HOME | 1900-1951 | 1951-1963 | 1964-1981 | 1982-

History: 1951-1963

In 1951, the Burroughs Nature Club (KC Audubon Society affiliate) had given money to the city to hire two summer naturalists. Wallace Good, a biology teacher then at Wyandotte high School in KCK (later at Southwest) was made Swope Park Naturalist, and started a nature center in the big enclosed shelter house by the park entrance on Meyer, and led public field trips. Harold Burdick of UMKC was hired as Camp Naturalist to work with boys and girls. The city did not appropriate money to continue the program, but John Banghart asked me if I would take over the camp nature program in 1952. I knew John because both of us were active in the Burroughs Club. I was hired as the first paid Program Aid for $60/month; I think counselors made $160 and unit leaders $190, and given the old stone building to develop. I painted posters, kept from animals in cages the zoo had given us, led field trips, etc., for two years. One of the most enjoyable parts was that while almost everything at camp was gender-segregated (maybe we'd let a winning camp president have a meal with mixed dining where boys and girls could sit wherever they wanted, even with the opposite sex!), in the nature lodge (like at stables, archery range, and later the lifeguard), I got to be with girls, too---and "camper-frat" seemed pretty innocent. (I got to sit at Starlight with my arm around 9-year-old diabetic camper Connie Boone my first year.)

Starlight Theater opened in 1950 for the centennial, but through most of the 50's they had extra seats they gave out to the camp, especially the handicapped sessions, so we got to see a lot of the musicals there---and one night President Truman was there and came back and spoke with the campers. I then spent two years as counselor in Franklin (Ronnie Pine took over the nature lodge) with Bob Buchanan (who had been junior counselor at the archery range), and then two as Landing Leader at Franklin, before going off to Woods Hole, MA, to study Marine Biology as the last part of my MS program at the U of Michigan.

During my unit-years in the 1950's, we had a great variety of sessions. In the earlier years Camp Hope was for colored kids, and Lake of the Woods was for whites. Our first integration, other than using the same central facilities such as the nature lodge, stables, and archery range, and that both staffs trained together, was because the first session was all-boys (Camp Opto) brought out from 3 or 4 states by the Optimist Clubs to run a "university of American citizenship" as they called it---daily lectures on how to be a good citizen, while our staff ran the regular recreation and group-living program. I remember once after the USSR had put up the first Sputnik, round Rev. Tolbert Welch, who besides being chaplain was the most important influence on recruiting kids, at a worship service told the boys that we would never send a man to the moon in a rocket because you can't get to Heaven by your own efforts, but only by the Grace of God!

