In this week’s UCOH Blog, we debut “Getting To Know…,” a new series of articles written by UCOH’s own Mike Gadell. On every fourth Thursday of the month, Mike will publish an article that profiles a member of the UCOH spiritual community. At UCOH, we are blessed with a rich, spiritual community filled with loving people whose fascinating life stories are truly inspirational. Each month, Mike’s series will spotlight these stories to serve us all in deepening our appreciation for the beautiful souls planted right here alongside us in the spiritual family at Unity Church of the Hills.
Would it surprise you to learn that a UCOH member crashed a Corvette at the Sebring International Raceway in Florida, took a hotrod Volkswagen for joyrides, was a licensed glider pilot, and helped design Learjets? Would it further surprise you to learn that he’s 86 years old and a dedicated UCOH volunteer?
If you’ve ever attended the 9:25 a.m. Service, you may have noticed a six-foot-four-inch, easygoing man hanging out in the foyer along with his wife Kay, taking care of details that no one else would think of—arranging the cabinets, creating a place for newcomers to discard the backing from their name tags, ensuring there are water bottles in the front pews for the speakers. That would be John Camden, a veritable Renaissance man of UCOH.
John’s parents both taught at Cornell University, in Ithaca, New York—his mother in interior design and fine arts, and his father in sculpture. The senior Camden’s work won the competition for designing and sculpting the two statues that adorned the U.S. Federal Building at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. The names of the prize-winning sculptures? “Peace” and “Unity.”
He followed in his father’s footsteps in attending Culver Academy, a military prep school in Indiana, where he was a member of the Culver Cavalry’s Black Horse Troop, one of the nation’s elite high school horsemanship groups, which is usually invited to ride in the Presidential Inauguration Parade. One of six classmates still living, he says he’s thinking about attending his 70th class reunion, coming up later this year.
After graduating from Culver, he was accepted to Brown University, in Providence, Rhode Island, where he completed his foundational courses in two years and then transferred to the school that had been calling his name—General Motors Institute in Flint, Michigan (now known as Kettering University).
John knew from childhood that he was to be a mechanical engineer. His grandfather, owner of a boiler company in Buffalo, New York, sent him to welding training at Lincoln Electric in Cleveland. After returning to Buffalo and using his new skills in his grandfather’s plant, he eventually discovered that the nickel-clad pressure vessels he worked on were used in manufacturing atomic bombs. But, his real love was cars.
He said that in grade school and high school he and his buddies had “fooled around” with cars, and one of his classmates had a Model T Ford—one of the few that were still mobile—and “it consumed a lot of our time to keep it running.” He added that the car “helped us find dates regularly and enjoy life.”
The summer after completing his two years at Brown, John worked for an import car dealership in Greenwich, Connecticut, near New York City. At that time the Volkswagen wasn’t very popular, and factories and wholesalers insisted that if a dealer wanted, for example, a Jaguar, they had to accept a VW along with it. The result was a back lot full of unsold Volkswagens.
In 1950, John needed transportation from New York to begin his classes at General Motors Institute in the Detroit area, so the dealership offered him a VW for $1,050 just to get it off their lot. He bought it and drove the 24-horsepower car to his new school. He said, “The top speed was 62 miles-per-hour, so I learned how to tailgate big trucks. But the fuel economy was fantastic!”
He and his buddies soon discovered that the VW body was on a platform that was held on by 24 bolts. “So on a weekend we’d find a snowbank, turn the car up on its side, unscrew the bolts to remove the body, and put a milk crate on the chassis as a seat. Because of the power-to-weight ratio, it went like the hammers of hell! Come Sunday evening, we’d put it back together, but we never bothered to put all the bolts back in. We did some crazy things.”
John realized his potential as a mechanical engineer at General Motors Institute. Needing only two years of coursework to complete his degree, he says, “I liked it so much that I stayed for the full four years.”
GM invited him to work on the design of the early, six-cylinder Corvette, a task that excited the young engineer. In 1956 he even drove a Corvette in the endurance race at Sebring, Florida. “I didn’t finish, though, because the brakes overheated, the brake fluid boiled, the pedal went to the floor, and I went through a fence at the end of a straightaway. I still have the scars to attest to it!”
John also helped with reworking the first ’56 Bel Air coupe with a V-8 engine. It set a Pike’s Peak speed record. “That’s the instant Chevrolet burst on the scene. Everybody wanted a Chevrolet, and that was probably the most fun that I got into, ever.”
In 1957, when GM Corporate made the decision to no longer participate in racing as a marketing strategy, John decided to go out on his own. He opened a speed shop in Utica, Michigan, where he and his partners supercharged Chevy engines and put them in small foreign cars, working with “speed gurus” from Chevrolet. John eventually went to work as chief engineer for Borg Warner, in Ithaca, New York, designing industrial chain drives.
A man named Fred Geschwender, in Lincoln, Nebraska, decided to put a propeller drive on a 460 Ford engine and mount it in an airplane, but he needed a propeller reduction gear. Naturally, he called John Camden to design it. Management worried about liability issues, so “we had to claim that the engine would be used as a grinder for hay, or something like that, so they wouldn’t know what we intended to do.” When Geschwender kept adding heavier, expensive parts to the engine of the plane, called the “Funk 23-B,” John realized the project “wouldn’t fly,” so he again formed his own company—PENCO, for Performance Engineering Company—this time in a rented building on the Lincoln airport.
After giving a 1977 talk in Michigan about adapting automobile engines for use in airplanes, John was queried by an interested listener, who turned out to be the chief engineer for Mooney Aircraft, located in Kerrville, Texas, who invited him to move south and use a spare hangar at the Mooney site. This and other aviation connections—John owned and flew his own Piper Tri-Pacer and was a licensed glider pilot—also resulted in his eventually being hired by Bill Lear as chief mechanical engineer on a project for Learjet.
One of the former GM body stylists, Robert Cumberford, and John had dreams of building their own custom vehicle, but the startup’s funding (provided by one of the founders of Data General) ran out soon after they began producing cars.
John first attended UCOH with Kay Jackson, who soon became his wife in a 2009 ceremony officiated by Rev. Steve Bolen.
One of his most recent fun projects was to design and build a Soap Box Derby-style downhill racer for UCOH member Alice Gardiner. The event was an adaptation for adults of the traditional Soap Box Derby contest for youth. John brought his design experience and mechanical skills to bear and produced a polished aluminum car, custom fit for Alice, who piloted her three-wheeled “Mini-Vette” at the Marble Falls event in June 2016 and won the “Best of Show” award.
John’s skills aren’t limited to cars, though. He’s known around UCOH as a woodworker, having built some of the wooden accessories we take for granted around the church—like the box for the singing bowl, donation boxes, and stands for bulletins near the sanctuary doors. Also, just for fun, he has produced some beautiful stained glass works that hang in their Pflugerville home, highlighting the many pieces of wooden furniture he also has built.
When asked what keeps him healthy and vital at age 86, John Camden answered with quite an understatement. He said simply, “I like to do things.”