealt with equitably,” he said.

At the heart of everything Campbell does is his faith. It was where he found hope during the darkest days of his childhood and in adulthood. He and his wife, Naomi, are active in their church, where Campbell serves as an elder. The couple also recently became empty-nesters, after their three children had all moved out. So, Naomi went back to college and John spends more time on some of his passions, including Creole cooking and playing jazz saxophone.

Campbell said he’s often been asked if he’d change anything in his life, and despite his tough upbringing, his answer is no. “I don’t think I would change anything, because I would change in the process. I’m not sure how compelling that other person would have been. It’s not just where you are, but what you came through to get to where you are. 

Through these experiences I have learned to appreciate the inherent value in everyone and the importance of appealing to and bringing out the best in others.”

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