Column: What I Learned at Summer Camp

Pat Rode instilled lessons that last a lifetime
John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

With the weak economy, and high school coaches urging their players to attend “voluntary” workouts, enrollment for summer camps is down nationwide about 10%. But if the choice is between team workouts and summer camp, I say, summer camp wins hands-down.

Let me explain.

I didn’t want to go to summer camp.

I spent my summers growing up at our family cottage near Traverse City. The idea of going to Camp Hayo-Went-Ha – a YMCA camp on the lake – didn’t interest me. I liked playing baseball, riding bikes and going to hockey school with my best friend. I figured the kids who went to Hayo-Went-Ha either couldn’t play baseball or didn’t have many friends.

But by my sixteenth birthday, thanks to the curveball, I couldn’t play baseball either. Far sadder, my best friend had been killed in a car accident.

With nothing else to do, I went to Camp Hayo-Went-Ha. I discovered the kids there were tougher than most of my hockey teammates. And they got to go on exotic trips from the Rockies to Nova Scotia.

The camp has the rustic, tidy look of the “Swiss Family Robinson” movie set, but camp sessions play out more like episodes of Fantasy Island. The anxious newcomers hope that special place will help them find what they’re missing.

The man who choreographed those life-changing experiences for me and 10,000 other brave souls stepped down 11 years ago. Pat Rode, now 80, worked hard to give bored kids some adventure, forgotten kids some attention and just about everyone – campers and counselors alike – a sense of belonging.

Rode based camp on his belief that we can’t get through life alone, but there are plenty of people willing to help. As a child Rode was sickly, his father was often gone, and his mother was buried on his 12th birthday. “But,” he told me, “so many people went out of their way to help me that, well, you’ve got to give back.”

He did. In addition to his time and energy, Rode gave former campers money to pay for rent, college tuition, plane tickets and even bail. All but one has paid him back. Rode believes in second chances.

At camp I learned how important it is to be needed. When a young camper lost his mother in a car accident, I could only tell him what it felt like when my best friend died. I was surprised this helped him – and even more surprised how much this helped me.

That’s why, when my brother was searching for direction 27 years ago, I suggested he join the camp staff.

He says it absolutely changed his life. Being responsible for the kids made him think about what’s important. It made him realize his abilities. And he made lifelong friendships there.

That’s what summer camp did for him.

After camp, my brother climbed Mt. Rainier, earned his bachelor’s degree and launched his career. And when he got married, Pat Rode was there.

When Rode announced that 1998 would be his last summer, his old campers and counselors flooded his office with letters, calls and visits. At his final farewell ceremony, a dozen alums flew in just to thank him.

As always, Rode lit his candle and those of his staff members, who then lit their campers’ candles, too, until the once dark hall was bright enough to see the tears on the faces of Pat Rode’s campers, his counselors, and the old camp director himself.

Then everyone blew out their candles, returning the big room to its original darkness, and listened to Pat Rode say goodbye. My brother draped his right arm around his wife, and his left arm around me. After all those years, I still felt part of something special – and I still do.

That’s what summer camp did for me.

About the author: John U. Bacon lives in Ann Arbor and has written for Time, the New York Times, and ESPN Magazine, among others. His most recent book is “Bo’s Lasting Lessons,” a New York Times and Wall Street Journal business bestseller. Bacon teaches at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio; Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism; and the University of Michigan, where the students awarded him the Golden Apple Award for 2009.


  1. By Joan Kauffman
    July 23, 2010 at 5:20 pm | permalink

    Thank You.

  2. By Scott Rosencrans
    July 23, 2010 at 6:47 pm | permalink

    John, I do so enjoy your work.

    July 24, 2010 at 2:38 am | permalink

    I knew Pat as a 3-summer camper at Hayo-Went-Ha, and as a 2-summer counselor. He was a great leader, teacher, & role model. Thanks for this piece.

    John Floyd