On Ben's Farm

Welcome Mat for Freshmen

You're a nervous teen-ager in the summer of 1946, waiting for, maybe dreading, your first semester at Durham. A letter shows up in your mailbox, an invitation to Bear Hill Pond Camp. "If you can come, it'll be swell," enthuses Connie Person '48, of Littleton, N.H., in a note chock full of good cheer and zest. "Honestly, it's hard to tell you how much fun Freshman Camp is, BUT—we know!"

Arriving in Durham via Freshman Camp, as Barbara Peyser '50 did, created a terrific sense of camaraderie. "The informality of it, the camp atmosphere, canoeing, swimming, volleyball, sitting by the fire and singing. It was a great time, and it made us feel important."

Before Freshman Camp, there was Freshman Week, and during the '20s, you'd have found a much different kind of letter from President Hetzel. "The exercises scheduled will include lectures, tests, conferences, and practicums on the following topics: Personal Hygiene, How to Study..." and so forth. Freshman Camp, which started in 1932, changed all that.

Over the years, it's been set in different sites around the state, Camp Marist in Ossippee, Camp Fatima on Upper Suncook Lake, Center Harbor on Winnipesaukee, Camp Lincoln in Kingston. In the '90s, it even migrated for a couple of years to Lake Sebago in Maine. The numbers have fluctuated, too, from 300 to 400 in the early years to 150 in recent years. Back in the '30s, it was a summer camp for big kids, and in the '90s, they're still playing horseshoes, falling down in sack races, and hooting at goofy plays in the evening. It's true that discussion sessions, led by counselors and faculty members, have always been part of the mix, but the tone has remained breezy. In the '50s, they'd toss around the burning question, "Are professors human?"

Student-run from the start, camp has always been about getting comfortable with the idea of college. Camp promised "Fun! Frolic! Friends!"After World War II, camp was a way to make friends before you faced all those veterans who'd just returned from Europe and the South Pacific. By the '60s, the theme had turned to "individual growth," and camp became a woodland Woodstock. In 1970, the schedule promised, "Four days of being you." The staff, calling themselves "Emissaries of Spirit," wanted to know, "When did you last listen to your heart?"

In the mid-'80s, the pendulum had swung toward "individual growth" and away from institutional oversight. Many campers, especially women, came away uneasy about the unsavory turn some of the hijinks had taken. When a counselor died in a car crash on his way to campus, the program came under scrutiny, says J. Gregg Sanborn '66, '77G, special assistant to the president. "Camp was made much smaller, with a more traditional way of selecting staff. Slowly, it's grown back to what it used to be."

Geoff Grant '97 can attest to the comeback of fun, and the bonds that develop when you've been tied to someone's ankle in a frantic, zany race across a meadow. "From the first moment of camp," he says, "I immediately made lasting friendships."

Grant went on to serve as a counselor for several years and saw real transformations. A freshman, for example, would arrive shy and quiet. "By the last night, in the no-talent show, he's on stage in a polyester leisure suit, lip-synching to Harry Connick, Jr."

One constant among traditions, Grant says, has been the beanie hunt. "No one can leave camp until someone finds it. Sometimes the buses are idling and ready to go, then somebody will remember the beanie hunt, and everyone will drop their bags and run off in all directions.

"It's funny," he says. "People you wouldn't expect will say, 'I wish no one had found that beanie, so we could stay here the whole year.'"

Louis Mazzari is the managing editor of Identities, a journal of anthropology, and a Ph.D. candidate in history at UNH.

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