The 'Hearse Queen' likes her ride

9:15:42 AM CDT - Thursday, September 09, 2004

By Melissa Lacey

Life is too short to drive a boring car. That's Glenda Campbell's motto. And if you saw her collection of cars, you'd know why.

Glenda Campbell
While Glenda Campbell loves driving a hearse, she and her husband, Steve, also own a 2004 Mini Cooper along with their four hearses, a Corvette, a Thunderbird and two Harleys.

Photo by Inside WSU

Campbell is office manager in the Computer Aided Three-Dimensional Interactive Applications (CATIA) lab in the National Institute for Aviation Research. She handles administrative duties like paperwork, class enrollment and phone inquiries, and has done so since 1996.

And every day for the past year-and-a-half, Campbell has driven a blue 1988 Buick LeSabre Superior hearse to WSU.

"It's like driving the biggest station wagon you can imagine," she says. "Hearses handle beautifully and ride like a dream."

She and her husband, Steve, like hearses so much they own four.

"We have always driven big cars," says Campbell, citing a previously owned 1973 Cadillac limousine, for example. "We've always liked and been interested in hearses. It was just a natural progression."

It all started one Sunday about four years ago when the Campbells spotted a 1991 maroon Mercury hearse for sale at K-15 Auto in Derby.

"We turned around and went back to look at it," she says. It was a first-call service car, the kind used to pick up bodies and take them to funeral homes.

"We bought it a couple days later," she says.

First-call cars are typically converted station wagons that also can be used as backup hearses or for carrying flowers. They are the workhorse of the funeral industry, says Campbell. Traditional hearses only carry caskets and are well-kept, with lower miles.

That hearse is no longer part of the Campbells' collection. It was totaled in their driveway when another car rammed into it after skidding on some snow and ice. But the mishap didn't deter the Campbells. In addition to her Buick, the couple owns a 23-foot 1973 gray Cadillac Miller Meteor, a white 1976 Cadillac S & S and a black 1983 Mercury Thacker another first-call car.

"The Mercury is my husband's work car," she says. He uses it to haul tools, wood, lawn equipment, whatever. "It's just like a truck."

Glenda Campbell
Glenda Campbell drives her 1988 Buick LeSabre Superior hearse every day to work at WSU.

Photo by Melissa Lacey

Campbell says she and her husband understand that some people do not share the same affinity for hearses that they do, and they have received mixed reactions. When they participated in their first car show two years ago, some people walked by shaking their heads in disapproval. Others were curious.

"People just want to know what it looks like inside," she says. "Some have never seen the inside of a hearse before.

"In no way are we trying to be disrespectful," she adds. "We drive them for the beauty of the car and the fact that they're big and comfortable and you can haul a lot of stuff in them," says Campbell.

Hearse coaches and service cars are typically custom-made, she says. Just like casket interiors, hearses are detailed with elegant upholstery and curtains. Special touches are added by the coach dealers. Ornate objects and images are carved or stitched into the wall panels.

"My white '76 has angels carved on the sides and back door," she says. "It has special upholstery with horse-drawn carriages on it."

Beautiful details aside, some people cannot shake the uneasy feelings they have around hearses. Campbell's own son, Josh, 23, won't ride in a hearse.

"There's a stigma attached," she says. "People ask, 'Don't you think it's creepy?' I say, 'No.' Nobody ever died in a hearse."

Campbell is so comfortable in her hearse that when the weather is mild, she sometimes takes her daily nap in the car in the campus parking lot. There's plenty of room to stretch her 5-foot frame out in the hearse. She just has to be sure to crack a door, since the back of the car has no interior door handles and the windows don't roll down.

Now a part of "the hearse community," the Campbells have made friends with other hearse enthusiasts. An outing last summer brought about one dozen hearses from around the Midwest to Lake Afton for the day. Glenda Campbell received the nickname "Hearse Queen" from that group. The couple even operates a hearse merchandise Web site. The site features T-shirts and earrings for hearse aficionados.

In 2002, the Campbells took their 1973 Cadillac to New Orleans' Halloween festival. Parking a 23-foot hearse would have been a challenge at their French Quarter hotel, but the manager provided a special spot right in front, complete with protective barricades.

"The people in New Orleans love their hearses and appreciate them more than any other city I've ever seen," she says.

In addition to hearses, the Campbells' other nonboring vehicles include a 2004 Mini Cooper, a 1978 Corvette, a 1960 Thunderbird and two Harley-Davidson motorcycles. With all these vehicles, you'd need a big garage, right?

Right. So the Campbells moved into a decommissioned fire station in south Wichita about six months ago. The single bay that once housed a fire engine can now fit two of the longer hearses, two smaller cars and the motorcycles.

So, which model of hearse would Glenda Campbell choose to carry her to her own funeral? Believe it or not, the answer is none. The Campbells both wish to be cremated.

"New Orleans is my favorite place in the world," she says. "If I go first, Steve is to take my ashes to New Orleans and trickle me along Bourbon Street. The way it is down there, they'll never even notice."

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