Continuing with our series, “What does it mean to be a Camper for Life?”, we bring you an interview with Dick Jones, Waterfront Counselor from 1968. Dick was never himself a camper, but meeting Freddie and spending a summer at Camp Rising Sun left him with specific, lasting insights about the nature of leadership and the value of knowing and befriending people whose background is different from one’s own. Here is Dick’s interview with former board member Carl Schoenberger (‘66).
Carl Schoenberger (CS): Thanks for taking the time to chat. Part of this project is staying in touch with alums who are doing valuable work and to highlight that within the Camp community. Can you take a few minutes to talk about what you’ve been doing? About your career and volunteer work? I understand you’re now in a second career.
Dick Jones (DJ): That’s right. My first career was in IT. From the 1970’s until I retired in 2015, I was in programming, at a succession of companies, with the longest stint at the McCormick Spice company. I retired from McCormick in 2007 and then got another job in the same field, on a contract (first with Lockheed and then Northrop Grumman), doing IT for the Social Security Administration. I spent the last eight years of my career working for the government, on Security Boulevard. But it was really all just one career -- doing basically the same thing, the whole time. Although as you can imagine, I worked with a rapidly changing range of technologies, equipment, and software.
Since I fully retired, I’ve dedicated my time to actively helping veterans. I am a veteran myself, and I started by joining the American Legion. I volunteered to become their service officer, which is a local post in this area. I eventually worked my way up and affiliated with the state level security office. I try to use the network of contacts I have among various nonprofits, support organizations and people I know within the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), to try to get help for local veterans that cross my path.
CS: How did you become interested in working with veterans? Was it an outgrowth of your own military service?
DJ: Call it guilt, Carl. I was in the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) in college -- because there was a 100% chance I would be drafted, otherwise. I went active in the service in October of 1968, as a Lieutenant in the Ordnance Corps. I trained at Aberdeen Proving Grounds and was assigned to a post in Fort Leonard Wood Missouri. I shipped out to Korea in October of 1969. I served 13 months there, but I did not go to Vietnam. When I got back, my two-year obligation for active service was up. I spent the next four years in the reserves, which resulted in one summer deployment. My service time was benign when it could have gone very differently: I was never wounded, or shot at; I don’t suffer from PTSD. I didn’t leave the service with any incapacitating physical or mental injuries -- and most of my compatriots weren’t nearly so lucky. Once they were home, Vietnam era veterans suffered a long time of being publicly shamed and castigated. That’s finally changed because enough time has passed. But I always felt guilty. I came through the war so well, and so many people didn’t. Now, when I have time and I’m in good health, I decided to see if I could equal the scales a bit. That’s the motivation, nothing more. No one pays me for this, it’s strictly voluntary. I’ve decided it’s a productive use of the time I have.
CS: That’s excellent. Have you been running into the same type of problems dealing with the VA bureaucracy that have been reported in the media?
DJ: Oh yes. The biggest learning curve, for me, has been that the VA is this massive bureaucracy. Like any Federal department, it has a mountain of forms, and they have a huge, blisteringly complicated website… There are facilities all over the country, but to get anything done, you have to file forms and talk to people and it takes months of work. I’ve had some good results and some encouraging things happen, but then I’ve also seen a lack of results for some people who have a severe need that the VA is just not meeting. That’s where I work, as an advocate. When I meet with a vet, it’s one on one. Me sitting across the table from some guy who has serious problems. I try to be the one who can help them work through the system and fix things for them. It’s not always true, but I’m working to make it true. It’s an uphill battle.
CS: Do you have any organizational backup behind you? Any volunteer organizations that are dedicated to this effort and that have had some success?
DJ: My official role -- and my backup -- comes from within the American Legion organization. The backup person that I go to (for additional muscle), is my counterpart at the state level, the State Legion Service Officer. He’s a level up from me. Each state has a department of the American Legion, and there is a role for service officers within each state department. There’s two of them for the state of Maryland. My service officer is legally entitled to approach the VA and to obtain confidential health records for veterans he supports. The avenue I use to approach him is this: say I have a new veteran -- John Smith. I get John Smith to sign a power of attorney form, authorizing the American Legion to legally serve as his advocate. That form is then countersigned by my state level service officer. He works in downtown Baltimore and has first-hand contact with the state Veterans Administration executives. He can go to meetings, hand them forms, ask questions, make requests -- all in person -- to physically obtain benefits for these vets.
CS: From the way you describe it it sounds, at least superficially, as though that process ought to work well. But I gather in practice, it does not?
DJ: Well, to give my state officer credit: he is a 28-year retired marine, very dedicated and diligent, and pretty knowledgeable. He works his butt off supporting these people. But, he’s simply one person for a whole state. He’s overwhelmed. Every day he walks into a maelstrom of activity, and sometimes getting a hold of him is difficult because I’m fifth in line to talk to him. Essentially, he can only do for these veterans what the VA will let him do. There are some independent benefits that the Legion can offer, but most of the funds are administered directly by the VA.
