Voices of Experience: Veteran Camp Professionals Share Their Stories

by Dawn Swindle

From the very beginning, the camp experience has been unique — teaching lessons and creating community in a way that reaches almost everyone, and touches a camper's soul. Camp memories last a lifetime, and often grow stronger with time.

So what makes camp special? Some would argue that it's the combination of experiential education and sense of accomplishment; others might point to the authentic relationships that camps help foster — and this is all true. However, the people behind camp — the folks who work hard day in and day out to create intentional, beneficial programs — play a huge role in making camp a life-changing experience.

The camp professional is an integral part of the camp experience. As leaders, they are more than the people who order the food, hire the staff, and determine the schedule. They are the guiding light for the entire camp community. Their efforts and vision help carve the camp experience out of cabins, lakes, fields, and equipment. No one is born knowing intrinsically how to do this — it is a process and a journey.

Recently, ACA interviewed some longstanding camp professionals to discover what unique journeys shaped them and their view of the camp experience.

J. Grant Gerson 
Calamigos Star C Ranch, Agoura, California

J. Grant Gerson ran a primitive camp for the Los Angeles YMCA at Crystal Lake, and in 1947 he decided to leave and start his own camp. Without the funds to start a permanent camp, he decided to start a travel camp — the Calamigos Covered Wagon Travel Camp ran for two years.

After some searching, he found some property for sale at a ranch. He felt that it was a beautiful area for a camp — fifteen acres, a good well, and a phone number. He called the owner immediately, and made an offer. Liking the idea of a children's camp, the gentleman accepted the offer. And Calamigos Star C Ranch was born.

The name Calamigos had long been a favorite of Grant's. It was named after an exchange that happened between Captain Freemont Scott and an Indian chief. Scott was leading a group of settlers westward, and when his scout informed him that they were being followed, he asked to meet with the Indian chief. As a gift, he had the blacksmith make a necklace out of a leather strap and horseshoe nails. When Scott met the chief, he presented him with the settler's gift. The chief is reported to have said "How Calamigos," which meant, "Come as my brother, come as my friend."

Grant focused much of his programming around the Star Society program, which followed the five points of the camp motto and creed. Each of the five points on the star represented a tenant that campers were encouraged to follow each day. Called the five points of fellowship, they included reverence, loyalty, honesty, self-reliance, and sportsmanship. Campers who lived up to the tenants of the program were presented with a membership card and a necklace — similar to the one presented to the Indian chief — made of a leather strap and horseshoe nails.

Grant would love to open the Star Society program to anyone who is looking for something like this to incorporate into a camp or youth development program. He is willing to send information and feels that the basic premise can be adapted to fit any philosophy. "I don't even care if they change the name and take all the credit," he said. "It's just important to get it out there."

Note: Anyone wishing to contact Grant regarding the Star Society program may do so at P.O. Box 787, Agoura Hills, CA 91376.

June Gray
Camp Wawenock, Raymond, Maine

June Gray started her camp experience by attending band and church camps growing up in Virginia. She was introduced to Wawenock through Westhampton College of the University of Richmond, by professors and students who were affiliated from 1916 onward at Wawenock. In 1956, she arrived as an eighteen-year-old junior counselor and stayed. In 1963 she began living and working full-time at camp, and in 1971 she became the director.

Inspired by Lillian and Syd Ussher, owners and directors for over forty years at Wawenock, June learned how to be a camp director and run a business. "They instilled in me the importance of being involved with camping in the Maine Camp Foundation; ACA, New England; and ACA National," she said. She has been continually inspired by stalwart professionals — Jean McMullan, Carol Sudduth, and Peg Smith, specifically.

"Camping is such a personal experience, it comes from my inner being," June said. To her, camp is continually defined and redefined by the extended Wawenock family. She believes that we need to have a broad vision for camp — encompassing campers from all different cultural backgrounds. "What a gift it is to those of us who have the privilege of sharing the joy of the human spirit inherent in the camping profession," she said.

June believes that new camp directors should always be a student of life, and they need to put down the pencils and listen to children. She believes that NEGATIVISM grows fast to no avail, and IDEALISM works — albeit slowly — for good.

"Camp is like life: You get what you put into it, and get what you want out of it. Every person gets to give, and the challenge lies in defining the gift," she said. "I don't profess to know a lot about a lot of things; however, I have lived long enough to know that it is the quality of the journey in life that matters the most. I am humbled by my journey through my camp experience."

