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Trains, smiles and God

by BILL BULEY
Staff Writer | February 28, 2024 1:08 AM

SPIRIT LAKE — As usual, Helen Campilli is smiling as she chats with a customer at C's Train & Antique Shop.

She rings up the transaction, offers the woman her change, and then asks a question: “Can I give you a hug?”

Of course.

They embrace, and Campilli turns her attention to the toddler in the woman’s arms. There is laughter.

“Thank you folks, very much,” Campilli says. 

Then, she adds, “God bless you.”

“God bless you,” the woman responds.

Then, the cozy store is empty again on a Tuesday afternoon.

This is how Helen Campilli is celebrating her 99th birthday — working, as she wants it, in her Maine Street shop.

A large balloon says “Make a Wish” and a bouquet of flowers rests on the desk. Otherwise, there’s no sign of a birthday celebration. That was a couple days ago at the hardware store next door.

“We already had a party,” Campilli said.

Still, everyone in the community seems to know, as soon the phone rings and it’s someone wishing her happy birthday.

At 99, one might think the woman lovingly known as “Mrs. C." would retire. Sell the shop. Take it easy.

That would be very much unlike her.

A woman of strong Christian faith, she loves what she does too much to quit. Retirement is not something she plans to do. Ever.

“I’m going to die with my boots on,” she said, laughing.

She and her late husband, Joe Campilli, opened C's Train & Antique Shop about 30 years ago in Spirit Lake. Lionel trains are its bread and butter, but hundreds of collectibles, comic books, pocket watches, statues, lamps and ornaments are spread out over three rooms.

But business hasn’t been great, she said.

“Terrible,” Campilli said. “Kids don’t want trains anymore. Only little ones. Teenagers, they think they’re not worth picking up.”

And it’s the economy, too.

“Nobody wants to spend their money because they don’t know what’s going to happen,” she said.

Yet, Campilli remains positive, upbeat, dedicated to being friendly and brightening the days of those who stop in any Tuesday through Saturday. 

“I love it. I enjoy meeting people. It keeps me out of mischief,” she said, laughing.

“You’ve got to be optimistic,” she continued. “If you’re going to be crabby all day and not be nice, you’re not going to live very long. I try to be nice to everybody.”

Is it that easy to be nice to everybody?

“It is,” Campilli said. “I like everybody.”

The 30-gallon blood donor was one of eight children raised on a farm in Ohio. She learned young the importance of hard work.

That’s why she isn’t a fan of smartphones. Campelli is troubled that everywhere she goes, people are looking down at their phones. It’s making kids soft and given them a need to be entertained.

“Any place you have to wait, the first thing they do is pick up their phone. I pick up a book,” she said.

Not that she is without a cell phone of her own, an old flip phone — in case of emergency. But she doesn’t bother to keep it within reach of her chair at work.

“It’s so important, it’s in my coat pocket,” Campelli said, laughing.

She is proud of her independence.

“I cook my own meals, clean my own house and raise my own plants,” she said. “I like what I’m doing. That's all I can say."

She drives her 1998 Chrysler about 10 miles each way between home and work. Still drives to doctor’s appointments and the grocery store. She goes to dinner with friends once a week. She gets mail for friends at the post office.

To keep her mind sharp, she does crossword puzzles and reads. She uses one word to explain the secret to her good health: “Moving.”

“I’m feeling good,” Campelli said. “The doctors tell me to go home and do what I’ve been doing.”

But, for all her efforts, for all her joy, she said it’s God who gets the credit. Not her. 

“I love the Lord, so I’m happy,” she said. “So far the Lord’s taken care of me.”

So she’ll keep greeting customers with a smile. Likely give them a hug. And when they leave, she’ll tell them, “God bless you.”

It’s just her way.

“I think that’s why God put me here,” she said.



    Helen Campilli talks on the phone at C's Train & Antique Shop in Spirit Lake on Tuesday.  
    Helen Campilli shares a hug with customers at C's Train & Antique Shop on Tuesday.  
    A nativity scene for sale sits on a shelf at C's Train & Antique Shop as Helen Campilli works in the background.  
    The front door to C's Train & Antique Shop in Spirit Lake.
 
 
    A Lionel train rests on the windowsill of C's Train & Antique Shop.