Bob Campos - Construction Businessman
How can one man's accomplishments empower his community?
Bob Campos-"El Jefe"
Bob Campos was born on Feb. 5, 1938, in South Omaha to Mexican immigrants, Zeniado and Trini Campos. He is the fourth of five children, and lived in a one-room house near 23rd and U streets. At age eight, he began working at a grocery store holding doors open for people and picking up scrap metal for a little extra cash. Campos, his parents, and his two older brothers, all worked at the packing house. He continued going to school as he worked. Due to family circumstances, in 1954, after his sophomore year at South High School, he decided to drop out and join the military. At 15, Campos tried to join the Marines Corp. The Marines discovered he was underage, and told him to stay in school. He did not listen.
At 16, after seeing a sign pointing to the U.S. Coast Guard, he again lied about his age and this time successfully enlisted in the United States Coast Guard, as a minor. He was assigned to a couple of different places until he was sent to and settled in Portland, Maine, where he met his future wife, Barbara Flaherty. They married in 1958, in Portland, and were together for 57 years until her death on Nov. 8, 2015. The couple had three children together: Jerry, Bob, and Theresa, four grandchildren, and five great grandchildren.
Campos returned to Omaha in 1958, where he worked as a laborer for Kiewit Construction Company. Faced with almost losing his job because of a poor work ethic, he began working harder to keep his job. He remained with Kiewit for quite some time before leaving to join the U.S. Postal Service. He was not there long before returning to construction, hoping to be a carpenter’s union apprentice. Campos was denied multiple times because he is Mexican American, but continued to work hard towards his goal. He worked for Kiewit and Sides Construction for 15 years. He started Campos Construction on Jan. 1, 1977. In 1999, he shut down his business for good, but kept serving his community.
Campos' story follows a long history of immigrant families coming to America and working hard to make their mark on society. South Omaha is a diverse area of many different ethnic groups who work to try and carve out their life in America.
Video: 5-minute video interviewing Bob Campos in 2016 about his life and giving back to the community.
"I grew up with Bohemians..."
South Omaha has long been described as a melting pot. People from all over the world with many ethnic backgrounds--Czech (Bohemian), Polish, Jewish, Irish, Mexican, Italian, and others--moved because of available jobs in the meatpacking plants. The meatpacking industry was growing, causing these groups to flood South Omaha so quickly. Due to the massive growth, the area was given the name “Magic City”. The work was intense and laborious, especially during harsh weather, and accidents resulting in injury were common. The grueling work helped bring together the different immigrant communities, which Bob Campos experienced firsthand. Through his education at Assumption--a Bohemian parochial school for elementary and junior high students--and working at the meatpacking plants with family, Campos made connections that bridged communities. These relationships early in life brought him his first construction jobs, and made him sympathetic to other communities.
(Photo: Original Assumption Catholic Church in South Omaha)
"...and that is what I did."
When Bob Campos started to work for Sides Construction, he wanted to be a carpenter. He tried to apply to be a union apprentice, but was rejected three times because he was Mexican American. After finally getting into the union, he took a leadership role. He made sure that three Hispanic carpenters were allowed into the program the next time the company was hiring. On Dec. 28, 1976, he quit his job at Sides after 15 years. He moved around to four construction companies between 1959 -1976. The next year, on Jan. 1, 1977, he founded Campos Construction Company, which became the largest minority–owned construction company in Nebraska.
Before starting his construction company, Bob Campos had $500 and a 10-year-old pickup truck. His first job was putting in a basement bedroom for a Bohemian friend that he grew up with. The friend had referred him to two other friends from childhood, and this was the beginning of the strong relationship Campos formed with Bohemians. His old boss at Sides Construction asked him if he was interested in a job at Bellevue East in Bellevue, to bring the school up to the fire safety code. Because of this, he had the opportunity to work on South High School and North High School, both million dollar projects. His business grew from there, causing him to hire more workers to keep up with demand. He had the opportunity to renovate three U.S presidents’ homes; he painted Abraham Lincoln’s home in Illinois, worked on Herbert Hoover’s home in Iowa, and Harry Truman’s home in Missouri. He built the Gerald R. Ford Conservation Center at the Ford Birthplace in Omaha, and he did the finish work on the west sky boxes at Memorial Stadium. In 1999, he closed the doors to his successful company.
(Image: Business Card for Campos Construction, which was in business from 1977-1999)
"I'm Not Done Yet"
Throughout his life, Robert "Bob" Campos learned to take pride in his work. He still serves the South Omaha community, and is creating a legacy that will be a benefit to future generations. Because of his commitment to his community, he leased land in 2003 to build a soccer field. He maintained and tended it for 10 years, mowing and caring for the property and grounds. In 2013, the city took over the fields, and named the grounds after Campos. The soccer fields give kids a low-cost space to play soccer and enjoy each other. Through the P.A.C.E. (Police Athletics for Community Engagement) league, kids can connect with police officers in their community.