Mike and Sally Horner
Tom Sawyer Camp, Pasadena, California

Mike and Sally got started in camp by accident. At a friend's urging, they sent their son to a day camp in 1967. He was a curious and hyper child, and every day he would come home gushing about camp. "We found the magic in camp immediately," Mike said.

In 1973, Tom Sawyer Camp was having some financial difficulties. The owner passed away, and his son was looking for a buyer — but couldn't find any takers. Mike knew there was incredible potential there, so when they announced the camp was officially closing, he bought it.

During the second summer, he asked Sally to come in and run the camp office as a volunteer. In addition, they used her station wagon for transportation. By the next summer, she made herself the executive director.

About that time, they were looking for guidance and ways to be the best they could be. Having heard about ACA's Standards, Sally went to an ACA National Conference in Anaheim, California. She met many local people, and realized that although she knew a lot about camp from the parents' perspective, she really knew very little about running a camp.

"One thing that is very unique about the camp industry," she said, "is that it is very open. People are willing to share what they do, how to organize, etc. There are very few secrets."

After five years, they were proud to have a successful, healthy, and growing camp. "I knew it had tremendous potential," Mike said. "It is like the Rose Parade, the camp was an integral part of the community."

Camp has taught them many lessons. They made an immense number of friends in the camping business. Sally was invited to join Standards Board — and was the only day camp member when ACA wrote the standards for day camps.

Both feel it is critical for new counselors and directors to understand the importance of standards, and to be open to the help that ACA gives in terms of risk awareness. Camp grows through word of mouth, and requires a conscious effort to build parent relationships and a program that works. Success at Tom Sawyer Camp means that the kids and parents both love the camp experience.

"We have learned that there is a genuine goodness in the people involved with camping. They are very altruistic, and followthrough on what they say," Mike said.

"'I'll buy the camp' was the best dumbest thing I ever said."

Bob Gersten
Brant Lake Camp, Brant Lake, New York

Bob Gersten was almost born into camp. His uncle started Brant Lake Camp in 1916, and he spent his life there. He was a camper, a counselor, and a group head. By 1946, he became the assistant director. In 1950, he became the executive director and served in that position for fifty years. Aside from the three years he served in the Air Force, Bob never missed a day of camp.

One of the greatest lessons he learned from camp was to treat people fairly, honestly, and straightforwardly — and to have counselors who would do the same. Putting the campers first is critically important at Brant Lake Camp.

"Camp is a demanding career," Bob said. "It's so people oriented, and it's so important the way you treat people."

Safety and the welfare of the campers must come first. And the relationship, not only between counselors and campers, but also between the director and counselors, is important. "A camp is only as good as its counselors," he stated. "At Brant Lake, the staff are a close family, with group heads who have been there for twenty to forty years."

When reflecting on the whole experience of camp, Bob said he has had an opportunity to know many wonderful people — some of them he has known for forty to sixty years. Camp is all about tradition. And he believes that this tradition is the grounding force for the camp experience.

"People have to realize that as much time [as] I spent at camp, I was always an educator," he said. "I was a coach and dean of students, and [a] member of [the] board of education. I believe it was Harvard University President Elliot who said that camping is the only unique form of American education. I believe that — I believe that camping is the most important part of education."

Frank M. "Scotty" Washburn
Retired, YMCA Camps, Salem, Oregon

Frank M. "Scotty" Washburn enjoyed early childhood experiences at YMCA Camp Meehan on Spirit Lake in Portland, Oregon, at the foot of Mt. St. Helens. After serving in the Air Force, he continued his love of camping and pursued a professional career in the YMCA.

In 1948, Harold Davis, director for the Portland YMCA's Camping Services, bought Scot ty his f irst ACA student membership. He attended his first Oregon Section (now called ACA, Oregon Trail) Spring Workshop at the Salem YMCA's Camp Silver Creek. "It was my first time to participate in a group of professional camp people from other agencies," he said. "My entire camping experience had been in a primitive, high mountain, and physically demanding setting."

In 1952, he served as a youth program director of Camp Silver Creek in Salem, Oregon. He then served as the director of Adult Program, City-Wide Membership Campaigns — Personal Recruitment and Training, and as an associate metropolitan executive for financial management.