Camp Opto was at Camp Lake of the Woods, and since all-boys we needed more staff since there were four units and we normally would only have two units of boys the rest of the summer, so counselors got to be counselor-Landing Leaders for the first time, and we also used the black Camp Hope boys' counselors, even though the campers were all white in those days. This was so successful that a year or two before Brown vs. Topeka required racial integration of public schools, we integrated our campers, the first integrated experience many of them had had. Second session was Junior City, co-sponsored by the Community Services division of the Welfare Dept, where we set up a mock city. Previous campers had been selected as Election Commissioners, they ran campaigns and elections for councilmen and mayor, the council selected a city manager from applications, who in turn selected department directors from applications, and all campers would serve one period a day as members of one of the city government agencies (public works, communications, etc.). Lake of the Woods was called "Oakwood City", Camp Hope (black) was called "J.O.City" (for junior officer?) Then there were two "general sessions", the full group camping experience we had trained for, with time for more activities since we weren't doing Opto or Junior City stuff; when we integrated, Camp Hope became the oldest kids' units, with the mididle boys at BlueMills which was behind the archery range then. When John Banghart brought Nelson Wieters in, one of the things done was to name the units "landings" after historic river landings and settlements (Franklin was near Boonville, I don't know where the original Blue Mills was, Osage and Kaw were named for Indian tribes around here, Chouteau's landing was the first settlement in what was to become Kansas City; Westport Landing was where the city actually started, originally a site for unloading supplies to be taken to Westport to stock up wagon trains coming from Independence for the Santa Fe Trail). After the general sessions were three for kids with medical conditions, largely set up by the efforts of pediatrician Dr. Harry Gilkey. In 1951 when I was not on staff, but Carter Hamilton was, there was a session for Diabetic kids where they learned from medical and dietician staff to give their own insulin shots, do urinalysis, and figure out what food balance they needed; it was at Camp Hope in `52. I think `52 when I joined was the first year for the cardiac camp, (at Lake of the Woods) mostly kids with damaged valves from rheumatic fever, a few who had been "blue babies" treated with new techniques for repairing connections between pulmonary and aortic circulation; they were divided into three groups--the #1's supposedly needed no adjustments in their usual lives, but we slowed them down at camp because they usually were not used to heavy activity and were sometimes overprotected by parents; #2's had moderate slow-downs, and #3's were not supposed to do much walking or strenuous activity at all, a rest stop to look at critters, etc., between Westport and the dining hall for instance. They rode the camp truck to the archery range, stables, swimming pool, etc. Then the last session was for Cerebral Palsy and other brain-injured kids (and older, too); this was all at Lake of the Woods, used all our staff and more brought in including student nurses. Most of the campers had a staff member one-on-one, dressing, washing, pottying, feeding, etc. The ambulatories, mostly mentally retarded, were in a modified club arrangement. But we tried to do everything we could with the wheelchair kids, holding their hands to pull the string back for archery, taking them on cookouts and having them hold sticks for marshmallows, putting them on horses with someone supporting them on each side and another staff member leading the horse, whatever we could figure out to give them physical and outdoor opportunities they mostly couldn't have the rest of the year. And being the last session, it was also special to staff because we wouldn't be together for another school-year, and each year some of us knew it would be our last time at what for many was the most rewarding and closest associations of friends we had ever had.

When Dr. Oscar (Oz) Hawksley , biology professor at Central Mo. State College, and his then-wife Janet were brought in as program directors the next year they introduced American folk songs, and when Nelson and some other leaders went to the American Camping Association convention the next year (?) where Pete Seeger sang, they brought back a full basket of folk songs that became the backbone of the singingest camp around. After meals, a table of campers and their counselor would start a song and the others would join in, and we might sing a dozen or more songs before leaving; like most activities, these were not directed by a "song leader" but came from the campers; of course, the unit staff had been teaching the kids songs, and Nelson encouraged clubs to sing on the trails, to use down-time as song-learning time, because it builds camaraderie and enthusiasm. I remember that next winter many of us went to the American Camping Association field meeting at Knobnoster State Park where our staff demonstrated outdoor pit cooking and did lots of singing.

Two things that were impressed on the staff by Nelson Wieters were "Never forget, or put in second place, the FUN EXPERIENCE." I told the campers that if they wanted to have fun, be sure the counselors were having fun, too! Singing in the dining halls and on the trail were part of that. And by having all activities led by the club counselors, it not only built group cohesion because the kids who lived together did everything together, but they depended on their counselor because the counselor made all this fun possible for them. But the big commandment was NO FRAT!

The point was that parents were sending their kids out into the woods and after they went to bed, what were these high school and college boys and girls doing? Huh? The answer should be they were not fraternizing with the opposite sex! What did "frat" mean? Paying more attention to one member of the opposite sex than to any others---so no campers should have a reason for going home and telling Mom "my counselor had a girl friend at camp". The most extreme example of frat occurred my first year, when Nelson rode his horse Glory Lady out to the Camp Hope overnight site, and found the boy campers rolled up in their sleeping bags in their pup-tents, but no boy staff were there! Since there were only two landings at Hope, and this was the first overnight of the year, I think, they had decided for both boys' clubs to go to one site; for some reason one of the girls' counselors had chosen not to have her overnight that night. He then rode over to that girls' overnight site , and what to his wondering eyes did appear but the boys' Hope staff and the girls' Hope staff in sleeping bags together! He apparently made some constructive suggestions to the staff, and somehow the next morning when I went to the nature lodge, here up the hill from Hope came the campers with staff I had never seen before----they had called playground staff that night and picked a new Hope staff for those three clubs that had gone out, and got them out there first thing to take over when the clubs came in from their overnight. Everyone knew that Nelson meant business on that. Three or four years later, maybe the night after campers had left at the end of the session when staff were still on duty to clean up the next day, some of the landing leaders had gone down to the Lake of the Woods, caught one of the domestic ducks down there, and had a duck roast----because they were out there as males and females having fun and it would look bad if the escapade got out, these LL's were suspended for the next session----although Bev Breuer, who was later to become director and still later the camping executive with the Campfire Girls of this region, couldn't bear facing her parents with the news she had been suspended so Nelson relented and let her stay at camp, but not as LL that session---I think maybe she worked in the commissary, away from campers, and was not paid. The exception to the no-frat rule was that Nelson didn't sneak around checking on staff the very last night of the last session, Cerebral Palsy, after all the campers had been taken home by their parents.