Campos also helps students in the Omaha community through programs like the Grassroots Hispanic Leadership program, Omaha Public Schools, different scholarships, and mentoring countless youth. As a result of his service, he has been given numerous awards, including the Champion of Small Business in 1993, Order of the Tower from the University of Nebraska Omaha, and induction into the South High Alumni Hall of Fame in 2001. Campos was the first Omahan to receive the Ohtli Award, given by the Mexican Government in 2001.
Despite facing discrimination his entire life, Bob Campos never stopped working for his community. His legacy is left in buildings throughout Omaha, in the Latino/a community of South Omaha, and in the lives of the students he has mentored. When asked how he wants to be remembered, he simply replied, “I’m not done yet.”
Mexican immigration to the Great Plains can be traced back centuries to the Spanish exploration of the region. Since then, groups of Mexican and Mexican American immigrants have moved in and out of the region, following jobs and opportunity. In the early 20th century, large numbers of Mexican laborers moved north to work in the sugar beet industry in western Nebraska and eastern Colorado. Additionally, as the railroad began moving through the Midwest, many laborers moved into Omaha, Nebraska. By the time Robert Campos’s parents moved to Omaha, the railroad and the meatpacking industries both provided many opportunities for people looking for work. Although his family was certainly not the only Mexican family in South Omaha, they were a small portion of an area full of predominantly Eastern European immigrants. This meant complex cross-cultural experiences that shaped the life of Bob Campos. For example, he was baptized at the Mexican parish in South Omaha, Our Lady of Guadalupe, but he attended parochial school at the predominantly Bohemian parish of Assumption. In many ways, Campos’s experiences match those of many immigrants living in South Omaha. Campos credits his multicultural upbringing as part of his business success. Indeed, his first three jobs were all for Bohemian families that he grew up with.
As Campos was opening his business in 1977, the Latino/a population in South Omaha was just about to expand dramatically. By 1990, the Latino/a population was the fastest growing demographic in Nebraska and maintained the total population while the white and Black populations were shrinking. The Latino/a population can even be credited for Nebraska’s ability to maintain its congressional seats at that time. In 2016, Omaha mirrors the United States in its expanding numbers of immigrants from Latin America. However, Omaha still lacks political representation from the Latino/a community. Campos once said of the lack of representation, “We’ve always put other people’s signs up. We never put our own signs up.” Campos has led seminars and supported organizations like the Grassroots Leadership Development Program in order to change this. Campos made important strides for his community by providing representation at the top level of business, but one successful minority-owned businessman is not enough. While he was able to use his success and influence to make a difference in his community, more leadership is needed for fair representation in local and state politics.
Written by Grace Brown, a graduate student at University of Nebraska- Lincoln.
2016 MIHV Project
Promotional flyer for Campos Construction Company featuring awards.
"By doing this program my whole perspective on Omaha has changed. I once thought it was an old boring city but now I realize that important and interesting things happened in it. The program made me realize that you need to think twice before you call something boring like I did with Omaha."
- Niko C.
"Through this program I appreciate Omaha more, coming from California I would kind of ignore Omaha, not really thinking about all the history here. I had no idea Robert Kennedy came and spoke here. On this historical journey I learned more in two weeks than I probably would have in a whole month and I am grateful for that."
- Sophia G.
"In this program I enjoyed when we actually got out and found out about our person. Our subject was still alive so we were able to interview him. The program also inspired me to keep learning about Omaha and my community."
Campos, Bob. Personal Interview. 18 July 2016.
Gonzalez, Cindy. “Mexican Consulate Honors Campos.” Omaha World Herald 20 Oct. 2001. Print.
Grace, Erin. “Hispanics Urged to Seek City Leadership Posts.” Omaha World Herald 5 Feb. 1999. Print.
Kelly, Michael. “He’s Building New Leaders.” Omaha World Herald Print.
Olson, Chris. “Campos gets Golden Spike Chamber Honor.” Omaha World Herald 2 Jun. 1998. Print.
Reilly, Mike. “Minority Contractor Hiring a Tough Job, but Gains Made.” Omaha World Herald 27 Apr. 1993. Print.
Schinker, Nick. “Campos life filled with meeting, beating challenges.” New Horizons 4 Nov. 2001. Print.
“Omaha Contractor to Represent Minority Business at White House.” Omaha World Herald Print.
“UNO to Graduate 1000 Students.” MBJ 27 Apr. 2001. Print.
“Small-Business Achievements to be Honored.” Omaha World Herald 7 May 1993. Print.
Arbelaez, Maria. “Religions and Community: Mexican Americans of South Omaha (1900-1980).” Office of Latino/Latin American Studies (OLLAS) 18 Apr. 2007. Print.
Garza, James A. “The Long History of Mexican Immigration to the Rural Midwest.” Journal of the West 45.4 (Fall 2006): 57-64.
Rochin, Refugio I. and Marcelo E. Siles. “Latinos in Nebraska: A Socio-Historical Profile.” Julian Samora Research Institute Aug. 1996. Print.
Kastrick, Gary. “South Omaha Tour.” Omaha Public Schools. South Omaha, NE. 20 Jul. 2016. Oral Presentation.
Research combined by Niko C., Sophia G., and Britney S.
Niko C., Sophia G., & Britney S. are students at Bryan and Central High Schools. They attended Beveridge and Bryan for middle school.