February 4, 2013 by Doug Webster
I was, unfortunately, unable to attend memorial services for Rachel after her death in 2010, but prepared remarks which I sent as a contribution. The following is an adaptation of what I wrote:
We all have our own memories of Rachel Rogers Clark and of Camp Otter.
I first came to Otter in the summer of 1955 and attended through 1960. My father Edwin had grown up in Ithaca and he attended as a youngster back in the 20s. I don’t know what it is about Otter, but he never forgot what a great place it was, and when I grew old enough, I suddenly got an offer to go there too
I don’t know how Mom and Dad made the connection with Rachel and Charlie in Buffalo, but they did, and that summer, I was put on a train in South Bend, Indiana with a steamer trunk full of camp clothing (to which my mother had tediously affixed labels with my name imprinted) and shipped me off for a day-long ride, on my own, to Buffalo.
The Rogers met me at the Buffalo train station and took me to their home where I spent the night. The next morning, I found myself aboard a school bus with a lot of young people, mostly from the Buffalo area. We faced another day-long journey, through Canadian customs, around Toronto and then northward into the “wilds” of central Ontario and the camp.
In those days of two-lane roads, it really was a full-day journey. We arrived late in the afternoon at the camp gate, lugged our trunks and duffel bags into our cabins and headed for the dining hall where we wolfed down a “dinner” of bologna sandwiches and “bug juice.”
At the mention of any of these memories, I know everyone here could immediately launch into a litany of their own special recollections of Camp Otter and what it meant to them, and I could too.
But this is an occasion to remember not the Camp, but the people who helped continue and strengthen a long Otter tradition of guiding and mentoring young people in a very formative stage of their lives.
As many of you know, Rachel and Charlie Rogers were “hired” by Howie and Edith Ortner to effectively run the day-to-day operations of the camp. I believe my first summer there was their first or second summer. Though I didn’t know it at the time, the Rogers had come to regain control of a camp. Howard Ortner had assumed ownership of Camp Otter in the mid-30s and he and Edith ran it themselves for over two decades. However, as the Ortners got older, some of the counselors would disappear at night in the camp car leaving young campers unsupervised in their cabins.
The Rogers quickly took over, restored order, and over the next roughly 15 years….first Rachel and Charlie, and then Rachel and Berner Clark…effectively ran Camp Otter.
Rachel, Charlie and Berner were teachers and their commitment to teaching and working with young people was the core of all they did at Otter. We all went there to have a great summer of swimming, canoeing, sailing, hiking, sports and of course our beloved canoe trips. But for Rachel, Charlie and Berner, every summer meant work and lots of it…..in fact we often forget that they were not only doing their full-time jobs as teachers, but they had full time jobs for Otter….recruiting new campers, lining up veterans to come back again as campers and then junior counselors and counselors, working out budgets and managing every aspect of the camp’s daily operations during the summer.
They had to coordinate the work of the legendary Bill Crewson, who lived on a farm across the lake and who kept the cabins shoveled, sawed ice and cut wood for the camp in the winter and served as a jack of all trades, contractor, farm operator and mentor to generations of campers in the summer.
They also had to line up camp cooks…not always an easy task since in the early days, the cooks had to know how to practice their craft on wood stoves and without electricity. They had to line up a camp nurse, and they helped the camp transition to a co-ed operation…with three daughters, a pretty natural decision.
Ah…co-ed camp. Throw together a hundred boys and girls, many of them wandering dazed through puberty with hormones blazing, and it is astounding that despite years of summer romances, nobody ever strayed over the lines of propriety. In part that was because Rachel could have easily have qualified as an Army Ranger, operating behind enemy lines at night. When curfew rolled around and you were trying to score that final kiss, Rachel always seemed to materialize from the darkness to remind you it was time to unpucker and head for your respective bunks.
Because the era of Rachel, Charlie and Berner covered a period from the mid-50s to the late 60s, there are overlapping “generations” of us who were there during various periods and obviously not all of us were there at the same time.
Regardless of that fact, everyone who went to Otter came away with the same values and learned the same things….and perhaps the most important thing of all for all of us was the discovery that you could do a lot more and endure a lot more and appreciate a lot more of life because of the Otter experience.
I often told friends that in the event of a major catastrophe, with power and water and other amenities of life in short supply, Otter alumni would treat the whole thing as simply another camping experience.
We prided ourselves on the fact that our camp didn’t have a lot of amenities. We also prided ourselves on the fact that there was no age discrimination…. everyone participated in activities together and everybody got to contribute. We prided ourselves on an equality of the sexes. We gutted out portages and took it as a badge of pride when we traveled the longer ones without stopping. We knew what roughing it meant and we learned it at Otter. And Rachel, Charlie and Berner made sure we got a chance to learn it and experience it and we were all the better for it.
As I tell friends and colleagues about the fact that we still hold reunions over a half century after attending this camp long closed, they often say, “That must have been a very special place.”
And I tell them, “It truly was, but I don’t think such a place could exist today. If you wanted to start a summer camp and went to an insurance agent and said, ‘My plan is to send groups of young people out on their own in the wilderness of Canada for up to two weeks at a time under the supervision of teen-agers, to teach them important lessons about life and themselves,’ after the agent stopped laughing, he’d call the police and child protective services.”
And yet…think about it…..in all those years, the most serious problems I know about were a hand burned in a campfire, an eye-injury when a branch snapped back on a portage, and a trip of six campers (one of them my brother Chuck) who had to improvise their way back to civilization with just one canoe when the other was swept into a logging sluice and smashed. In that latter case, they did it, and it was nothing special….just something you did because it was ‘The Otter way.’
Otter gave me a tremendous appreciation for the environment and wilderness and adventure and travel. I have had the thrill of taking my own children to Algonquin, my daughter to Northern Alaska and myself to Baffin Island. I’ve been on foreign exchanges in Germany and Sweden, and seen a pretty sizable amount of the world.
And wherever I have been, a bit of Rachel and Charlie and Berner have been there too. Whenever we held a camp reunion, Rachel was in her element….all of her “kids” had come back “home” for a couple of days and she loved to see us all. She had a genuine interest in us, knew of our lives since camp, and took pride in our growth and our achievements.
We were among the most fortunate people to have been able to go to Camp Otter. It was a magical place and much of that magic was due to the steady guiding hand of Rachel, Charlie and Berner as they carried on the Otter legacy started by Charles V.P. Young, and continued by E.B. White, R.C. Hubbard and the Ortners over a period of almost six decades.
This is a memorial service for Rachel. She was a wonderful woman and she was a tough cookie…..she had to survive the death of two husbands, raise two families, teach, and play a major role year-round in running Otter. She didn’t make a lot of money doing it, but for her, the rewards weren’t monetary. They were the young people whose lives she helped shape. I know if she were here right now, she would tell us that all of our accomplishments and successes were her reward.
And all of HER accomplishments and successes were ours.