The ’60s Spirit Prospers at a Maine Camp
Ron Furst’s summer experience brings tolerance and self-confidence into the woods
When Ron Furst graduated from BU in 1969, he was expected to take over the family paintbrush factory. But Furst was everything his father didn’t want him to be — a philosopher, a dreamer, a hippie — and he had other plans.
Influenced by BU’s politically outspoken professors Howard Zinn and Murray Levin, Furst (SMG’69, SED’75) decided to open a private psychotherapy practice to help troubled children. During the summers, he left his affluent hometown of Newton, Mass., to lead teenagers on wilderness adventures through the mountains of Colorado and Wyoming. “In the wilderness, I saw teenagers grow into healthy, tolerant, and self-confident individuals,” he recalls.
Those experiences led him to Raymond, Maine, where in 1986 he purchased Camp Hawthorne, one of the oldest summer camps in the country. Built in 1919, surrounded by 120 acres of pine forest, the ramshackle establishment had fallen into disrepair, with broken beds, leaky boats, and rotted docks jutting into the lake.
But Furst saw possibilities. “Kids today live such isolated lives,” he says. “They’re afraid of dirt, they’re afraid of nature. It’s important that they learn to trust and enjoy one another.” And so he taught himself how to wire electricity, install plumbing, and cook for 100 people. He took on every job, from camp director and bus driver to nurse and psychologist.
Today, Camp Hawthorne remains rustic; there are no sprawling lodges, tennis courts, or riding stables. The lakeside cabins are small, furnished with sagging bunkbeds; the mess hall still could use some updating. But what the camp lacks in amenities, its campers make up for in creativity. And that’s the whole point.
“Imagination is highly valued,” Furst says. “Just as important, we foster a culture of joy and community spirit by teaching tolerance, social responsibility, and fair-mindedness.”
An elaborate dream catcher hangs between two trees, with driftwood, branches, and pinecones caught in its web. Colorful murals adorn the buildings, and brightly painted totem poles, rocks, and benches crafted by campers from years past are scattered throughout the grounds. Even a trip to the bathroom is an experience: tiny Christmas lights twinkle from the ceiling, and the walls are stenciled with silhouettes of John Travolta, à la Saturday Night Fever. “It was part of a camp beautification project,” Furst explains.
The camp is egalitarian: campers rotate dishwashing and gardening duties, and activities are never categorized according to age. There’s the traditional archery, sailing, canoeing, arts and crafts, filmmaking, drama, mountain biking, and rock climbing, as well as the less conventional; at night, campers can wander to the lake to listen to beatnik poetry at Joel’s Coffee Haus, and on Sunday mornings they gather in an outdoor chapel for a short, nature-oriented service.
“People say the spirit of the ’60s is nothing but a faded memory,” Furst says. “But I see it reflected in the eyes of our campers every day.”
Furst has seen generations of campers grow from children to adults. Many return as counselors, and one, Cullen McGough (CFA’99) is currently the assistant director. “Camp is such a formative experience,” Furst says, “because it is the first place where children create a world for themselves outside of their families.”
On a rainy Saturday night, the lodge is filled with campers dancing to disco music. “Our dances are kind of legendary,” Furst says, his arms flailing to the beat. “The only rule is that everyone has to go stag.”
Dressed in an outlandish costume pilfered from the drama department, a counselor coaxes a reluctant camper onto the dance floor. The music pulses, lights flicker, and walls reverberate with pounding heels. In the center of the crowd, Furst dances.
Vicky Waltz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article, in a slightly different form, first appeared in the summer 2009 Bostonia.2 Comments