CS: Is there some obstacle to having more than one person in this role?
DJ: There are actually two people at that level, they are co-Service Officers. They are both good guys, both dedicated. I’ve gotten useful help from both of them, at times. But still: two people for the whole state, and they work within a bureaucracy. The VA is picky about how they spend because they face a lot of political scrutiny -- people who think they spend too much or spend the wrong way. The national VA enforces regulations that enable them to withhold funds or not pay them out, with vigor.
CS: I see. Maybe now you can tell us a bit about your history with Camp. I believe you started as a staff member in 1968?
DJ: That’s correct. I was the Waterfront Counselor -- this was back in the days when the Sawkill was still a river. It was a summer job, the year I graduated from Dartmouth. I had a friend at school, Paul Smith, who had been a camper in the 1960's. Freddie came up on one of his recruiting tours to hire counselors. He was on campus and Paul said, “There’s this guy Freddie, and he has this camp I went to. I think it’d be a lot of fun for you to get a job there.” I went to Freddie’s presentation, and it was a movie that the campers had made to advertise the Camp. I knew I needed a job that summer -- I was going into active military service in the fall. I wanted something to do, and this sounded like something that would be fun. I expressed interest, and a willingness to get my water safety certificate. That spring, my last term at Dartmouth, I took a water safety course as a physical education course, so New York state would give me permission to give swimming lessons. And then I reported to Camp.
I got there a week ahead of the campers. We set the place up, and had a great time doing it, and then the Camp season followed. Some of the alumni, those with a broader perspective, have said that the 1968 season was a season unlike any other. I believe it. There was all this societal turmoil, having to do with the Vietnam war, and the war protests; and racial protests following the death of Martin Luther King… A lot was going on, in the spring and summer of 1968.
CS: I think you’ve mentioned that you remember it as a particularly tumultuous summer, as well?
DJ: I remember the early part of the season mainly for the acrimony between the campers, some of whom aligned themselves into opposing factions. It was something that made Freddie angry and very frustrated. They would get after each other, and it was pretty bad at times. Eventually, in the middle of the camp summer, everyone came around and started cooperating, It was one night at dinner, I don’t remember how many weeks into the season we were, but Freddie was upstairs and the campers were in the dining hall. The campers, for some reason, spontaneously broke into one of the well-known camp songs. Freddie heard it and came downstairs, and there were tears in his eyes because he realized they’d finally gotten the idea of what Camp was supposed to be doing. I don’t remember the exact time date, but I do remember the moment and the impact it had on Freddie, profoundly.
CS: Do you feel as though Camp influenced your professional career and your later life?
DJ: Camp had a profound influence on my perceptions and my worldview, and the potential I could see for that kind of international exposure; the benefits that come when people get to know each other one on one. It didn’t influence my career choices, per se. What pushed me into IT was really that I qualified for an entry-level training class. What camp did was inform my views. Computer programming and IT, even in the 1970's and 1980's, was much closer than other professions to being egalitarian, without some of the usual prejudices. There were a whole bunch of women and they were looked at as being more or less equal to the guys; there were black professionals and whites. The unifying force wasn’t anything social, it was whether they could code -- they could compete because of their skill sets. I saw virtually everybody come into my field, over the course of a career. It’s sort of the opposite story of what you see in the news now. When I was at Social Security for 8 years, I was the token white American man in the room. Everybody else was a mix of races and nationalities; non-white Americans but also Pakistanis, Chinese, Russian nationals... They were all highly qualified technicians, doing great work. That experienced dovetailed nicely with my first exposure to that possibility, at camp.
CS: And do you feel that the Camp experience is still providing that kind of experience, for kids today?
DJ: I think so. My exposure has been limited recently, but from what I’ve been able to see, the mission and objective has never diminished. For kids that age, Camp opens their eyes to possibilities and makes them aware of getting past social differences at a critical stage in their development.
And you know, it all goes back to Freddie. When I met him, I was stunned. I’ve used him as an example in countless meetings, of what I think a good manager or CEO should be. He was a leader in the classic Dale Carnegie mold: the kind of person who is able to inspire a person to do things well beyond their capabilities. You could always tell Freddie had his own agenda for where he wanted the campers to go, but he didn’t throw it into their face. He worked with them and worked through them so they came to realizations gradually on their own. He was incredibly skilled at doing that. Freddie was my first real exposure to that kind of authority, the kind who used his authority wisely. It was before my career and my military service, so it made a profound impact on me.
I saw Freddie’s mentality and skill set replicated by the best corporate leaders, and it reaffirmed to me that it was the best way to go. I also saw a lot of managers who lacked any of those skills. When I was a manager myself, I tried to employ Freddie’s method. He was my first exposure to that kind of leadership, and it’s a lesson I never forgot.
Other posts in the Camper for Life series: