Clubbers from more than eight generations flocked to the Boys’ and Girls’ Club to celebrate a unique milestone on Sunday, when the oldest day camp in the United States marked its 125th anniversary with an afternoon picnic get-together.
Greg Prechtl, McCredie Family Director of Boys’ and Girls’ Club, specifically advocated for the particular date.
“A lot of former Clubbers come back for the Fourth of July weekend,” Prechtl said. “We knew we wanted to do something.”
But weather conditions worried Prechtl.
“The clouds rolled in and I was scared that it was going to rain,” Prechtl said. “We wondered if anyone would show up.”
Boys’ and Girls’ Club assistant director John Chubb also worried about the turnout.
“We didn’t know whether 20 people or 400 people would show up,” Chubb said.
Both those worries were alleviated quickly once the event started.
Current Clubbers enjoyed the clear sunny day playing lawn games and tossing a Frisbee. Young adults reunited with best friends and older generations shared memories of their youth. Altogether, more than 350 former directors, counselors and Clubbers gathered for the festivities.
Bill Karslake knows Club well. He’s the fifth out of eight generations who’ve attended Boys’ and Girls’ Club.
“It’s a family tradition,” Karslake said. “When you’re old enough you go to Club, then you become a counselor, then you have children and the cycle starts all over again.”
He also remembers some of the quirkier things Clubbers used to do, including driving around in cleaned out garbage trucks.
“When we took trips to Midway and Panama Rocks with our girlfriends under our arms, you could still smell the garbage,” Karslake said. “It was pretty bizarre, but that’s part of the charm.”
The charm of Club wasn’t lost on Jack Voelker, former director of recreation and youth services, who remembers when Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary, came by to sing songs with the kids when the trio was set to perform at Chautauqua Institution.
“It wasn’t in his contract,” Voelker said. “It’s just sort of what happens here.”
Other memories included horseback riding, canoes tied together to get as many people in the lake as possible, and flour battles where Clubbers would throw bags of flour at one another.
It’s not all fun and quirkiness in Club’s past, however — one dark moment in particular lives on in people’s memories: the July 5, 1991, grandstand fire.
“It was traumatizing,” Voelker said. “Here’s a wood building shooting sparks like an enormous bonfire with the wind carrying out flames to the rest of Chautauqua.”
As the sparks spread to the roofs of many Chautauqua homes, along with a quick response from the fire department, lucky weather came in the form of a thunderstorm that doused the roofs and the ground.
“You think about what could have happened,” Voelker said.
But through trauma came resiliency. Within one day, Club reopened as the staff came together, picking up scattered debris and working to make everything safe again for the kids.
“That’s just Boys’ and Girls’ Club,” Voelker said. “We just kept going.”
As the celebration Sunday started to wind down, friends said “See you later,” rather than “Goodbye,” making plans to come together again.
Some people didn’t want to leave. Others thought about how at one point they considered Club a temporary stop, like Prechtl, who only planned to spend a few years as director before moving on, but quickly changed his mind.
“This place grabs you,” Prechtl said. “Once you meet the people, work with the kids and see how much it means to them, it sucks you in.”
Club Director of Programming Jennifer Flanagan sticks around because Club is ingrained in her.
“It’s my identity,” Flanagan said. “It keeps me young and that’s why I come back.”
Chubb’s been with Club since 1972, first as a Clubber, then a counselor, and finally, as assistant director. His father worked at Club. He met his wife Kathy at Club. For him, Club is home and he just wants to share that with everyone.
“I just want everybody that comes to this place to have the same opportunities I had,” Chubb said. “It’s a matter of keeping those experiences alive.”