Growing Up Meyers

Few Winnebagans will be unfamiliar with Uncle Bennett Meyers. Although he passed away in 1985, his thirty-five years on staff, including more than two decades as head counselor, have played an outsized role in defining the spirit of Winnebago to this day. The Bennett Meyers Award—honoring the first-year, non-alumnus staffer who best embodies Uncle Ben’s values and character—was reinstituted in 2014.

To honor the legacy of Uncle Ben and his wife, Aunt Germaine, we asked their daughters—Lesley, Shelley, Alison and Hilary Meyers—to remember camp during their father’s tenure.

The distance between Camp Winnebago and the Kents Hill School, where we lived year-round in the 1950s and 60s, was under four miles. But the bumpy drive in our old blue Ford seemed interminable as we rounded bend after wooded bend on Route 17, at last glimpsing Echo Lake glinting like crystal through the pine trees. We would trudge down the dry, grassy hill next to the baseball diamond, forbidden to run or chatter, carrying picnic hamper, towels, and plastic tubes.

We were four little girls, Uncle Ben’s daughters. And though we could throw and catch a baseball with the best of them, in Chief’s all-male kingdom of fields, docks, campfires, and cabins, we’d learned to stay silent and invisible—at least, most of the time. Our mother, Aunt Germaine, wisely orchestrated our daytime arrivals to coincide with rest hour.

Uncle Ben, who slept at home only every few nights, would walk down to Betty’s Beach to greet his “lovies,” but he invariably fell asleep right on the dock, arms folded under his crew cut, spectacles folded neatly to one side. We’d call out, “Daddy, look at us!” as we attempted ballerina sinks and handstands. We were met by light snores and his handsome face in rare repose as he caught “a few winks,” momentarily recovering from the miles he walked daily, games he refereed and umped, the midnight oil he burned juggling trips, tallying Brown and Green points, and maintaining his own undefeated streak of tennis victories against the younger “unks.”

But it was always Echo Lake, with its clear-as-glass surface, fresh-water mussels, dangerous drop-off, and haunting calls of loons at twilight that pulled us to Winnebago summer after summer with a magical force. It was Betty’s Beach and the games we invented and challenged each other to win, and returning to the chilly water after enforced rest on the dock and a lunch of our mother’s tuna-fish and egg-salad sandwiches wrapped neatly in waxed paper.

Sometimes Uncle Howie would breeze by on a Sailfish, and middle sisters Shelley and Alison would swim out to greet him and beg for a ride—always successfully. Seeing Aunt Emmy with her raven hair and exotic red lipstick chatting away with our mother on the dock from the vantage point of the middle of the lake had its own mystique. Our close relationships with Uncle Howie and Aunt Emmy (and, in earlier years, with Chief and Mrs. Chief, who seemed then like elderly, remote figures, but truly were sweet, warm, and kind to us) are special and enduring memories.

And then there were the performances we sometimes stayed on for into the evening, singing “Good Night, Winnebago” before Taps, and taking in the much anticipated end-of-season counselor play, always a musical. Even today, we’re convinced that the productions directed by Uncle Jack Sterling and Uncle Dick Fosse were as sophisticated and entertaining as anything on Broadway today. Uncle Paul Schwarz’s talent as Mr. Applegate in Damn Yankees!—Wow!

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