Incidentally, we (and I think most ACA people) considered boy scouts to be the worst campers, cutting down trees at waist-height for instance, because the program was sold to boys easier than they could get commitments from really knowledgeable responsible scoutmasters; On the other hand, Campfire Girls were considered the best campers in terms of how they treated the environment. Canoeing, the classic boy scout pattern was two boys would paddle on one the right until they hit the left bank, then paddle on the left until they hit the right bank, zigzagging down the river because they hadn't learned to paddle on different sides---or maybe the scoutmasters just shrewdly saw this as a way to tire them out?

One of the ways of building club spirit was that each club would write a club song, and sing it loudly in the dining hall and on the trails, etc. I remember Deane Keaton's "Potawatamies" song from my first year, for instance, because it had two different tunes and a yell, more complicated than the other single-tune club songs. Some of my clubs were the Nightcrawlers, Nighthowlers (which was to the tune of Don't Fence Me In, and ended with "We ride and shoot the best of all and it's not only luck, we never hike because we travel in the truck, and what is more Gillespie is a mother-----Nighthowlers Club!" (Walt Gillespie was our LL in Kaw, and his staff viewed him as uneccessarily autocratic) This was a #3 cardiac camp club, very restricted in their activities, but I took them on five cookouts at sites they could be driven to, and tried to give them more of everything they could do than any other clubs did. An emphasis was to work together with the kids to plan activities, write the song, etc., and one year when I was a counselor in Franklin (younger boys) I decided to see how much I could get by with faking----so the next group every time we went on hikes the first two days and saw one of the beautiful red/blue/green Fiery Searcher ground beetles, Calosoma scrutator, I made a big deal about it, let them smell it, and sure enough when I said "What do you want to call our club?" one of them proposed "What about that big bug, the Calosoma?" Unanimous agreement. What about the song---well, I had not only planned for them to be the Calosomas, but also had written the club song that weekend break, so I'd ask what kinds of things to put in the song, sang them examples of other club songs, and when someone suggested something close to what I had written I responded enthusiastically, and together they thought they were writing the song I already had! And I really believe they thought so. And I learned that you really could do something like that----other staff started calling it "Dawson Democratic System". Bev Breuer, on the other hand, thought it was not playing fair, and this was I think one of the reasons that when I became director in 1960 and she was regional ACA Campcrafter chair, she would not let me take the Campcraft Instructor course from her which would have let me give the ACA Campcrafter training to our entire staff and certify them (I did have the Advanced Campcrafter certification, but that didn't let me certify others). Bev (for whom I then and even more today have great affection and respect) didn't consider me a real professional camper, not knowing I would end up being out there as a director until the mid-70's, and as volunteer unpaid science session director in `77 and on until `81?) when having kids in college meant I had to make money teaching summer school.

