On the south side of Camp’s Fr. Cassidy Athletic Field (the AF) sits an enormous White Pine tree. Oh, if that old pine could talk. For nearly the entirety of Camp Gray’s history, the AF has played a major role in all aspects of the faith, friends, and fun of Camp. That big ole pine has seen a whole lot of Camp Gray history. Oh, if that old pine could talk…
It was just a matter of luck, I suppose. Why were all the trees to my north removed, yet I was left to continue reaching towards the heavens? Had that field been just 2 yards longer, I would have been the next tree to go. Perhaps that jolly Irish priest knew that 60 years later I’d have a story to tell.
You’d think I might be a tad perturbed or upset about the removal of all those trees. It was back in, oh-it-must-have-been the early 50s. For the first 30 years of my existence, I lived a simple, albeit crowded life, standing among the countless pines and black oaks on a wooded plot 9 miles north of Baraboo. There wasn’t much going on in our parts in those days, so I spent my days packed amongst the other trees, soaking up the sun, and watching the squirrels. It was indeed simple, but of course, I’m a tree – I’m not running off to join the circus anytime soon (and with Baraboo’s world famous circus-scene so painfully close, with the ability to scamper away, I would have made news as the most unorthodox trapeze artist ever…).
Thankfully, the removal of those trees hadn’t come as a surprise. Several days prior to the removal, I overheard that Irish priest and a few others walking and talking through my woods. They planned to remove all the trees to my north to create a ball field for a recently opened Catholic youth Camp.
While it didn’t come as a surprise that that many trees would be removed, I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t surprised with how they removed the trees. Well, I should be more precise – the removal of the trees was pretty standard. It was the removal of the stumps that surprised me and shook me from my roots all the way up to my highest needles.
In the early morning, a few days after those trees had been cut down, as just a sliver of the sun was peaking over the horizon, a young local man arrived in a pick-up truck. His name was John Geoghegan. Once he arrived, he pulled off Camp’s driveway near a bundle of stumps. I couldn’t figure out what he was doing, as he quickly got to work boring holes under the stumps. Two large boxes sat in the bed of his truck, but he didn’t pay them much attention for the first bit of time that he was there. Then, once he seemed satisfied with the holes under a few of the stumps, he opened one of those boxes and there, packed tightly, were dozens of sticks of dynamite. Before I knew it, he threw one of those sticks into a hole, lit the fuse, and then moved away from the stump with more swiftness than one of our resident deer. I can still hear and feel the boom of that first explosion, and can see that big stump take flight. On and on he went, blasting off stumps one at a time. It was dangerous work, it seemed, but he was a one-man crew, needing to only worry about his own safety. Safe he was, and skilled – it was obvious this man was not new to the world of explosions.
Unfortunately, that Irish priest, I would later learn, passed away just a few years after he started the Camp. He was incredibly passionate about creating a place where youth could go to both grow in their faith and have loads of fun. He was the one that recruited John to come and clear that field, knowing that kids need big open spaces to run and to play. It’s a shame he didn’t live long enough to witness all of the good things the Lord has done with his Camp over the last many years. To honor Monsignor Francis Gray, they put his name on a large sign at the entrance of the driveway, and thenceforth the Camp has been known as Camp Gray.
You’d think I might be a tad perturbed or upset about the removal of those trees. Friend, that young man with the two boxes of dynamite gave me the best gift a tree could hope for. For the past 60 years, I’ve had a front row seat to the beauty that is the mission of this great place. I’ve witnessed countless games of softball, soccer, football, and capture the flag, and I’ve witnessed thousands of kids contemplate the beauty of God’s existence by gazing up to the starry heavens on a clear summer night.
When I gaze down to the west, I see the Camp’s long driveway, leading from Shady Lane Road into the heart of Camp Gray. I’ve witnessed the arrival, and the departure, of every Camp Gray camper. I’ve overheard campers telling their parents to speed up as they arrive on Sundays, because the driveway feels so incredibly long, and they can’t wait any longer to begin their favorite week of the year. Their excitement is so palpable; even I – a tree – can feel it. Then, on Fridays, I’ve overheard campers tell their parents to slow down as they leave, because the driveway feels so incredibly short. Their sadness at leaving is thick, and they’re hoping to soak up just a few more seconds at Camp Gray.
Also to my west, just before the driveway, sits Camp’s softball diamond. The trees along the left-field foul line hang over left-field, causing the diamond to be narrower than regulation size. The number of softball and kickball games I’ve witnessed on that diamond are more than the total number of all of my pine needles. How about the day back in, oh-it-must-have-been the early 60s, that Bishop William Patrick O’Connor stopped by Camp to show the boys how to swing a bat. The Bishop was close to 80 years old, but his swing was still as smooth as the clay that campers dig from the floor of Camp’s Harrison Creek. Even at his age, he wasn’t shy about crowding the plate, daring the poor sap (aaah- sap! See what I did there?!) that was pitching (look, there I did it again!) that day to deliver a ball across the plate. The pitcher wasn’t about to brush back His Excellency – his pitch came in waist high, right above the plate. The Bishop’s bat slapped that white pill deep to left, just barely missing the overhanging trees. There was a crowd of campers gathered along the backside of the backstop that afternoon. The explosion of hootin’ and hollerin’ from those kids echoed through us pines, and it reminded me of John’s explosions a decade before.
