Camp Hope / Camp Lake of the Woods / Swope Park / Kansas City, Missouri


Article by Dee Stuart, This Month in Kansas City, May, 1967

At the chill, dark hour of 3:30 a.m.. on a summer morning, a group of eager young “scientists” gathered around a telescope to peer at the Great Galaxy of Andromeda and the planets Saturn and Venus in the eastern sky.

The amateur astronomers were resident campers at Camp Hope Nature Center, Swope Park, under the leadership of youthful Director, Dick Dawson.  During the eleven-day session the would-be scientists, twenty-five girls and thirty
boys, lived in spacious wall tents among rolling woodlands, lakes and streams, reveling in the fascination of discovering the mysteries of nature and of life.

The revelation of the telescope is only one of the many ways in which Dick Dawson and his staff teach young people to see the small miracles occurring around them.

When campers arrive they are divided into three groups.  For the first three days they explore different aspects of the natural community:  geology, plants and animals.  Then the groups disperse and redivide according to whatever field captures their interest.  The six or eight groups, each headed by a staff member, include plants, animals, water life, rocks, and fossils.

Dick’s enthusiasm for his work is contagious.  Soon campers are avidly scanning his booklet, “Project Ideas in Ecology and Natural History,”  to choose an individual project from among the suggested investigations. On a typical day, the friendly soft-spoken ranger-naturalist spends ten minutes after breakfast in the dining hall talking about the life and habits
of an animal, bird or insect they might see at camp, such as a bullfrog, chipmunk, downy woodpecker, or cicada-killer wasp.

After “clean-up” youngsters gather at the Nature Center for the morning science session.  Now the wonder of discovery begins as nature’s secrets unfold.  Sometimes they hear a lecture by an expert in the community.  One guest speaker, W. L. Philyaw of the Raytown Archeological Society, showed slides and spoke on the Indian Mound excavated at lake Jacomo.  Afterward, Dick lends a hand with individual projects.

On other mornings Dick sets out with a busload of kids, teeming with excitement, on a field trip.  They may tour the Pollution Control Facilities or visit UMKC to observe the effects of pesticides on chick embryos and rats.  Rockhounds delight in exploration on geological and fossil hunt trips.

Each recreational group participates in weather forecasting, using a thermometer, hygrometer, barometer and rain gauge, reporting the forecast at lunch time.

On burning summer afternoons almost everyone races to the pool for a swim.  The few who don’t stay at the Center and read or work on their projects.  Other popular daily recreation programs include cookouts, horseback riding, archery, and crafts.

After supper, campers gather for discussions  and slides on some aspect of nature night sounds, or climate and its effect on plants and animals, or kinds of life found in caves.  On clear nights about ten o’clock they often stroll down to the observatory to spend an hour or two gazing at stars and planets.   They also enjoy entertaining evenings of folk dancing, song fests, and talent shows.

“The heart of the program,”  Dick reports,  “is the individual project work.  Campers spend two-thirds of their time, seven or eight days, working in science investigation, progressing according to the extent of their interest.

“Although learning is not emphasized, the Natural Science Program is a valuable experience for young people because, perhaps for the first time, their knowledge comes not from books, but from intensive, first-hand experience.  They learn by planning and then following up their own plan of study.  Projects begun here often develop into science fair entries.”
An enthusiastic microbe hunter collected different samples of water:  shallow, deep, warm, cool, moving and still.  Examining them under the microscope, she identified the mysterious and marvelous kinds of microscopic animal life existing under these varying conditions.

Other ardent researchers study the behavior of animals, birds or snakes.  One young scientist observed and carefully recorded responses of a Black Rat Snake in a cage to red and blue lights, half-dark and half-light cage, smooth and gravelly surfaces, and different foods.

At the end of the session, each student prepares a display of his research project to show parents at the closing night program.

Assisting Dick as Director of the three summer science camps at Camp Hope are two college graduate Unit Leaders, four college student counselors, and four high school student assistant counselors who have come up through the ranks since the start of the program.  Dan Dougherty, Park Naturalist in charge of Lakeside Nature Center assists with both the summer and winter camp programs.

Dick’s dedication to natural science dates back to day at Southeast High School, when Mr. John Banghart asked him to develop a nature lodge program for the regular camp sessions.  he worked his way up through the program, counseling and leading groups.  After graduating from Carleton College in Minnesota, he earned his master’s degree in biology at the University of Michigan in 1958.  he now teaches biology at Shawnee Mission North High School.

