A summer camp study, from the outside

My family has had a particularly strong and all-consuming obsession with one summer camp for four generations. I do a little digging to find out exactly why.

Update #1 — March 2, 2016; 9:45 AM

This story from 2015 resulted in a lot of emails from Camp Dudley alums–and people who were inspired by other camp experiences!–so in spirit of our 2016 Summer Camp Guide, we’re running it again!

Check out our sleep-away camp roundup for 2016.

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Original — March 06, 2015

You know how your family does a weird thing that you’ve been so familiar with from such a young age that you assume it’s all totally normal and that every family has a snow-eating contest on Christmas Eve or sings like the Von Trapps every night before bedtime?

My family is super, super into summer camp. Not just the idea of summer camp, and not summer camps in general (although we did have to branch out–more on that later). They’re really into this one summer camp in New York State. And not just my immediate family, either. Every single eligible person on my mom’s side of the family, beginning with my grandfather, is or was a lifelong devotee of Camp Dudley, a true “jump into the lake and paddle your canoe” camp for boys on Lake Champlain.

It didn’t occur to me that my older brothers, who are very close in age but very different in interests, weren’t like the brothers of my friends, in that every summer they would cheerfully hop a plane and just…be gone for a couple of months. The word “camp” had a special reverence for my mother, whose father and brother both went to Dudley as well. She also liked the word “salad,” as in “We’ll be eating salad all summer in order to afford camp for the boys,” a sentence she repeated several times to those of us who were left at home.

My grandfather, Lee, was born in 1904, which is a long time ago, sure, but by his first summer at camp in 1916, Camp Dudley was already 31 years old. Named after Sumner Dudley, the camp is the oldest operating boys camp, and now includes Kiniya, a sister camp for girls across the lake in Vermont. It’s a generalist camp, which means it doesn’t have a specific activity focus–an increasingly rare breed these days. Oh, and you go there for a month at a time. Two months, if you can convince your parents to pay for it.

My mother spent every summer of her childhood (and often her adult life) in Westport, the tiny, formerly luxurious mountain town nearby, just hanging out with her parents while her brother Donald went to camp. One would think that a kid would get bored with just her parents and not a whole lot to do, but her memories of it are almost smothering in their nostalgic beauty. She gets visibly wistful when she talks about it, and counts the area as her favorite place on earth.

My dad and I preferred the beach, and I, for one, never let anybody forget it. Apologies, family.

In 2011, I flew up there with Mom to attend the commemoration of the Lee K. Carr Basketball Court at Camp Kiniya, which my two nieces have been attending since the minute they were old enough. My brother, who now runs Westport’s Depot Theatre in the summers when he’s on vacation from his job at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, joined us. To my surprise, everyone there knew everything about us. My nieces’ names, my brothers’ names, my cousin’s names, my cousin’s kids’ names, even key facts about my sister and me, who had the misfortune of being female before Kiniya became a Dudley operation.

Even when I called camp (as it’s known in our ranks) to ask some questions for this personal history lesson, or whatever it is you’re reading here, they knew exactly who I was. “You know your grandfather’s camp nickname, right?” said Dave Langston, alumni director.

To my surprise, I pulled “Leeky” (a play on “Lee K.”) out of some recess of my brain. By the time I was born, my grandfather was cruising towards 80 and would die of unnatural causes by the time I was 12.1 All I remember is a thin, put-together guy who reminded me of a white-haired Mr. Rogers aesthetically but–unlike old Fred–didn’t have a lot to say to a young child. He had been an accountant, and his adding machine and old typewriter were a fun time when we were visiting, but I don’t remember any words of wisdom or, really, any words at all.

The cover of the alumni newsletter in 2007 featured this photo, an iconic one at camp, featuring my grandfather (halfway up on the right, leaning out with his elbow pointed towards the right of the frame). Thanks to Dave Langston for the photo.

Sometimes, these things have to be told to you by other people. Alf Kammerlain, who donated the money for the aforementioned basketball court, requested that it be named after Lee, who had recommended Dudley to Alf’s family. That event, said Alf, changed his life.

Dave Langston told me another story I’d never heard before–Lee came back in 1946, 1947, and 1949, using his vacation time to work at camp, filling in the gap left by enlisted men. “That’s a classic example of ‘putting the other fellow first,'” said Langston, quoting Dudley’s (and now Kiniya’s) motto.

