The date is February 15, 1965. Two years prior, a large piece of prairie land was donated to the Kansas-Oklahoma Conference of the United Church of Christ by a local family of which our organization is named- White Memorial Camp. Council Grove Lake had just become operational for flood control in 1964. The rocks from the new reservoir were to be used to build the structures of WMC. Before the camp infrastructure was built and water levels would fill the lake, WMC began hosting the very first work summer camps dedicated to developing the site.
Thanks to a group of passionate people with a vision to use outdoor education as a means of expanding the church, camp still stands strong on that solid foundation. Camp was quite literally grown from the native, local stone into a unique and spiritual place.
One man and his family would begin shaping the WMC legacy. Enter, Harry Kasitz, WMC’s first Camp Host.
I recently had the opportunity to meet with Harry. I arrived, with recently retired Pastor John Austin and WMC Accounts Manager Tricia Austin, at his home in Newton, Kansas. Harry is 93 years old.
He arranged his kitchen table with photos, news articles, budget reports, and letters. While we sifted through 17 years worth of camp history, Harry and Rhonda, Harry’s caretaker, entertained us with quirky anecdotes about camp. Some stories were comical. Others were quite meaningful and delved into the true spirit of camp and how a summer experience with the right mentors, just might save a life.
My favorite stories were about overcoming the perils of the prairie. In one such story, snakes infested the rocks people were trying to relocate. Harry arranged for a flock of 2,000 sheep to be brought to camp to stomp on the snakes as they grazed the hard to reach places. I didn’t ask him what he had to bring in to get rid of the sheep! And then there was the weather. It turns out tornados do not wait around for cabins to be built.
The first year, there was no running water and nearly 500 campers stayed in tents on platforms. Harry spent much of his early days hauling water to and from the kitchen. To feed campers, chickens and cows were purchased from local farmers. I was glad to hear that camp has always had delicious food! To attend camp in 1967 it cost $27.50. Although times have changed, the experiences remain priceless.
Other traditions that remain strong, other than a constant need for tire repair, are the emotional farewell Friday mornings experienced by our campers with ID/DD who spend the last hours of camp missing everyone and planning for what they will sing at Vespers the next year. As for the youth camps, we still gather around the dinner bell donated by the Santa Fe Railroad. We still build faith, community and friendships. We still make lasting memories and have unique experiences that only a summer camp can provide. We still act goofy, get messy, and sleep outside (albeit this time, by choice.)
I think of the myriad of projects we currently have going on and I sometimes feel overwhelmed. Then, I think back to Harry’s great leadership and the early days- the uncertainty of a new camp, the intense manual labor, the know-how of the workers, the dedicated volunteers, the community contributions, and the vision it took to bring WMC to life. That gives me something to aspire to. I am grateful for our safe place and cherished amenities. Join us this summer and let’s make our own memories!
Thank you Harry, and to everyone who was there in the beginning.
Hope to see you soon! Justin Whittaker