The best speeches stick with us. In fact, I’d argue, the best speeches are the best because they stick with us. Only in retrospect do we get to know that we were hearing something special—something that would turn out to be important later on. And like a lot of Winnebagans, I consider my favorite speeches—and some of the best, most lasting speeches I’ve ever heard—to be those delivered not from the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office but the podium of the Council Ring.
Two Final Campfire Addresses stand out in my mind. They were speeches that captured what was most important about camp—not only the Winnebago of B&G, and trips, and fun and pep and vim on Echo Lake, but the Winnebago that we each took home with us.
The first was at Final Campfire in 1999—the “Summer of Ubiquity.” I was new to camp that year, and I had learned a lot. I had learned, for example, that spending eight weeks on the shores of Echo Lake was incredibly fun. I had learned what “ubiquity” meant and, just as importantly, how to spell it. But having arrived at camp for the first time that summer, I had not yet had the experience of departing camp. I didn’t know which lessons and experiences would follow me home.
When Uncle Jim Astrove gave his Final Campfire Address, he asked us, “When you leave tomorrow, what will you do with your camp while you are gone?” His answer was “Share it and give it to others, allowing Winnebago more places to grow.” That speech was the first time I heard something that I now understand deeply: what we do at camp is really about learning how to live when we’re not at camp. The trick is to make Winnebago ubiquitous. And “it’s the people,” Uncle Jim said, not the woods or the lake or the Hershey bars, “that give Winnebago the chance at ubiquity.”
I heard the second speech four years later, again at Final Campfire. It was Uncle Paul Schwarz’s last speech as Head Counselor, marking his retirement at the end of the summer of 2002. Uncle Paul’s theme was similar: “While the summer may have come to an end, these gains, these memories, these new aspects of you do not end. They go with you.”
Uncle Paul read from a poem by Robert Frost, “After Apple Picking,” then echoed Frost’s words in his conclusion. The great fruits of camp, Uncle Paul told us, were now for us “to tend and harvest and enjoy.” Then he added: “Cherish this moment. Cherish this summer. Cherish the memories. Most of all, cherish the friendships you have made, and the new person that is you, because part of that new person, part of you, is Winnebago. And you are part of camp.”
I’ll wager that everybody who sat in the Council Ring that night still remembers Uncle Paul’s words of farewell. Years later, I remember that speech best of all. There’s no doubt about why: he was right.