Ellen Freeman Roth                      

August 7, 2003

Summer Camp Directors Live By Open-Door Policy

For eight weeks during the summer, one small cabin serves as both command center for 160 people and a hearth for hundreds of hugs. The door may keep out flies, but it's invisible to the boys who bound in with no thought of knocking.

Barbara and Arthur Savage wouldn't have it any other way. They own and direct Camp Samoset here in Casco, a traditional overnight camp with an emphasis on sports and special events for boys ages 7 to 15. When the Savages bought Samoset 15 years ago, they relocated the directors' house from a more remote lakeside building, now the infirmary, to a cabin in the center of activity near the campers' bunks and next to the dining hall. They take the pulse of the camp from here. Cheers from the soccer field roll down the hill and through the windows before dissipating over the lake. Roars erupt behind the house when someone hits a home run at Fenway Park - or Samoset's approximation of it, a ballfield replete with Green Monster and Citgo sign.

A meeting on the directors' porch broadens the concept of home office as Barbara, director and surrogate parent, interrupts camp business for - other camp business: "Ian, who are you wrestling with?"

"I'm wrestling with Michael."

"Knock it off, please."


The closest the directors' house comes to luxury is the television and computer in the room adjacent to the porch. Campers amble in to watch an inning or two of a Red Sox game or to write the camp newspaper on the computer. There's no computer in the official camp office next door.

"Have you seen those secretaries in the office?" Barbara asks. "They'd have a tough time saying no to the cute little faces asking if they could check something on the Internet."

It takes just a few steps to cross the computer/TV room and enter the multi-purpose living room that houses small staff meetings; the kitchenette with microwave, refrigerator, and peanut butter and jelly (the Savages eat meals with the campers); and the Savages' office. At Barbara's desk, post-it notes are stuck so densely on the wall they appear to be a design element, like paper shingles. Down a short hall are the bathroom and bedroom, "theoretically a private area, but I suppose that's not, either," Barbara says. Privacy is the only stranger to this house, "but that's OK because we have so much fun, and it's a dramatic change from home life."

The Savages' off-season home in Wellesley, Mass., serves as the camp's winter office.

When the Savages bought Samoset, their daughter, Jackie, was 14 and son, Rob, was 11.

"I became a camper here, but I steered clear of this house," Rob says with a smile. "It was funny because all my cabin mates at one time or another went to the directors' house while I stayed in the bunk. As I grew up, that feeling faded and I found the right balance."

Rob, now 25 and an actor, continues to return to the camp, now as head counselor, waterfront director, and coordinator of special events. Jackie, now 29, a social worker, is the camp's associate director and helps oversee weekend activities.

Memorabilia like old fencing equipment and an inscribed and well-worn canoe paddle dot the walls of the directors' house, a salute to camping history, but this is not a museum. It's more like Grand Central Station under the pines. By 7 a.m., the phone starts ringing and staff meetings begin.

"Our door is always open, our porch light is always on," Barbara says. "A few years ago, a new 9-year-old camper who absolutely loved camp was terribly homesick early every morning. He'd awaken and be here at 6:15 daily, sitting and talking with Arthur and the dog. When the camper returned the next year with no trace of homesickness, Arthur told him, `Hey, I miss you!' "

The open-door policy is reinforced the first night of camp in an all-camp scavenger hunt. Campers search for items such as a baseball, which they need Arthur to sign five times.

"The kids have to run all over camp and into our home," says Arthur. "Since at their own homes they walk in without knocking, we expect them to do the same in our home," says Arthur.

"We're telling them to come and share our home with us, to feel ownership of the camp. That collaborative feeling and sense of belonging builds their confidence. That's a major ingredient in the transition from child to young adult."