So now we get to the thick of it, the answer to the question, “What goes on at this camp that provokes such intense four-generation, college-like loyalty in these families?”

It’s a summer camp for wizards.

Just kidding!

But for real, I’ve thought about it long and hard. When my son was born, it only took a day or two for my brothers to ask “Is he going to Dudley?” My mom got him a Dudley onesie and immediately sent a picture of him wearing it to the alumni magazine, and my nieces wondered how many digits camp numbers2 would have by the time he got there.

A letter from Michael, 1981.

A letter from Michael, 1981.

Remember, this is not a college. This is not a sports team. This is a camp.

“Families are pretty intense, quite frankly, about sharing [Dudley] generation to generation,” Langston told me and I made some snorting noise of duh-ness. I asked him why he thought that was. I’ve been to several camps, and my sister had a good several-year run at Camp Seafarer, a sailing camp for girls in North Carolina. But I’ve never felt that intensity, and I don’t see her tacking her Seafarer swim band to her wall.

Langston and I talked a lot about leaders (Dudley’s term for camp counselors). “Our leaders, who we encourage to be role models, clearly…clearly…model the behaviors that we expect from the kids. That means you’re going to see your leader leading a hike, or coaching a team, or sitting down and having a one on one conversation with you every week to see how you’re doing and see if you’re achieving the goals that you set out for the summer…A lot of the gratitude people have for the camp comes straight from the leader, who says, ‘I’m going to help you try this stuff on, and it’s OK if you don’t like it, but for right now, we’re just going to try it on. Let’s go ride in a canoe. Oh, you’ve never done that before? Neither had I until I got here!'”

David (middle) in 1984.

David (middle) in 1984.

Or, as my brother Michael puts it, “It gave me an ability to try anything, even if I’d fail.”

I got to see that kind of support have actual effects on his daughters, who are now 15 and 12. The oldest one, Sachi, signed up for a 21-day backpacking trip in Wyoming this past summer through Kiniya. “As sappy as it sounds, [it] changed my life. I got to go to the Wind River Range in Wyoming, where I never would have thought to go otherwise. Living in the woods, being able to unplug and be with my friends was not only incredibly fun, but I got to learn new skills like self sufficiency and types of leadership skills that I could use in leadership roles at camp,” says my favorite teenager in the entire world. (“Two years ago, she would not have gone on a hike,” says her dad).

Miki, her younger sister, has always been a little shyer and initially had trouble with homesickness. She came back from her first summer away and announced she was going to run for a position in her elementary school’s student government, and would someone give her some feedback on the speech she needed to write?

Letter from my mother, Barbara, 1981.

Letter from my mother, Barbara, 1981.

“Pre-Kiniya, Miki was mostly a follower. Kiniya gave her the confidence to try things even when her friends weren’t doing them,” observes Michael. “Overcoming homesickness was something Kiniya really helped her with and is a success story.”

A daunting task when faced with a homesick, sensitive, quiet little girl who won’t see her parents for a month. They figured out a way to draw out the sunny, hilarious, creative side of her, and she quickly understood why her older sister looked forward to going to camp so much. “Seven weeks seems like a long time, but it feels like nothing,” says Sachi of the first time she went “full season” at the age of nine. “The first night was the only night I have ever been homesick, but no one makes fun of you for being homesick, and everyone does the best they can to comfort you.”

For my oldest brother, David, a superhuman individual who accomplishes more in one day than I could ever hope to (and I can hope a lot), camp was a “safe place to fail,” something he never thought he could do at home.

He fondly remembers being creative, learning about working in a theater, enjoying rest period, and being woken up by his leader in the middle of the night to see the Northern Lights for the first time, a stark contrast to Michael’s favorite memory, which involves covering himself in mud and walking around camp to make people laugh. These guys are very different people, yet both of them are obsessed with the same camp.

Michael, 1983.

Michael, 1983.

“We have a four-pillared program,” explains Langston. “One of which is sports, and one is the arts, which today means everything from musical arts to performing on stage to dramatic arts.” The kids put together storyboards and make videos, draw pictures for the camper-run weekly newspaper called the “Dudley Doings,” that sort of thing. And everyone has to try a little bit of everything. They don’t have to like every activity, but it turns out that more often than not, they find something new to love.

