Going Back to Camp at Fifty

Going Back to Camp at Fifty

Stoney Lake Reflections is happy to fetaure some guest blog authors as we all have our own reflections to share.

I invited Philip C. Wrzesinski to pen his reflections on what he did last summer. For anyone who dreams of ‘going back’ or wonders how has camp changed, you will be in for a great story filled with nostalgia, a heathly dose of the present and what’s really important when looking back as an Alumni.  Thanks Phil for sharing! (Truth be told, he had a draft within 8 hours of asking–Being on Pacific time, I apologize for stoking such fires in the middle of the night) – Enjoy!

 

 


 

Admiral Graybeard – “Nothing quite beats a summer spent sitting on a sailboat on Stoney Lake!”


They called me Admiral Graybeard. I have been called many things, some better than others.

This was the title of a lifetime. I got the chance to do something many of my peers have only secretly dreamed. I got to go back at the age of fifty and work at the summer camp where I spent the best days of my youth and most of my growing into a young adult. It wasn’t just any summer camp. I spent my summer as the Sailing Instructor on the waters of Stoney Lake at YMCA Storer Camps – a magical place to rival even the kingdom of Disney.

I have always said – and it is even written in my will – that when I pass I want to be cremated and have my ashes spread on the lake and its shores. Too much of who I am, I owe to my years as a camper and staff at Storer.

I’m still pinching myself that I had this experience. When Becky Spencer asked me last May if I could be the Sailing Instructor, it took all my self-restraint to not just blurt out, “Yes!” Fortunately, due to some changes in my life, it worked out perfectly and I could actually say yes.

It was a little surreal working with fellow staffers the same age as my own children. I worked with the child of one of my fellow trip leaders, Aimee Weeber, from the Venture-Out program back in 1990. These young bucks accepted me as one of their own. (It didn’t hurt that I proved my mettle as a deep water diver during one of the Waterfront Emergency drills during staff training. It probably also didn’t hurt that Becky Spencer had hired me herself.)

Phil at Storer 1986 – “How many of you still have all your staff pics? This was mine in 1986.”

The camp has changed since my days as a camper. I remember my first summer. 1974. Seven years old. Indian Village on the South Side. The cabin is still there, used primarily for storage. I was only there for a week and spent half of in the infirmary under the watchful eye of Georgianna Swinford while suffering from a stomach virus. I didn’t get a certificate for archery because I never once hit the target. My best friend Chris and I were the last ones standing, waiting on the Indian Waterfront Dock, wanting to swim across the lake but never getting the chance because the bell had just rung for breakfast.

It was a shock to my parents when I said I couldn’t wait to go back.

I remember being part of the Villa in 1978 when Storer was experimenting with co-ed camping. We were out in the Trailblazer Village of today. I was in the same cabin that eight summers later I would call home as a Trailblazer Counselor. Betsy’s Mess looks so much smaller now than it does in my memories when Lisa (Hall) Hilldebrand and I would battle it out to see who could do more “weeks” in one breath while singing Miss O’Shady. I think she set the record of 42 weeks that summer. At least that’s the number I remember. I can barely get to twenty these days.

Betsy’s Mess, and even the North Center Dining Hall where Mary Mennel would stand on her chair and lead the North Center Fight Song (From east to west …) are now repurposed. The Doc, as they call the old dining hall, is as beautiful a building you will ever see at a camp. Malachi, the new dining hall, is as majestic and wonderful as the Doc is beautiful and nostalgic.

Frontier Luau Phil John Chris – “Chris (Fromme) Doyle, Phil Wrzesinski, John Page, and Ann Marie (Stazenski) Krautheim rock it out at the Frontier Luau in 1986”

I could wax poetic on many of the old buildings. The trailroom, the original one I remember, was the kitchen of the original dining hall on South Side. Only the chimney remains. I spent many a night as a junior counselor hiding out there after curfew (thank you, Mike Pierce.) The trailroom many of you might remember is the green building that stood next to Bruce’s Loft where Dave Van Nuys and I spent days and nights plotting courses, packing gear, and prepping food alongside our Venture Out staff.