A traumatic even in the mid-50's came when the spoils politicians with their strength in the northeast part of KC managed to elect a majority to the city council, stopping fifteen years of control by the Citizens Assn that had thrown out the Pendergast machine. They proceeded to kick out our nationally-revered city manager, L.P. Cookingham, and replace him with a political crony who was the first of about 10 city managers over the next few years (sounds like what happened in the 80's and 90's with the KC school district). They fired the highly respected Dr. Hayes Richardson as Welfare Dept director, and brought in Councilman Sal Capra's high school buddy John King, then a parochial school football coach in St. Louis. Verna Rensvold left the position of Superintendent of Recreation and Ralph Hileman was brought in. Beloved Mayor H. Roe Bartle, he of the 350 pounds and voice that could fill the Municipal Auditorium arena with a microphone finally went on TV and almost cried as he told what they were doing, but he couldn't do anything because he had only one vote on the council. He had been originally elected as the Citizens Assn candidate, after 25 years as Chief Boy Scout Executive, and Chief of the "Tribe of Mic-o-Say" (the KC Chiefs football team was really named for Roe, who succeeded in bringing the team here while mayor, not named for warrior Indians). But the old-style politicians (who seemed to have a lot of friends in organized crime, such as the Civellas) in the next elected put out their ballot of people who would play patronage ball such as Bill Royster, and also endorsed Roe Bartle so they could put out sample ballots where voters would see his name at the top and just vote that slate, not realizing that he was not supporting these people listed under him. Eventually, Hileman left and Nelson Wieters became acting superintendent. Since he was from a merit-system position, he could not just be fired, so John King called him in and told him to resign---said he could stay on and get his paycheck and sit at his desk and watch the programs disappear because King would not sign any requisitions for staff or expenditures he sent up, or he could resign and let a political-appointee take over and the programs would continue with their friends running them. So Nelson left, and went to teach at the YMCA George Williams College in Chicago---which drew a significant number of our staff, Ronald Pine who taught biology there, Jerry Hauber, maybe Vince Feehan. The Humane Society board and other citizens, especially the parents and friends of our handicapped sessions (diabetic, cardiac, CP) started putting pressure on the council and were able to save the recreation program, although it had lost a lot of credibility in the process. John Banghart, nearing retirement, hung as acting superintendent and tried to hold things together as best he could, and asked me if I'd move out to camp and run it (this was 1960). I had worked as naturalist two years, two years Franklin counselor, two years Franklin Landing Leader, then spent a summer finishing my MS at Woods Hole MA in their invertebrate marine biology program, and returned in `58 to teach biology at Shawnee Mission North; in 1959 I had married my Carleton fiancee Ellie Webster when she graduated and we moved down to KC that fall after camping around the west for 8 weeks---so I had been away from the camps for two years. But a lot of the staff I had worked with were still there ("Dawson won the contest"?) and I tried to run things like Nelson had. While I was gone and Nelson was downtown, Bev had been director, but had also resigned in disgust at the way things were being run. So my being willing to take over the camp probably was also a black mark for her, not knowing what I was going to do, and not trusting my Dawson Democratic System. (Actually, having seen how it could be used, I never again used that method, and in fact would probably have been a better teacher if I didn't have such a revulsion to using manipulative techniques after that----not that Wieters didn't have his own versions, such as if you did something wrong he would figure out the worst-case scenario of a result, and then tell you that had really happened when he chewed you out----I didn't figure this out for years!) In 1961, when Mr. Banghart had things put back together more solidly in the recreation division, he hired Patricia Kortkamp from Illinois to bring professional trained camping leadership to the camp; the next two years we operated sort of a triumvirate, with Banghart, Patti, and I as directors, but with Patti taking the real day-to-day leadership and bringing in new ideas, etc. In 1963 Ellie and I took off the summer and spent eleven weeks in Europe, 8 of them tent-camping out of a VW bug we picked up over there at the factory and then shipped back here. And in 1964, Patti having clearly functioned as director, John suggested we try starting a Natural Science Camp at Hope first session when it was vacant because Opto was at Lake of the Woods, and thus started the long and unique Science Camp history. During these years, 1960 to 1974, Ellie and I lived in the cabin that Nelson and Velta Wieters had lived in my early camp days, and as Velta had given birth to Robin Dale Wieters while living there, Ellie had Andrea and Carolyn. And we had dogs like the Wieters family---but collies, not cocker spaniels.

