WORTON -- There's something about YMCA Camp Tockwogh. Kids have been bunking in rough cabins at the 303-acre preserve in northern Kent County for 60 years. Many of them never really leave.
Year after year, sometimes generation after generation, they return as counselors or administrators to pass on the outdoors experience to 2,000 youngsters every sun-drenched summer.
This week, 135 staff members have been sweeping out the cobwebs, sanding boats and completing last-minute training before 400 campers arrive Sunday for the first of the season's five sessions. Across the country, workers at 8,000 day and overnight camps are following a similar routine, making ready for an estimated 6.5 million children -- the clients in what has become a $3 billion industry.
At Camp Tockwogh (pronounced TOCK-waw), the preseason spruce-up is an essential ritual of a hundred details -- ensuring the horseback riding trails are clear, the sailboats are seaworthy, the soccer, baseball and lacrosse fields neatly clipped, the arts and crafts building fully stocked. Chuck Hayward, who runs the place, is almost evangelistic as he zooms around a maze of trails on a golf cart, rattling on about the hardwood-covered bluff that is perched 70 or 80 feet above a mile-long stretch of Chesapeake Bay shoreline.
Hayward knows every square foot of the camp that first captivated him as a child. The camp sits directly across the bay from Aberdeen Proving Ground, and the executive director says the occasional rumble of exploding ordnance is the only intrusion. Chestertown, the Kent County seat, is about 10 miles away.
"I started here at 8, and I'm 47 now," Hayward says. "It's home to me; that's the only analogy I can come up with. Most of my oldest friends are camp friends."
Actually, it's home for about eight months a year. The rest of the time, Hayward works at the Wilmington YMCA headquarters. The Delaware organization bought the first 190 acres of the property for $15,000 in 1938 and added to it over the years, Hayward says.
Cost of camp
The camp costs $745 for a two-week stay. About 30 percent of the 8- to 15-year-old boys and girls who attend are from Delaware. Nearly 50 percent of the campers come from Pennsylvania. The rest come from all over.
Like many former campers, Hayward moved up the counselor ranks as a teen-ager and college student.
After graduating from Hampton Institute in Virginia, he worked as a city planner and for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Hayward, who had served on the camp's board of directors, had spent nearly a decade as the director of the Delaware Department of Services for Children, Youth and Families when the executive director's job at Tockwogh came open.
He eagerly traded his coat and tie for a T-shirt and shorts when he took over the $1.8 million camp operation last year.
"The reason I'm here is that even after all these years, it's never rote; it's something new and different every day," Hayward says. "This place made its name because kids come here for a great time. Over the years, as they grow older, they send their kids."
A new generation
Not surprisingly, Hayward's son, Charles Jr., 18, is marking his first summer as a sailing counselor.
This week, Mike Schwander, 18, a sailing counselor from Newark, Del., helped prepare a fleet of small motorboats and sailboats. He spent two years as a camper, but this is his first summer as a counselor.
He'll earn about $1,550 and receive free room and board. Counselors in supervisory jobs can earn up to $3,200 for the summer.
"I'm definitely not here for the money; none of us are," Schwander says. "You never have worries at camp. It's got to be the happiest place on Earth. I'd do it for free."
David McMillan, retired president of the Bank of Delaware, has more history with the camp than anyone and a link to Tockwogh that now spans three generations. Several of his grandchildren will be campers this summer.
In 1937, the 10-year-old McMillan made the trip from Wilmington to the site along with two other boys, accompanying David Creighton, a YMCA leader who became Tockwogh's first director. The Y was considering buying the property for an outdoor camp, and he wanted some youthful feedback.
"We walked out on that bluff overlooking the bay, and it was magnificent," McMillan says. "We were the first kids to see that view."
Through the end of the Depression and the World War II years, McMillan worked as a cabin counselor and athletic director -- jobs that normally would have gone to college students who then were serving in the military.
Last month, McMillan's son, Carl, was married at the chapel at Tockwogh. Carl is member services director for the Wilmington YMCA.
Counselor Matt Nierenberg is spending his 13th straight summer at Camp Tockwogh.
His parents, Steve and Wendy Nierenberg, who are administrators at private schools in the Philadelphia area, met at the camp when they worked as counselors.
"I have friends I met during my first summer here," Nierenberg says. "A summer here is like years anywhere else in terms of the closeness you develop with people."
Even as Hayward moves the camp toward an extended schedule in the fall and spring, providing getaway conference space for corporate groups, church retreats and other nontraditional uses, Tockwogh's mission remains, he says.
"The whole point of the experience here is fun," says Hayward. "One of the best activities I can think of is on a rainy day, you start a mud-sliding competition. Take a bunch of kids and a big mud puddle. It's that kind of opportunity for spontaneity that we don't want to forget."
Pub Date: 6/17/98