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March 15, 2017 7:43 am

From Father to Daughter — a Jewish Family’s Legacy of Camp Leadership

avatar by Liz Stevens / JNS.org

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Neal Schechter (left) and Larry Stevens, co-founders of Camp Walden. Photo: provided.

Neal Schechter (left) and Larry Stevens, co-founders of Camp Walden. Photo: provided.

JNS.org – It has been almost a year since I delivered my father’s eulogy. My dad, who for nearly 50 years was the director of the summer camp he co-founded in Michigan, lived a full life. At the funeral, his mourners spanned every decade of his work — from septuagenarian former campers, to 20-something ex-counselors. Every single one of them had a “Larry story” to tell.

But as fate would have it, I was the one standing at the dais preparing to tell my father’s story — and in some ways, my own. After all, I was the camp director now.

It all began in 1960. During Camp Walden’s inaugural season, my dad, Larry Stevens, and his business partner, Neal Schechter, drew their first campers from heavily Jewish neighborhoods in Detroit. Their strengths were complementary; avuncular Neal ran the office, calming homesick campers and anxious parents, while intimidating Larry trained and oversaw the staff. If you worked at Walden, “intimidating Larry” was your boss.

Like Zeus, Larry sent thunderbolts of anger raining down on misbehaving counselors. He could bring staff to tears by simply pushing his dark glasses halfway down his nose, and glaring over the rims. His sixth sense of late-night shenanigans often flummoxed counselors who were caught red-handed. The five most-feared words at Walden? “Larry wants to see you.”

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As a child, I had a vague understanding that “Larry the camp director” was not “Larry the father” — who often gave us bellybutton raspberries and walked around the house singing Frank Sinatra tunes.

But at Camp Walden, being “Larry’s daughters” conveyed goddess-like privileges to my sister and me. Counselors doted on us. The coolest, oldest girls wanted to be our friends. We took baths, ate bowls of ice cream and watched cartoons — all the while getting to “go to camp,” too.

My feelings toward this birthright grew more complicated as a teenager. By then, my sister and I were spending our summers as “regular campers.” For the most part, we ignored our parents and they ignored us. My father’s typical acknowledgement was a barely discernible nod in my direction. My mother wrote us letters that came to us at “mail call,” just like everyone else. I was thrilled to go incognito, but my friends? They couldn’t resist telling people who my dad was.

As a college student, I spent my final summers at camp as a head counselor, working closely with my dad. By then, I had spent years watching my dad as the camp director. I knew that his purest joy was seeing children laughing, playing and learning. I knew that he was a fierce protector of the unspoiled nature that Walden inhabited. I knew that he was creative and empathetic, a purveyor of unexpected generosities and a mentor to young adults struggling to find a path. I knew that he delighted campers and staffers with his Jimmy Durante impressions and spontaneous harmonica solos. I knew that my dad was legendary, and that I could never be him.

“You sure you don’t want to be a camp director?” my father would ask every so often, knowing I’d smile and shake my head, rejecting his premise.

When I married Scott, a Texan, I promised him that we would never be in the family business — spending freezing winters in Michigan was not on his bucket list. Still, I brought him to Walden each summer. “You know, Scott would make a great camp director,” my dad always said. My father was in his 70s now. Rumors swirled about what would become of the camp. My mom was ready to retire. I tried to ignore it. I was happy with my career, as was Scott with his.

Then, six months after a 2005 reunion with camp friends, I awoke one morning and had an epiphany. Lurching upright in bed, I blurted it out: “We have to do camp!”

Scott knew exactly what I meant.

I spent the next few years working with my dad. Much of it was, and still is, a dream job. Working with Larry was like getting a master’s degree in camp management. It also had its challenges. Scott and I brought new ideas to the table: introduce online applications, ban hand-held video games, etc. My father’s reactions ranged from skepticism to one-word dismissals.

In the fall of 2008, my mother suffered a freak accident that left her quadriplegic. Scott and I went from part-time assistant directors to full-time directors overnight. We were now the guardians of the Walden legacy — past, present and future. My father never made another camp-related phone call after that day. He visited a few times, but he had a bad foot and complained about the five-hour drive to camp. He would start forgetting the names and faces of his longtime staffers.

Yet Larry would never leave Walden, nor would Walden leave Larry. He’s still there in the songs — in the majestic willow trees he planted and the wildflowers he protected. I didn’t need to tell that to the Walden campers and staffers who attended his funeral service. Their Walden will always be suffused with Larry.

I’ve made peace with the reality that I’ll never be who my dad was. But gratefully, because of my father, I am a camp director.

Liz Stevens is the co-director of Camp Walden, a coed overnight camp for campers entering 2nd grade through 11th grade in Cheboygan, Mich.

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