By: Chris “Topher” Aderhold

Arriving to Camp Gray each day before 7:00am, Nate and Tom have begun their work before many folks at Camp are even awake. Rarely seen together, Nate and Tom divide and conquer the long list of maintenance tasks that are needed to ensure that Camp Gray continues to look and run great.

For the past couple of weeks, I’d been attempting to find our fearless maintenance men together in the same place at the same time. Longtime readers of the “Tuesdays with Topher” blog might recall that a few years back I wrote a hard-hitting investigative article about Nate and Tom. The time had come to tell another Nate and Tom story, but first I needed to catch them.

A few days ago, I awoke before the sun, filled my Yeti with piping hot coffee, and moseyed over to the maintenance shop, hoping to catch Nate and Tom before they had set out for the day. I’d warned them that I might stop by, and as I approached the shop, they were outside, preparing to get rolling with the day’s tasks. It’s almost as if the humble, hard-working men of the Camp Gray Maintenance Department were hoping to avoid my prodding questions by beginning work even earlier than normal.

“Gentlemen!” I said, as I approached. It was as much a greeting as a plea for their time. “I won’t take more than 5 minutes,” I promised.

As we strolled into the maintenance shop to commence my line of questioning, my senses were joyfully overwhelmed with the aroma of sawdust, chainsaw grease, and testosterone. Was I walking onto the set of Tool Time? It feels like it every time!

Nate and Tom go about their work quietly, taking care of business, avoiding the spotlight. It can be easy to take their work for granted, because oftentimes things get taken care of before we’re aware that something needed to be taken care of. When things break, they fix it. When snow falls, they plow it. When toilets clog, they unclog them. When the grass grows long (and this summer, with seemingly constant rain, it grew long often!), they mow it. There’s never a down time for the maintenance men of Camp Gray.

However, this isn’t a story about the day-to-day tasks that keep Nate and Tom busy. This is instead a story about a massive project that Nate and Tom undertook this past winter. It was a project that required thousands of man-hours to complete. It was a project that they tackled in addition to their countless day-to-day tasks, making completion of this project all the more remarkable.

It’s a story that, if I’m not careful, will balloon to more than 2,000 words. So, gather ‘round the table, friends. It’s story time!

The brand new St. John Paul II Dining Hall at Camp Gray!

Surely you’ve heard – thanks to the generosity of many – the construction of a much-needed, modern dining hall at Camp Gray was completed this past May. More than just a dining hall, the 16,000 square foot building is home to our camp store, a large basement storm shelter, two meeting areas for small groups, a colossal back deck, and a restaurant-quality kitchen that much more efficiently serves the hunger-needs of our 5,000 annual campers and retreatants.

The actual dining room, however, is perhaps the crown jewel of the building, and it comprises roughly a quarter of the building. As one walks into the dining room for the first time, eyes are drawn towards massive wood beams that support a vaulted ceiling rising to 24-feet above the floor. Surrounding the room on three sides are vast windows that give inspiring views out into nature. And of course, you can’t miss the plethora of spacious, beautifully crafted dining room tables, each surrounded by 4 sturdy and comfortable benches.

For many years prior to 2017, meals during Summer Camp took place in a pavilion on the south side of “main camp.” Loads of good memories abound from the small pavilion, and loads of scrumptious meals were devoured atop the colorful, rickety picnic tables that filled the building affectionately known as The Pav.

During Summer Camp 2016, with fundraising for the Strength for the Journey campaign going well, plans to break ground on our new dining hall were set for September. For nearly a year prior, countless hours were spent with the architects at ADCI, Inc. in Lake Delton, designing the dining hall. Additionally, there were many conversations regarding how and with what to fill the various rooms and spaces.

The tables upon which meals are served at Camp Gray take quite a beating during the post-meal rigamarole. There’s banging, cheering, and a whole lot of jocularity. The picnic tables in The Pav weren’t always rickety – they became that way because of the exuberant controlled chaos that occurs at the conclusion of each meal.

Knowing that we didn’t want to transfer the old tables into the new hall, Jeff approached Nate and Tom with a simple question, “Wanna build some tables?”

“I was excited, because I knew it would be a fun, new challenge,” Tom told me.

They spent some time designing the tables and benches, ensuring that they would stand up to the high volume of traffic that they’d see throughout the year. A prototype was then built in the maintenance shop. They liked what they built, but with a maintenance shop crowded as it is, Nate and Tom quickly realized they’d need more space to build 20 tables and 80 benches.

The current Camp Gray gymnasium sits unused for much of the winter. Built in 1965, long before Camp Gray operated year-round, it wasn’t designed to keep the chill out during the winter. Put simply, it’s an ice box for 5 or 6 months out of the year. Too chilly to host retreat activities during the winter months, it was plenty warm enough for the Camp Gray maintenance men (a small propane heater in the corner thankfully took some of the chill out of the air). In early November, Nate and Tom turned the gym into a woodworker’s paradise, complete with all the saws, tools, and elbow room one needs to build dining room furniture to fill 4,000 square feet.