Like Betsy’s Mess and the North Center Dining Hall, both of those trailrooms are either gone or repurposed, too.

Do I miss those buildings? Not as much as you might think. I certainly don’t miss the white trailer at the end of staff row that I called home for two years, or the squirrels that would eat their way in through the floor under the sink.

The reason I don’t miss them became most apparent last summer.

Sure, I’ve run the gamut at camp from having my mom being on the Parent Panel, to being a counselor watching the Parent Panel, to organizing the Parent Panel as part of the leadership team, to being on the Parent Panel myself as my kids began attending camp. I’ve stayed in the new lodges several times at reunions and have dropped my boys off several summers in a row to enjoy being Outbackers on the South Side.

David Freeman and Phil – “David Freeman and I show that even hated rivals like Ohio State and Michigan become best friends at Storer Camps”

Last summer, though, as I watched Brian Frawley, Kevin Knapp, Tia Black and the rest of the leadership team whip an incredibly young group of counselors into shape, I felt the comfort of your favorite wool sweater, the one you wore even when the temperature didn’t call for it because it just felt that good.

I felt the same feeling I had back in June 1983 when John Page, Brian Crosson and I leaned on the white fence next to the weather station by the South Side flagpole, staring out at the Stoney Lake Whale, wondering if the orange light that mysteriously appeared and then disappeared was a UFO or just God telling us how magical a place we had chosen to spend our summer.

Frontier Luau with Phil Tim Greg – “We all have our favorite Greg-McKee-with-a-guitar story. Some of us were even lucky to be in the band!”

We were young and impressionable and about to make a difference in the lives of children. We were about to become the positive influence that Greg McKee told me in my interview I would be if I took this job, the same influence Sean, Chuck, Ali, John, Jim, Ty, Jeff, Tom, Biff, and Julie had on me over the years.

Thirty-four years after my first summer on staff I am sitting with my new 2017 team when John Frye stood up and delivered an incredibly moving message to these new counselors about the power of camp and how his own life’s trajectory changed dramatically the summer he spent as a Miami Villager. When he mentioned how his counselor, Ross Hammersly, had influenced his life, I felt that wool sweater again. Ross had been part of my all-star cabin back in 1984 when Charlie Brown and I had Ross, Will Harbaugh, Eric Kneuve, and Brandon Witt all in the same cabin. I still remember the look on Ross’ dad’s face when he told me to challenge Ross that summer (I hope I did, Ross, I hope I did.)

A few nights later, as we lined up by motto year for the final campfire of staff training, there were more people lining the path into the campfire singing Our Best than were walking between them. This band of young adults, heavily weighted by first-time counselors, was even more heavily weighted by former Fifth Year Campers (“Always Fifths” as I like to call them) who had grown up at camp, inspired by their counselors to want to join the ranks and lead others.

Phil Lake Michigan – “Linda Gillette took this picture of me at Warren Dunes National Park. It is still one of my favorites ever!”

That’s when it hit me. Storer Camps isn’t about buildings. It isn’t about cabins. It isn’t even about the swim dock or the archery range or the sailboats. The ropes course out by the ranch that during the summer of 1991 Sarah Orem and I checked every single nut and bolt by hand at 6:30am every single morning is long gone, replaced by a new course, climbing towers, and tree climbing. The canoes I learned to paddle back in 1975 have been replaced mostly by funyaks, kayaks, and paddle boards. The Blue Interlake is now a lovely sage green and the Catyaks have been replaced by Sunfish.

Brett Winslow, one of the Outback Counselors last summer, asked me if I might have known his dad who was a counselor back in the 70’s – Mike Winslow. The name seemed familiar, but I wasn’t sure. Then Brett said, “Oh, you might know him as Lug.”

Lug?! Lug Winslow!? Are you kidding me!? He taught me canoeing back in 1975!! Forty-two years later I taught his daughter LeAnn to be a sailing instructor.

That’s what doesn’t change. The torch that gets passed from year to year to year.