That same backstop was still standing in, oh-it-must-have-been the late 70s, when a new young man took the reins of Camp. Fr. Larry Bakke took over as Camp Director in 1979, and one of the first things he did was to replace that old rusty backstop. Larry Endres of Endres Mnfg. and Ken Ballweg offered to replace the backstop in the spring of that year, and it’s the same backstop that stands to this day. Way out in right-center of the ball field, there used to stand a sign that announced the name of the field, CASSIDY FIELD – so named in honor of former Camp Director Fr. Cassidy. When Fr. Bakke took over Camp, the sign, like that backstop, was falling over. He removed the sign and a plaque, still proclaiming the field, CASSIDY FIELD, was erected behind the new backstop. On that plaque it reads,
FATHER KEVIN CASSIDY
A Great Pitcher Who Never Lost A Game Here
August 19, 1966
Ever since John blasted those stumps off the field, it’s been a great place to gaze up at the stars – some of the brightest stars many of the campers have ever seen. There was a cabin group of 7-year old boys back in, oh-it-must-have-been the late 80s, that spent their second night at Camp sleeping under the stars on the AF. Mike, the counselor of that group, told the kids stories about the constellations that they were trying to piece together way up above. The campers listened to stories of Orion the Hunter and Queen Cassiopeia. One of the campers, T.J., remembers laughing with his new friends, staring up at those big, bright, beautiful stars. Even at 7 years of age, he remembers feeling incredibly blessed to have the opportunity to make new friends and try new things at Camp Gray. T.J. was a camper for many more years after that, and then a longtime staffer, as well.
Back in, oh-it-must-have-been the mid-90s, a game traditionally played in our woods was moved on to the Athletic Field. Who could have guessed playing capture the flag on a field could become such a Camp institution. Ask any camper from the last 20 years what takes place on Tuesday nights at Camp Gray, and without hesitation, they’ll respond, “Capture the Flag on the Athletic Field.” Actually, thanks to the acronym-heavy conversations between former Director Phil DeLong and former staffer Melissa Ruddy, campers will undoubtedly respond simply, “CTF on the AF.”
Do you know one of my most favorite sights? Watching staffers disappear in to the woods Field-of-Dreams style, on the far NE corner of the AF. It was back in, oh-it-must-have-been the early 2000s, staffers Brad Feider and Brian Spader were passionate about building a Marian Grotto at Camp to offer staff a place to pray and rest on their breaks. In recent years, I’ve noticed counselors will take their entire cabin group to the Grotto for evening devotion time.
The most random thing that I’ve ever seen though, had to have been back in, oh-it-must-have-been just last summer, a helicopter came flying in just above the trees on the far side, and landed right on the AF near the sand pit. Yes, nothing more random than that has occurred on the AF – at least, not that I can think of. The Summer Camp staff was standing just below me, and the chopper came swooping in, igniting an explosion of cheers and even a few tears. It was a powerful way for the staff to kick off yet another amazing summer at Camp Gray. Then, as the helicopter took off to fly away, it flew towards me and then up and away.
You’d think I might be a tad perturbed or upset about the removal of those trees. Monsignor Gray’s vision of a Catholic youth Camp on this property, and John’s skill in removing those pesky stumps – those were the best things that ever happened to me. I’m just a simple White Pine tree that got lucky. Why were all the trees to my north removed, yet I was left to continue reaching towards the heavens? Had that field been just 2 yards longer, I would have been the next tree to go. Perhaps that jolly Irish priest knew that 60 years later I’d have a story to tell.
Jeff and I were honored to welcome John Geoghegan back to Camp Gray last month. Still a resident of Baraboo, John sat and told us stories of his involvement with Camp Gray for over an hour. We’d heard stories about stumps being removed off the AF with dynamite back in Camp’s early days. When we learned that John played a big role in that operation, we were thrilled to document his experiences at Camp. When he first arrived at Camp last month to share his stories, I said, “John, I understand you were a part of the crew that dynamited the stumps on the Athletic Field.” He responded with a smile, “I was the crew.” John also told us many other wonderful stories, including those about his time in the Army. He served from 1942-1946 as a part of C Company 409th Infantry, 103rd Division, Rifle Platoon. Thank you, John, for your integral role in improving Camp Gray, and for your service to our country.
It was also a delight gathering AF stories from Fr. Larry Bakke (Camp Director, 1979-1993), Phil DeLong (Camp Director, 1997-2007), and former camper/staffer T.J. Burke – thank you all for your time.
If you’ve been out to Camp Gray recently, you know that the AF isn’t in the best shape, though it continues to serve Camp well. Our hope is to sometime soon bring in topsoil and sod to upgrade the field. We’ll keep you posted. Bleachers around the backstop are also a dream.
Thanks for reading, and thanks so much for your support of Camp Gray! With Summer Camp fast approaching, I’m sad to say that this is going to be the last Tuesdays with Topher post until fall. We’ll kick things off again on September 3rd. Throughout the summer, we invite you to keep a close eye on our facebook and twitter pages, and Camp’s youtube channel. It’s going to be a great summer!