The Camp Gray gymnasium, though too small for full-sized games of basketball, is perfect for building 20 tables and 80 benches!

As I sat in in the maintenance shop with Nate and Tom, surrounded by power tools, listening to their story, I was struck by the scope and size of the project. I knew it was a big project – they were in the gym daily for 6 months! However, this story is like so many at Camp Gray. While Nate and Tom certainly did the bulk of the work on this project, there were countless people, quietly serving in the background, volunteering their time to help them to turn this dream into a reality.

The lumber for the project, for instance, wasn’t purchased at a nearby lumber yard. A story about Nate and Tom constructing enough tables and benches for 250 people is special and unique enough. Making this project even more special and unique was that all of the wood used to build the furniture came from Camp Gray trees.

Brian Thompson, an extraordinarily generous, longtime supporter of Camp Gray, owns a portable mill. For the past several years, when trees come down at Camp Gray, he turns the wood into lumber. To make room for the new dining hall, a fairly large swath of trees were cut down last fall. Brian, a member of the Baraboo Knights of Columbus Council 746, recruited countless men from the council to help turn massive logs into usable lumber.

“Nate and I had a busy winter,” Tom said, “but we were only able to complete this project because of the guys milling and drying the lumber. Brian seemed to always be here, hard at it, milling and stacking the wood.”

Before the milled wood could be used in the project, it was first hauled to Lyndon Hardwoods – a lumber dryer in nearby Lyndon Station. Calvin of Lyndon Hardwoods, is yet another friend of Camp Gray.

“He dried 5 or 6 trailers full of wood for us over the course of the winter,” Nate shared. “Each time, I’d ask for an invoice, and he’d say, ‘No charge. We took care of ya.’”

Nate and Tom began rattling off a litany of names, one after another, as they wanted to ensure that everybody that played a role in this project received credit.

“The Cottage Grove Knights helped out for a day or two of milling,” Nate shared, “and Doug Hau – make sure you mention him. That guy did a lot.”

“And Deb and Den Terry,” Tom added, “They helped us out big time with staining the wood.”

“Don’t forget Slater,” Tom continued, “Slater cut down the trees in the first place. We couldn’t have done it without him!”

Hardly a day went by – between November and late-April, that at least one of the fellas couldn’t be found making progress on the project. The gym became like a second home to Nate and Tom.

Tom and Nate: The fearless, humble, hardworking men of the Camp Gray Maintenance Department!

“Did it get old,” I wondered, “spending so much time on one project in one place?”

“It sometimes got monotonous,” Tom told me, “but at the end of the day, you could look back and say, ‘Wow! That’s progress!’ Then, at the end of each week, we’d step back and think, ‘Whoa! Even more progress!’ Things started stacking up. It was quite a feeling once we finished the 20th tabletop. We were excited to move on to the benches, but then it hit us… There’s 80 of them!”

Nate continued, “With four legs per bench on 80 benches, there were a lot of cuts. That’s 320 legs! I walked into the gym one day, and Tom is busy cutting legs – he’s got a huge stack, and he said, ‘only 135 to go!’”

“If we ever made bad cuts,” Tom said, “we just turned that wood into kindling for the brand.”

Before the epoxy finish was poured onto the tabletops, Nate branded each table with a cross designed to look like the crosses worn by Camp Gray staffers. The brand gives our tables an even more unique feel, and it’s thanks to the generosity of Nick Ballweg and Endres Mnfg.

The tables were finally completed and moved into the new hall back in mid-May, just before Summer Camp began. Though the tables have been in the hall for months now, I wondered if there was still a feeling of accomplishment, even now, every time they stroll past their work.

Tom responded quickly with a chuckle, “All I think is ‘Thank God this job is done!’”

After reflecting for a few moments, he added, “There is a great feeling of satisfaction. It was a big project – one that we learned a lot from. It’s very satisfying to see how the tables turned out, and that they’ve held up so well after one summer.”

I told them I would only take 5 minutes of their time – I ended up taking more than an hour. It’s always a joy to spend time with the maintenance men of Camp Gray.

The 20 tables and 80 benches, built over the winter months of 2016-2017, will continue to serve hungry campers for years and years to come. Three times a day, campers and staff gather around the tables to share stories, laughter, joy, and scrumptious food. For years and years to come, the tables and benches in the new Camp Gray dining hall will tell the story of two hard-working men, and a plethora of supportive volunteers, that spent a winter in a gym, turning Camp Gray trees into 4,000 square feet of beautiful, sturdy, and welcoming furniture.

Nate and Tom: As always, thanks.

The Strength for the Journey campaign rumbles on! To learn more about our efforts to grow and improve Camp Gray, please visit here. To learn how you can become involved with the SFTJ campaign, contact Jeff!

On the bottom of the 80th and final bench built by Tom and Nate.

Thanks for tuning in, friends! Do you have any questions for the next installment of the wildly popular Tuesdays with Topher Mailbag? Send them here! Check out the firstsecondthird, fourth, & fifth mailbag!