BELLEFONTAINE, Ohio - The day at Camp Willson was supposed to begin with a trumpet blaring from the public-address system and Old Glory steadily rising up the flagpole. But the two campers in charge on Sunday, despite decades of experience, couldn't get the banner to budge.
BELLEFONTAINE, Ohio — The day at Camp Willson was supposed to begin with a trumpet blaring from the public-address system and Old Glory steadily rising up the flagpole.
But the two campers in charge on Sunday, despite decades of experience, couldn’t get the banner to budge.
Their camp mates, a bunch of wisecracking men mainly in their later years, didn’t waste the opportunity.
“Isn’t that supposed to be at the top of the pole?” someone shouted.
“Yeah, top of the pole! Come on, dummy!”
“Is this what you learned in Girl Scouts?”
Once the flag finally flew, the campers cheered and retreated to the dining hall for breakfast. One led the group in saying grace, praying about getting together again next year.
“Amen,” he concluded.
“Too long!” the rest shouted — the standard response, whatever the length of the blessing.
Such is life at Men’s Camp, the one week a year that Camp Willson is occupied not by homesick children but by a group of adult men, including some who have attended for decades.
Although the YMCA Columbus camp also offers weekends for women and families, Men’s Camp — established in 1919 — is considered one of the YMCA’s most enduring traditions.
“If camp was good for the young boys,” camp history quotes YMCA directors as saying, “it will also be good for the ‘older boys.’??”
From Friday night through Wednesday, about 70 men participate in many typical camp activities: swimming and fishing (on Lake Mac-O-Chee), hiking and horseback riding, and ample eating.
Active campers — the youngest this year is 22 — can take advantage of zip lines and a high ropes course. The older ones, including a 91-year-old, are content with playing a game of cards or shuffleboard, reading a book in the shade or talking at a picnic table.
The Men’s Camp philosophy: “No goals, no agenda, no structure, no deadlines, no responsibilities; no wives, kids, bosses or chores.”
Dick Golen, 86, added a few more long-standing rules: “No gambling, no liquor, no women.”
“It’s a terrible place,” he quipped.
Camp Willson is terrible enough that the Gahanna resident has been going there for more than 50 years. So have the members of the so-called Cincinnati group, which represents about a third of the 2013 campers.
“I told my kids, ‘You can’t get married during camp week, because I won’t be there,’??” said 82-year-old Cincinnati resident Jack Benmayor, who hasn’t missed the fun in 49 years.
His son did more than listen: Mark Benmayor joined his dad two decades ago and has returned annually since.
Through the years, the camp experience has changed little: The men like to stay in the same cabins, see the same people, do the same activities (although, once female staff members were hired, skinny-dipping was banned).
During every meal, campers bang silverware on plates until someone rings the dining bell. They fish in a weekend tournament that raises money for camp equipment and, on Sunday afternoon, play an annual softball game against the American Legion of Bellefontaine.
Men’s Camp has long been popular with an older demographic.
Joe Spangler, who was in his 20s when he first accompanied a neighbor to the camp, remembers feigning stomach pain to justify going home after he saw an elderly man shuffling to the dining hall in his slippers.
But, once Spangler began joking with the men, he realized that the age gap — as well as other differences — didn’t matter.
“You could have a custodian, and you could have a judge,” said Spangler, 55, of Canal Winchester. “Everyone’s just equal.”
Considering the aging population, though, Jim Sexstone, Camp Willson executive director, has been trying to recruit younger campers through YMCA branches and its website.
But Sexstone wants to advertise that Men’s Camp isn’t about stereotypical manly stuff.
“It’s more than that,” he said.
Four Iraq war veterans use the camp as a place to re-connect since their 2005 deployment, during which two were injured. They sometimes take a boat out at midnight to discuss things only they understand.
“For me, it’s been a godsend,” said one of them, Jim Stahley, 46, of northern Kentucky.
Camp Willson has always been meaningful to Dave Shelby, who was 9 in 1938, when he began attending the children’s camp. The son of a single mother, he couldn’t have afforded the camp if not for YMCA scholarships and work opportunities.
At 84, Shelby credits the experience with placing him on the path to college and his career as a high-school principal. In his third year at Men’s Camp, the Victorian Village resident is thankful to spend time at the place where he grew up.
“It’s changed dramatically as far as the facilities,” he said. “But the spirit, it’s absolutely the same.”