Beginning in 1960, Dick directed the entire resident camp program for three summers.  In 1964 he gave up administration to start the  Natural Science Resident Camps.

“This is the first time we’ve had this type program in Kansas City,” Dick observed.  “It was dream-come-true of John Banghart, recently retired Assistant Superintendent of Kansas City’s Public Recreation Division.”

“The program began in the summer of 1964 when the  (Optimist) boys’ camp was in session  at Lake of the Woods, and Camp Hope was vacant.  With the advantage of the empty camp and available staff, John Banghart and I decided to experiment with a natural science camp, offering young people a first-hand experience with nature.

“Assisted by Science Pioneers, Inc., sponsor of the Science Fair, and the Humane Society of Kansas City, we set up the camp for fifty residents and ended up with ninety-six enthusiastic nature lovers, spilling over into the next session.

“With the success of the summer nature camp firmly established, we set up a winter program.  Three groups  meet once a month during the school year.  Two groups, upper elementary and junior high, bring their lunch and meet on Saturday from  9:30 to 4:30 to study a topic related to the season.  In the spring they studied the lowland and woods, emerging insects, and spring birds.  The program usually features an outstanding speaker from the community.  We also hold discussions, take field trips, and conduct indoor and outdoor lab experiments and demonstrations.”

The third group, the Junior Astronomy Club, a joint program sponsored by the Kansas City Astronomy Club and the Parks and Recreation Department, started last September and meets one Thursday night month at Lake of the Woods Camp, Swope Park.

“We talk about the topic and observe stars and planets through the sixteen-inch reflector telescope built by Astronomy Club members and housed in the city-built observatory.  Thirty to fifty junior stargazers attend the meetings, which are open to all would-be astronomers.”

Dick not only loves his work, he lives it.  He and his wife, Ellie, and his two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Andrea, live at Camp Hope.  Ellie, who is earning her master’s degree in elementary science, helps out by cooking copperheads, who stray into camp, for the copperhead fry.  “It isn’t one of the campers’ favorite foods,” says Dick grinning, “but they enjoy boasting about how they ate the copperheads when they get home.”

Dick and Ellie are both experienced campers, having camped through Europe in the summer of ‘63.  They are also active members of the Ozark Wilderness Waterways Club and enjoy canoeing on the Current River.  Dick has succeeded John Banghart as president of the local Audubon Society, Burroughs Nature Club.  He also serves as secretary for the Missouri Prairie Foundation, a newly formed organization for the purchase and management of lands for scientific study and aesthetic enjoyment.  A crash program is underway to buy up the prairies before the lands of the ten-foot-tall grasses disappear forever.

Dick likes to be outdoors and to have to be outdoors.  When asked if older campers with a broader since background are more appreciative or benefit more from the program, Dick replied, “The big thing about younger kids is, the less they’ve had, the more enthusiastic they are.  To be able to take a kid and let him discover some pattern in nature -- that conservation is not
just a matter of don’t cut it, don’t burn it, don’t kill it---but a matter of maintaining the world--makes the effort well worthwhile.

“With knowledge comes understanding:  that we allow deer hunting so herds won’t overrun the country, that there must be coyotes to keep down rodents, that there are no good or bad animals, they are just doing their jobs;  that there is a balance in nature.

“The main thing I’m working for is that they learn for themselves the concepts of the interrelation of life -- between man and nature, climate and nature.  They must know what life is in order to preserve it.  They are used to having everything told to them.  By developing their powers of observation they discover and appreciate the simple marvels of nature.  Here, in the program, they see, feel and experience the world they live it.”

Any curious camper with an interest in science is welcome.  He must be between the ages of ten and sixteen or have finished fourth grade up through tenth.  The fee is $22.00 per session.  The first session, reserved or advanced campers, age 13-16, is almost full and the second and third sessions are filling up fast.

Different community studies are held each year to take the program interesting to the thirty or forty percent of returning campers.   This summer they will concentrate on water life in the lake, marsh, river, and streams.

The first session will run from June 26 to July 6th.  The second, July 10 to July 30,  the third July 24 to August 3.

To apply for admission, call the Recreation Division at City Hall or write:   Patricia Kortkamp, Director, Camp Program, Camp Hope, 5600 East Gregory Boulevard, Kansas City, MO., 64152.

Young people are sure to discover a wonderful new world if they follow Dick Dawson, the Pied Piper of Swope Park.