NORTH HERO -- For the better part of a century, Ray Jacoby has been going to summer camp.
He first went to camp as an 8-day-old infant in New Jersey, where his father was the youth director at a church camp. And as a kid, through the 1930s and 40s, he attended YMCA camps in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, where his father worked.
When others grew up and made summer camp a childhood memory, Jacoby kept going each summer, immersing himself in the word of swimming lessons in cold water, arts and crafts, homesickness and summer sports.
As a young man, he started working at a series of YMCA-connected summer camps in New England and has since held every job from counselor-in-training to director.
Now 81, Jacoby, who lives in Vermont’s Lake Champlain islands, can still be seen some days at Camp Abnaki, helping counselors and organizers raise money so they can share with youngsters the new experiences and lessons he has relished throughout his life.
"There are so many different experiences a kid can have in camp he doesn’t get anywhere else," Jacoby said recently during a visit to Camp Abnaki, the YMCA summer camp in North Hero he his family have been connected to for decades. "It’s that first experience that’s so important. There’s always a guy here, somebody saying ‘great, you’ve done a great job."’
Jacoby never attended Camp Abnaki, which recently celebrated its centennial but his children and grandchildren have. (Camp Abnaki deliberately spells its name differently from the Native American group originally found in what is now northern New England and parts of Quebec, the Abenaki)
Over the decades summer camp has changed. No longer do the boys at Camp Abnaki bathe in the lake with a bar or soap and parents are more involved in the day-to-day activities of their children than in the past. And there are always at least two staffers in each cabin rather than one.
But in many ways camp hasn’t changed.
"Getting away from home, getting away from your parents, trying new things, learning skills, learning how to swim, learning how to shoot a bow and arrow, learning a little bit about team work, but also learning about being non-competitive is stuff that the Y has done for years," he said.
Jacoby’s role at camp now is largely behind the scenes, helping raise money and offering guidance to the people who now run Camp Abnaki, but he’s known to some of the staff and he’ll drop by occasionally during the summer camping season.
"He’s been a mentor to me and gives us more offseason guidance for fundraising, capital development, for board development," said Jon Kuypers, who for the last 10 years has been the director of Camp Abnaki. "He’s spent so much of his life helping other people."
Of course, Jacoby held other jobs outside of camp: He’s spent years overseas, teaching Iranian children and then running a youth center in Libya for the children of American oil-field workers, before the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and before the rise in Libya of Muammar Gaddafi.
He’s also worked as a teacher and he spent many years in philanthropic fund-raising.
Jacoby and his family first came to Vermont in 1952 after Jacoby’s brother got married and he and his wife were given a two-week honeymoon in the Lake Champlain cottage of a friend their father had worked with at a New Jersey camp.
"They liked it so much my father came up and then they bought, with my uncle, three cottages," Jacoby said. "Then my folks came and built a retirement home in South Hero."
Shortly before his father Ray’s death at age 90 in 1995, a birthday party was held for him in the dining hall at Camp Abnaki.
"My father’s 90th birthday was celebrated in that dining hall with about 50 people," Jacoby said. "One of the last things he said to me was ‘you’ve got to help that camp."