Dear John/Fitch CampPublished 9:45pm Thursday, September 20, 2012
Who founded Fitch Camp, and in what year did it open? For those who did not grow up in Dowagiac, is this an overnight or day camp? Also, did you ever attend Fitch Camp?
— Rashena Johnson, Niles
“I don’t think there’s another camp like it in the United States,” according to Paul Bakeman, 1994 Daily News Hometown Hero. “Where can a kid go to camp for $1 a day when meals cost more than that?”
Bakeman headed the foundation from E. Root Fitch’s 1949 death until his own at 87 in August 2001.
Fitch Camp serves Union Schools District second through fifth grades. Lunches have cost a dollar since 1993. Fifteen cents prior. A select few qualify for an overnight stay at day camp. Fitch Camp also runs a Friday swim program for migrant students.
The camp was born during World War II. The front of the May 14, 1941, Daily News reporting plans for 70 acres from Redding Resort was dominated by Nazis and Adolf Hitler. Dizzy Dean retired from pitching. Judge Herbert E. Phillipson Jr. and D. Bruce Laing were graduating with Dowagiac’s Class of 1941.
Olympic wrestler Chris Taylor, football field namesake, was my counselor. A stellar staff included current board members Tom Underwood and Judy O’Brien and your dad, Richard Anderson, known as a running back before becoming a black belt.
Board members include Harvey Ross, David Mahar, David Springsteen, John Magyar, G. Bruce Laing, Matt Cripe, Dustin Dalton, Mike Frazier and Stephanie Munson.
Counseling was like working off a college scholarship.
In a symbiotic relationship, camp benefited schools and leaned on the district for support, from buses to leadership. Director Chris Cox teaches.
It was an idyllic place. Capture the flag. The 1,000-foot waterfront with buddy board and slide. I learned to swim in Cable Lake.
When I return as a journalist, it’s like time travel.
Supt. James Lewis, Carl D. Mosier and E. Root and Bessie Fitch began funding the youth movement in 1936, arranging meeting places and providing dances.
A girls club met at the Federated Church, which burned. Boys club was in the basement of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.
“Recreation is something we all need — especially in these busy days when we are very tense with the thoughts and worries of war,” a yearbook reported. “Kids who would never be able to go to the lake every day because of the gas (rationing) situation can now do so.”
Dowagiac’s 1943 yearbook said a four-acre victory garden yielded 1,000 quarts of tomatoes, 400 quarts of beans, 100 quarts of sweet corn, 210 bushels of potatoes and five bushels of dried lima beans. In 1945, the harvest went into winter hot lunches for underprivileged youths at the school cafeteria in town.
A 1940s photo shows Herb Teichman, founder of the International Cherry Pit Spit, and future lumberman Grif Cook communing with nature.
The Fitches, who lived on Oak, Courtland and Green streets, had two sons. James died in a childhood fall from a hayloft. Robert lived in South Bend until he died in the ’90s.
“He was a true gentleman of the past, college-educated in New York, where he majored in Greek. He loved children,” Bakeman said.
As Fitch’s secretary and driver, Bakeman accompanied him to New York and the West Coast. “It was a wonderful life very few people knew,” wintering at the Princess Martha, a hotel the Yankees owner favored.
On July 17, 1991, he received a Chamber of Commerce Pillar of Excellence in recognition of his 50th anniversary.
Jerry Hannapel became foundation president after Bakeman.
In 2006, a donation of real property valued at more than $500,000 from the Al and Erna Duchossois family kept the camp afloat.
Dewey Lake property with 135 feet of frontage was sold for operating funds, with six abutting acres retained. With trust investment returns withering, the camp is exploring options, from grants to the Pokagon Fund.
Bakeman followed the credo, “If you can get one kid inspired, he’ll inspire the rest,” and it’s been paid forward many times over.