Campers and Council Fires: My 65 Years at Summer Camp

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Story written by Dick Zimmerman

I think it was 1951. I was looking for a summer job and a high school teacher in the small town in Western Michigan where I lived suggested I apply to the Culver Military Academy summer program in Culver, Indiana. As a kid I always enjoyed going to YMCA camp and considered it the best way to spend a summer, so I decided to apply to both Culver and the YMCA camp. The Culver offer came first and I took it, and I have now been at Culver every summer for the past 65 years except for a two-year stint in the Army.  I keep coming back because I look forward to the summer, I enjoy it. When I started at Culver I was teaching high school, and working with the younger kids in the summer provided a welcome change of pace.

In my first position at Culver, I worked with the Drum & Bugle Corp. Major Meyers, my direct boss, was the director of the Drum & Bugle Corp, and he was a man I grew to admire very much. In addition to the Drum & Bugle Corp, he ran a program in which students participated in reenactments of American Indian council fires and he got me involved in that. It just developed from there. The purpose of the council fire program was both educational and entertainment. We had games, songs, and yells and then a portion of the program where American Indian stories were reenacted by the students.

Dick with Camper 1960

We still use this same program today. We teach authentic American Indian dances to the campers and each week we also present a narrative of American Indian culture acted out by our campers for an audience of other campers and guests. I taught in the Drum & Bugle Corp for over 10 years until, in 1964, Camp Director Col. Este asked me to take over the American Indian lore program. That is how I ended up in the position I still lead at Culver Summer Camp. One thing I requested when I took it over was to make the program all American Indian themed because the boys were all wound up after the games and songs and yelling.

After that, it was hard to get them to settle down for what we were trying to teach them, which was an appreciation of  another culture. Overall I’ve been blessed with a very good staff. They are the key to the whole thing. We have had good luck with our kids and counseling staff. Almost without exception I have on my staff former campers who have come back to camp to teach Indian dance. When the counselors come back from taking the kids to the airport at the end of summer, they tell me “oh, those kids were dancing in the airport.” What I am happiest about is that our campers have learned about another culture they didn’t know about before, or had misconceptions about. If we can get across to the kids that other cultures, like American Indian cultures, are just people like we are, they can begin to develop an appreciation of diversity and expand their horizons. That’s what summer camp has always been about.

Click here to watch a short video interview of Dick Zimmerman.


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