On the other hand, as counselor, I did use another technique to take advantage of the fact that on the second day the campers divided themselves into two clubs and chose their counselor----the first day I always stuck tightly to rules, told the boys lots of interesting nature tidbits, etc., but didn't emphasize being a good-guy, while my Franklin colleague Bob Buchanan took more of a boys-will-be-boys approach. The result was that the screw-offs got together and chose Bob, and the ones who wanted to behave and learn things chose me----after which I could relax and have fun and let them be boys, while Bob's kept acting up! Like with my Nighthowlers cardiac kids, I tried to make them proud of what they could do---we built a new council ring at Franklin using logs brought to camp from city trees that had been cut down, but they were big heavy logs. And this ring ("Four Oaks") located behind Franklin replaced the heavily-eroded Council Grove between Franklin and the cook's cabin in the valley. As Landing Leader I took the kids and we build still another big council ring, Hickory Grove, across from Franklin where the old stables had apparently been pre-1952. And these were the youngest boys at camp! And they worked hard but it was fun because they wanted to impress the other campers who didn't really accomplish anything. Another thing I did as Franklin landing leader was write the best landing song (Kaw had had a landing cheer, but it wasn't much), and it built on making fun of some of the things we had to do. Campers were weighed the first day and the last, and the idea was that the welfare-kids were being given good food and would gain weight, and we were judged on whether the campers gained weight (so "We're from Franklin Landing, tops in every standing, we're never late, we're really great, our tummies are expanding"----when Franklin later became a girls' unit they changed that to "our knowledge is expanding!" and "at meals we eat and eat and eat and sweep up food like a vacuum") . Also we had army surplus pyramid-shaped tents, with going out, and when it rained they would shrink and either pull out the stakes or rip, so when unexpected rain started in the night the staff would sometimes have to run out, usually naked so we didn't get pajamas wet, and loosen all the tent ropes ("looser ropes you've never seen, when rainstorms hit the tents don't rip, they float down into the latrine"). As an institution these mid-50's words were being sung years after we stopped trying to force-feed the kids with whole milk to gain weight, and got new tents. Another thing I did as Franklin LL was to start giving my counselors hours off during the day, later to become camp policy. But at that time the LL accompanied the clubs to horseback riding, and to the swimming pool, to help instruct, and as counselors we didn't see them the rest of the day except for meals (of course, at night Nelson had 3-hour staff meetings with LL's going over every detail of what had happened, so they had to rest up---at least that's what counselors were told.) But I also told counselors to choose one period a day (not horses or swimming, since we needed all staff) and I'd take their clubs. And I tried to take rest period duty so they could go to the pool (somehow staff never got cramps like kids were supposed to?). And in the morning I'd get up at least an hour early and take kids on hikes, and get them to clean their tents ("We're up before the sunrise comes so we won't miss out on any fun" so the counselor didn't have to mess with that and could start right off on activities, while some landings ended up using first activity period for cleaning up). So we got more done, I got to enjoy the campers, the counselors loved me for giving them time off and getting cleanup out of the way and kids didn't wake them up---I'd take them to breakfast and flag raising, and just say to be sure to be there for breakfast. All this activity also meant when it was time for bed, they went to sleep fast instead of having pillow fights, etc. If I do say so myself, I was the greatest landing leader I'd seen! And when I became director in 1960 I encouraged LL's to emulate my pattern; I also learned that we didn't need 3-hour nightly staff meetings, and didn't need to write voluminous evaluations of each session the next week, another reason LL's in the 50's hadn't had time to relieve counselors.

I was very fortunate in the 50's to have spent six years with some really remarkable staff, many recruited by Dr. Gilkey from those going to become doctors, so they would have the experience of working with kids with medical problems in a non-hospital and non-office setting. Old Harry Gilkey was a strong presence for the camps in the `50's, in addition to soliciting the funds that built the swimming pool so that we could have heated water for cerebral palsy kids allowing them to move their limbs more easily in the water. Nelson Wieters was like a god to me, Carter Hamilton was a classmate at Southeast High, and we were in the art club together (while I was president of Dorians, Carter was a really good artist with a distinctive style, went on to the KC Art Institute and became an excellent photographer), Ron Pine (my mother always called him "that crazy Pine") who was so much fun with his enthusiasm for critters and all of life, his dramatic flair, and his real concern for other people (we were on a ferris wheel at Fairland Park one day and he got sick--said here he had this sweet girl next to him, innocent people below, so he just threw up all over himself ). Landing leaders I loved and learned from included Don Spencer, George Hoech (both became doctors), John Barth (became a minister), Bev Breuer. I had the great pleasure of being landing leader for counselors Homer Rodriguez (became chief respiratory therapist at KU Medical Center) and Ross Evans (became an eminent psychologist), and fellow counselors like Bob Buchanan, Jack Gabriel (became a lawyer). And we had so much fun together!

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