Scotty served as the ACA National President from 1968 to 1970. His presidency saw many changes, especially in to the area of diversity. From 1968 to 1985, Scotty served as the executive director for YMCA Blue Ridge Assembly near Asheville, North Carolina.

"It took some time to appreciate the depth, breadth, and values of the 'camping experience,'" he said. "I didn't know it all or how to do it best. It took twenty years, and the story continues."

Jean McMullan
Alford Lake Camp, Hope, Maine

Jean McMullan's earliest experience with camp began as a child, when her mother headed the waterfront at a Girl Scout camp. By the age of ten, she had decided she was going to run her own camp some day.

After trying to get a camp job unsuccessfully as a young teenager, she decided to start her own camp. Jean ran a half-day camp program for twenty-one three- and four-year-olds on the campus of the university where her father worked. That summer taught her two important lessons — first, that seventy-five cents per week wouldn't cover her graham cracker costs; and second, that she needed help. After asking a close friend to be her cocounselor, she ran a ten-week program. Jean was only fifteen-years-old at the time.

Having already conquered day camp and still unable to find a camp job, she began her own resident camp at age sixteen. The head of the English department, who was also her friend's father, lent her the use of some land. She borrowed money and bought tents from Sears. She called her camp "Hundred Acres Farm Camp," and ran her first program for eleven boys, ages nine to eleven.

Finally, on her seventeenth birthday, she received a phone call that she had been hired by a camp in Colorado Springs. This began her official career in organized camping.

After working for other camps for years, Jean decided she wanted to run her own camp again. Her husband helped her find Alford Lake Camp, but it was not for sale. The director was seventy-six and looking to transfer the camp to someone, but preferred to transfer it to a member of the camp family. After three years of discussing possibilities, Jean and her husband bought the camp in secret. After the first year, it was announced that the camp was being handed off to a member of the camp family. "It was quite a trick," Jean said. Alford Lake Camp became home.

Jean was inspired and amazed by the history of camp. And she realized that she has lived a lot of the history of camp. Her parents let her begin and follow her dreams early because they could see the magic of the camp experience.

"The whole essence of camping isn't pretend: It's a place to practice the real skills of living," she said. And new directors should take heart, "be true to yourself, and not be afraid to live to your values. And, for goodness sakes, don't preach. Children are quick to pick up on this — and they are so ready to be inspired."

James "Pop" Hollandsworth
Camp Sequoyah, Asheville, North Carolina

Born into a family of educators, Pop Hollandsworth began his camp career as a Boy Scout. He was an Eagle Scout, and at age fourteen, he was offered his first camp job as the camp bugler — for which he was paid room and board.

In 1934, Pop was a freshman in college and he began his three-year-long stint working as a camp counselor at Camp Sequoyah for Boys in the Craggy Mountains.

After serving in World War II as a combat engineer, he combined his camp experiences into his job at a private boys' school. He developed the camp program, which included woodcraft and mountaineering, as part of the school year. He also added an adventure and wilderness program, where campers stayed in two main tents and had very primitive cooking facilities. These camp experiences gave campers a wonderful experience in nature.

Pop's first interaction with ACA was in the 1940s at the section level. And he became a member of ACA in the 1950's — an experience he still cherishes. "I still go to the national conferences. And I love the socialization and interaction with everyone," he said.

One of the biggest lessons he learned from his years in camp was the importance of keeping folks involved in nature — to explore the outdoors and to respect the outdoors. He learned to care for the environment, and to prevent the waste of resources.

He also feels that camp taught him a lesson in patience. "I was a very driven person, and camp taught me that it's not important to always be the expert, but to let the campers lead. They learn by doing — they become the expert — and I learned a lot more as a follower."

Pop's advice to counselors just starting out is to follow his example. "Don't go in knowing it all. Just know you are going to have a wonderful experience. Make sure that your campers aren't just following you — rather, that they are developing their own experiences," he said. "Encourage. Encourage involvement and independence, and encourage independent thought."

Pop's eighty-three years of camp have been inspirational, and he is able to look back on his experience — literally — each day. "I'm here in my cabin," he said, "and I am able to look out every morning and see my whole life and camp experience spread before me in these mountains." 

Dawn Swindle is the communications manager for the American Camp Association.

Originally published in the 2010 July/August issue of  Camping Magazine.

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