From Lug to me to Ross to John to Brett and LeAnn, Storer Camps continues to make a difference in the lives of children, in the families it serves, and in the staff who grow and mature on the banks of Stoney Lake. Heck, that timeline doesn’t even do it justice. I can point to Greg McKee and Jim Mohr and Clark Ewing as influences in my life, which can then take the legacy all the way back to Doc Miller himself. You might have Mary Mennel, Gina Whitehead, Judy Harbaugh, and Judy Mohr in your line of ascension. You might call to Abimbola Fajobi who was a green, inexperienced first-time counselor from Nigeria back in 1983 when we both started our Storer Staff journeys. No matter where you fit into the timeline of Storer, you’re part of a legacy with a far greater influence in this world than any of us could measure or even comprehend.

Missinaibi River Papa Moose – If you ever did one of the big Venture Out Trips like the Great Lakes Biker, Rocky Mountain Backpacker, or Missinaibi River Canoe Trip, you have a lifetime of memories rolled into one month of your life.

No matter whether you were a camper, a family camper, a volunteer, a counselor, or a year-round staff, you made the difference in the lives of children and that made a difference in your own life as well. You are part of a lineage that stretches 100 years back and has an unlimited future ahead.

The changes you see at camp are infrastructure. We live in a different world than 1918. Those first campers stayed in canvas tents. The cabins of the thirties and forties paled in comparison to the cabins I stayed in during my youth.

The new walking paths have made the camp more accessible to people with disabilities. The new lodges have ushered in a better era and better learning environments for the outdoor education program. The embracement of technology (an area I see growing) will give camp even more tools to reach more children and instill in them values like I’m Third.

What hasn’t changed is a Camp with a simple mission to grow the mind, body, and spirit of all who grace these shores.

Last summer, even though my beard has grayed, I saw firsthand how that mission is still solidly in place. I got to dip myself back into the timeline and be part of that mission once again, and it was every bit as magical at fifty as it was at sixteen.

Yeah, the songs and chants have changed. Yeah, they play music on Bluetooth speakers from their cell phones while walking back to the cabin for cabin cleanup. Yeah, they ride bikes and a golf cart to get across camp quickly.

Yeah, they also still teach children to stare at the stars, learn about nature, learn how to swim, sail, paddle, shoot, ride, and climb (and cook and dance and play guitar now, too!) Yeah, they also still hold devotions every night and chapels (tea times, as my dear friend Abimbola calls them) every morning. Yeah, they also still flip the “I’m Third” sign at meals. Yeah, they also still talk about the motto years. It was a thrill when my boys joined me in the ranks of “Always Fifths.”

Trips Training 1991 – “What do you do in van on a seven hour drive? Play guitar! I don’t think John Foster and I even imagined we could remember so many songs!”

YMCA Storer Camps is one hundred years old, but the mission and legacy are as fresh and healthy as the day they were created. The changes to the infrastructure (and the always present desire to change and adapt as necessary) have made sure that Storer will continue to serve God and others for years to come. I never met Doc Miller, but from the stories I’ve heard and read, I think he would be mighty pleased of the legacy he created that stands poised to last another hundred years. I think you would, too.  See you this summer at the 100th celebration!

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Storer Reunion – “If you haven’t been back to Storer for a reunion, it is time. As the song says, ‘Make new friends, and keep the old. Some are silver and the others gold.”

 

 

 

Philip C. Wrzesinski, Admiral Graybeard
Camper, Summers 1974-1982
Summer Camp Counselor, Summers 1983-1987
Venture-Out Director, Year-round 1990-1991
Sailing Instructor/Fleet Admiral, Summer 2017

PS John Page and I always said we would know we had made it in life when we were able to give back to camp enough to have a bathroom named after us. Although I will never miss cleaning Crandall’s, Chapman’s, or Merhab’s, I do lament that the chance of having a bathroom named Page or Wrzesinski is long gone.

 

Please check out Phil’s Marketing for Small Businesses Blog at  www.PhilsForum.com

 

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Storer's 100th CelebrationJune 30, 2018
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