Outdoors is another pillar. “Let’s face it, we’re in an absolutely amazing area that has beautiful mountains, lakes, streams. If you’ve done any outdoor experiences, you know that a group in the wilderness–where not everyone’s comfortable–has the potential to really create tremendous life-changing experiences.”

And spirituality, the fourth. Dudley’s spirituality component revolves around the “Other fellow first” concept. “Learning to show devotion to others permeates everything we do,” explains Langston, who was, of course, a camper himself.

“We are not a soccer camp, we are not a lacrosse camp, we are not a basketweaving camp. We are into helping kids have fun and have fellowship with each other. The experiences that people like Leeky have at our camp last lifetimes and change lives.”

A letter from my sister, Lesley, 1981. She was almost five. Don't do the math on that or she will kill me.

A letter from my sister, Lesley, 1981. She was almost five. Don’t do the math on that or she will kill me.

The downside, of course, is that a camp like Dudley is decidedly not cheap. A full summer is more than $8,000, with one one-month session costing close to $5,500. Frigging yikes, right? No wonder my mom talked so much about salads. “She even said that to me in a letter she sent me at camp,” swears David, who could not produce the offending letter, and isn’t NOT known for his ability to exaggerate.

That cost brings with it another problem–“I believe it would be impossible to recreate the breadth and depth of the experience, especially the friendships and confidence, with week-long day camps, ” says Michael about his insistence to his wife that they find a way to make it work every year. “But the price point of summer camps is such that many of the kids are in much higher income brackets.”

That’s a bummer for all the kids who can’t afford these camps and don’t get to benefit from the confidence boosts and the leadership training. Does that create a cycle of privilege–the rich are getting taught how to lead, and the less-rich never get that kind of instruction. Probably, in the same way that prestigious colleges and prep schools do. And it’s certainly the same crowd.

But surely with the state of higher education affordability today and its enormously bloated bubble that appears ready to burst at any time, this model will at least be altered. Dudley does offer scholarships, insisting that they’re committed to making sure the experience is available for all. That scholarship only went to about 25% of the campers in 2014–a number that doesn’t seem particularly impressive. Or at least, that number doesn’t seem as shocking as the fact that 75% of the families were even able to cough up that many thousands of dollars (not to mention transportation costs). But the sum total of money awarded last year was in excess of $800,000, a number that IS particularly impressive.

Pick-up day, 1985, with Michael and David in the middle and the two outliers on the right.

Pick-up day, 1985, with Michael and David in the middle and the two outliers on the right.

One of the camps that I went to as a kid was full of these kinds of high-income girls who didn’t know the best tent stakes from a couple of fishing rods, and I had a really hard time relating to them.3 But maybe I just had a bad experience. My nieces don’t seem to notice, and maybe the heavy emphasis on not just being supportive but actually putting other humans before yourself actually puts everyone on a level playing field.

I’ve spent much of my life ignoring the camp thing–I felt exasperated that we all had to care so much about something that my sister and I couldn’t even participate in. And it annoyed me that my mother was so misty about something she was never permitted to do. (Dave Langston apologized several times that the girls’ camp didn’t exist in my day. I told him the person who needed the most apologies was my mom.)

But, as everything does, opinions change when you have a kid. Seeing what Camp Kiniya has done for my nieces, and hearing my brothers’ stories of acquiring the confidence that I always assumed they just innately possessed–it’s hard to imagine that I won’t be sending my son there in a few years if I can.

I reserve the right to roll my eyes, though, and I refuse to get misty. Unless…unless he comes back and announces that he spent the summer as editor of the Dudley Doings. That’ll be when Dudley finally wins, and I tear up with glee.

Unless otherwise noted, all images courtesy of David Howson, who was asked for a couple of photos and promptly presented me with an entire Dropbox folder full.

  1. That’s another story for another long-winded time. 
  2. Everybody’s got one. And, if you’re my niece, you have it in giant wooden letters on your bedroom wall. 
  3. Yes, my parents must have been able to afford it somehow, but all I can tell you is that we lived a life of off-brand, no-cordless-phones, and couponing. I suspect sometimes that they built their budgets entirely around affording camp and college. 
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Susan Howson

Susan Howson is managing editor for this very website. She writes THE BEST bios.

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