What children get from camp, what staff members get from camp, is more than a sense of bonding, or the satisfaction of working with youth, according to Camp Kilcoo "Chief" John Latimer.
"It's like a political campaign where there is a mutual task and you're sharing fun and cares and beliefs in important things - only it's stronger in camp," he says.
A campaign manager for former Ontario premier Bill Davis, Latimer was also a protocol officer - the walls of his study are lined with signed photos and mementos of trips to Canada by various and sundry members of the Royal family.
But the place of honor is taken by a framed copy of Kilcoo's hymn - Maker Of Men, which is sung to the music of Finlandia - and he would rather talk of the thousands of signatures of former campers on the walls of the dining hall of the Gull Lake camp and the tenderness and pride he sees when a father shows his young son his signature and tells the boy his name will be on the wall, too, some day.
Latimer is a sentimental man. His son David now runs the camp, but John and his wife, Peggy (aka Mrs. Chief), are still very much part of the place - and not simply because they have a cottage next door. There are staff reunions every three years, an annual ball hockey tournament, the Highland Yard, an eight-kilometre race every August, when 700 runners - mostly former Kilcoo campers - raise at least $20,000 for camping bursaries by running from Camp Onandaga, their friendly rival camp on Little Bob Lake, to the town of Minden.
There's also the pre-season advance camp when former staffers are supposed to be doing repairs and painting for the weekend but end up sitting around Chief's cottage telling tales and tossing back beer.
"John Latimer was a god to us," says CBC sports announcer Scott Russell. Even though the Latimers became "a surrogate family" to him, he still remembers the elation of first feeling comfortable enough to address Chief as John. Russell worked at the camp in various capacities until he was 27.
He arrived at Kilcoo in '71. He was 11 years old and trying to put on a brave front about being away from home for a whole month but he'd left his life jacket and paddle on the bus and was expected to start a three-day canoe trip the very next day. His counsellor was able to retrieve the items.
"My counsellor was Dave Hadden. He went on to play football for the Argos and the Ti-Cats, a tank of a man," Russell remembers.
Russell became a counsellor as well. And thrived. He loved everything about camp, being awakened by loud banging on the cabin doors, the 7 a.m. polar bear swims, reveille before breakfast, singing grace, paddling a canoe on a lake as the mist rises from it, keeping an overnight vigil to get your Indian name - and Chapel Point, especially Chapel Point.
Latimer says if the dining hall is the first place former campers take their sons, Chapel Point is the second. Russell says it is a "sanctuary," a beautiful, serene place of rock and pine against water, where the whole camp gathers Sunday mornings for non-denominational inspirational hour and where a kid could go when he needed to be alone. Russell went there when he learned a favorite camper, a high-energy, grinning little foster kid named David Nixon, had been hit by a bus and killed.
"He was a great kid, really obnoxious, looked like an elf except he had a foul mouth," Russell said.
The summer hockey hero Bobby Orr visited camp, Russell had to run intervention on the boy. Orr was suffering from well-publicized knee injuries, Latimer recalls, and he and Russell knew David was the kind of kid who'd take it upon himself to test out the truth of the state of the million-dollar knees - probably via an energetic kick. Latimer told Russell not to let David out of his sight; Orr was saved from a 10-year-old's high-flying karate kick by Russell's fast action. He practically surrounded David with what Latimer calls "protectors." Orr was unscathed and the visit went off without a hitch.
Russell and Latimer were crazy about David and news of his death hit them hard. Russell stole away to Chapel Point to grieve, where after about half an hour he was joined by Latimer. "You grow up at a camp," says Russell. "You learn what is important, you look at the world in a different way."