I am building a theory about camp maintenance persons/property managers: every successful American summer camp has a maintenance person who has meaty calloused hands, a warm smile, and training in any number of odd-ended jobs. These maintenance persons are woodworkers and plumbing specialists and electricians and all together handy. They are almost always stoic and very wise—Gandalf with a tool belt.
I say all this because I’ve now visited four camps and each one has this character. They have, so far, all been white men in their upper middle age who live on or near the camp property. And they all, without fail, understand their job as something larger that maintenance. Though they never say as much, they all comingle their work with the camp’s mission. Scott, for instance, is the maintenance man at Camp Wawenock in Raymond, Maine, who, when asked to make a new flagpole for the water front, took a long piece of metal piping from old water line (which he’d replaced) and attached it to an odd-looking wooden structure. When I ask him about the structure, he explained that he’d put the new flagpole on a pivot, so anyone can lower it for repairs.
Scott is not the only example. Greg, at Camp Winnebago, showed me around the property, commenting off-handedly about the extra fire pits or the twenty-foot Gaga pit he’d built “for the kids.” At Geneva Glen (My home camp in Indian Hills, Colorado), we have Phil Dickinson.
When I saw Phil last, in the winter, he was stripping and cutting camp trees to build new bunks for our cabins. Phil can cut a line with a buzz saw straighter than any machine and he has some of the most inventive solutions for all issue camp-related. In other words, with Phil and the rest of the maintenance persons who fit the stereotype, it is best to assume they know everything and treat their ignorance as exception.
It is almost certainly exaggeration that every camp has a Phil or a Scott or a Greg, but in the cast of characters that make up a summer camp, the property manager is fitting symbol. He or she is atlas holding up the world—the force constantly working behind the scenes to ensure that buildings don’t collapse and the diving board has a little extra spring. They fall into the category of kitchen staff and program directors. The property manager is one of the many worker ants in a camp that make things actually work. The earlier comparison to Gandalf isn’t far off, then, as the property managers add their own brand of magic to the camp space.