By G. Jeffrey MacDonald
Waking up on a summer day at Lake Delaware Boys Camp in the Catskill Mountains wilderness is like dreaming time has stood still. The morning regimen is virtually unchanged from 105 years ago, when the camp was founded. Yet it never fails to capture boys’ attention.
Campers sleep the night in canvas-covered platform tents alongside 10 or 11 other boys, and rise to the sound of a cannon’s boom at 6:50 a.m. They quickly dress, line up for attendance, say the Pledge of Allegiance and run a lap around the tent. Then it’s off to chapel, where they sing a high Eucharist accompanied by an 1887 Roosevelt organ, which boys take turns powering by a hand crank. Next up: breakfast, followed by practice for the drill team and the drum and bugle corps.
If it sounds militaristic, that’s by design. The camp has emphasized a military theme since its early days, along with a basis in Anglican spirituality and a mission to build character in city children from modest backgrounds. Most campers come from families who cannot afford the full cost ($3,000 per camper). They attend with substantial help from donations.
This formula has long produced results in the woods of the Delhi, New York, camp, parents and alumni say. The camp is now attracting support from a growing pool of benefactors who see timeless value there.
The experience “creates competition, which is definitely a part of life,” says Elbridge T. Gerry, Jr., camp president. “It creates religion. It certainly creates cooperation and discipline. So why change it?”
Since the camp’s founding in 1909, the Gerry family has provided the bulk of its operating budget. As recently as the 1980s, descendants of founders Robert Livingston Gerry and Cornelia Harriman Gerry covered more than 80 percent of annual operating costs.
Today, however, the Gerry family has lots more company in the donor base. Camp alumni and parents cover about $100,000 of the $300,000 annual budget. The rest comes from the Gerry family.
With sufficient gifts coming in, Lake Delaware Boys Camp has left endowment funds (nearly $1 million) untouched for the past two years, according to Geoff Dunham, president of the Lake Delaware Alumni Association. What’s more, the camp has built a new cottage for the chaplain, a pool, and a climbing wall in the past 10 years.
Such recent investments highlight how far the camp has come in the past 15 years. The camp closed from 1995 to 1998 after Elbridge Gerry, Sr., became too ill to oversee its operations. The Gerry family “did some soul searching” about whether to continue, Gerry recalled, and decided the mission was too important to drop.
“We’ve gone through times when we had to take stock of what we had and what we could do,” Gerry said. “The finances had gone really down to nothing. What little endowment we had had almost evaporated. So we are really quite proud that we could restart from there and rebuild to where it is today.”
Lake Delaware has not followed camping trends to do away with spiritual particulars or create familiar comforts for campers; indeed, the camp has found its ethos garnering fresh appeal and support. Why?
Personal formation has a lot to do with it, camp leaders say, starting with the body. Many boys come from New York City and Newark, where many have lacked extended experience in the outdoors..
“The transformation we see is amazing,” says Lake Delaware director Jim Adams, a third-generation alumnus of the camp and rector of St. Peter’s Church in Geneva, New York. “Boys who come to us pudgy are lean. Those who come skinny are putting on muscle. They become healthier and stronger as the transformation unfolds.”
At the camp, boys play hard at basketball, swimming, lacrosse, volleyball, and boating. They hone musical and marching skills, too. Daily drills culminate in a parade each Sunday during camp. Area families, including many from small dairy farms, make a point to bring their children and watch.
The camp forms boys’ character, camp leaders explain, not just in one summer but across eight years. Boys start attending the camp at age 9, and the vast majority return year after year until they graduate at 16. Some continue to return in their late teenage years as counselors, Adams says.
Looking back, parents and alumni can see how the camp’s distinct approach helps boys cultivate discipline and virtue. In an anonymous letter, one parent tells how a son now “copes better with failure, is better mannered and knows what it means to work towards a goal.”
Many boys “are forced to grow up at home, and here at camp they can be kids,” writes Harold Turner, a former camper now in his 20s. “That is one of the most amazing things about camp: the fact that you are guided and directed in your maturation and growth. I learned what it means to be a real man.”
In many ways, Lake Delaware is a time capsule as it carries on the ethic of “muscular Christianity,” a movement popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The belief that physical activity, coupled with Christian faith formation, could help boys and men cultivate moral virtue helped propel the rise of institutions such as the YMCA.
Yet while many local YMCAs now focus more on fitness and less on faith, Lake Delaware has remained resolute about making sure boys are groomed in both. This includes, for example, attending a high Eucharist daily. They hear homilies by the Rev. Ray Donahue, an Episcopal priest who has served as camp chaplain since 1969.
The founders “wanted to help kids become better men,” Gerry said. “They thought the Christian faith, and in particular the Episcopal faith, was something that would help them.”
Competition also builds character, according to the Lake Delaware ethos, and boys have plenty of opportunity. From the moment camp convenes, each one is assigned to either A company or B company. That means the lines of friendly competition are drawn.
All summer, the boys of A vie to outdo the boys of B to see who can score the most points in games and who can keep the neatest tent. Only when camp adjourns for the summer do they learn which company has won.
After camp, boys return to their homes in metro areas from New York to Atlanta. Many return to single-parent households, where mothers do their best to guide sons through puberty to responsible manhood.
Camp ties continue long after the summers spent in Delhi. Each year one camper or alumnus receives a scholarship to St. Mark’s School, an Episcopal boarding school in Southborough, Massachusetts, where tuition, room and board run $51,000 per year. The Gerry family pays for these scholarships.
Camp alumni stay connected by providing financial support, attending reunions, and taking part in an annual work weekend. Such events, plus a commonly held purpose, keep them together.
“We’re trying to teach kids commitment, cooperation, and the importance of helping others,” Gerry said. “If we can do that — and I think we have when we look at what kids have done after camp — then I think we’re accomplishing our mission.”
TLC Correspondent G. Jeffrey MacDonald is a freelance journalist and author of Thieves in the Temple: The Christian Church and the Selling of the American Soul (Basic Books, 2010).