Armin “Whitey” Luehrs was a Twin Cities, regional and national YMCA camping specialist and leader for 42 years, from 1948 – 1990. This article by Joe Nasvik illustrates the impact Whitey had on many generations of YMCA campers and staff. Whitey’s impact continues today, along with that of his wife Ginny (1924-2016), through endowments they established during their lifetimes for YMCA Camps Widjiwagan and du Nord, and through a gift for the Y in their estate. Whitey passed away on December 20, 2019, at the age of 95.
By Joe Nasvik
I first met Whitey in 1956 when I was 16 years old and it was the start of a 64-year relationship. I was one of his campership cases who went to YMCA Camp Widjiwagan for a month session that included a 15-day canoe trip. I joined the staff in 1959, and was at a crossroads in terms what I wanted to do for an occupation. Whitey commented that I worked well with groups and suggested that I might consider working as a youth director for the Y. I decided to do that and he said that George Williams College in Chicago (the Y’s training college) would be a good place to finish my college degree. Because of Whitey and my time at George Williams College, I learned a lot about working with groups, values-based programing, and about what our social responsibility to our fellow man should be. Whitey changed my life and the way I thought about things.
Whitey was one of those larger-than-life people who one encounters maybe once in a lifetime. When I was on the staff at Widji from 1959 to 1962 we all stood in awe of him. He commanded respect without ever asking for it. He seemed to know everything that was going on in camp, including the pranks and things we staff members tried to keep from him, and he was always a supportive friend and good listener. He preferred not to be in the spotlight, in his mind it was never about “me,” always about “we.”
Over the course of the past two years, I helped him write about significant events at Widji during the time he was the camp director—a pivotal time in Widji’s history. In the course of our talks he told me a story he had heard, and when I suggested he include that in one of the writings we were working on he said we couldn’t do that because he had only heard it from one source. At a time when “fake news” is in the headlines every day, one would never have to worry about Whitey. He was strictly honest. He loved stories and loved to tell them. His sense of humor often came out at those times, and every now and then you could get a glimpse of his mischievous side too.
Whitey said once that he thought work programs were the best programs of all — work being the universal form of communication. People can work together who speak different languages and understand each other as they work. A real sense of caring develops too. There were always work projects while I was on the staff. We split endless volumes of wood for the sauna, and peeled the bark off logs and lifted them into piles where they could dry out for a couple seasons in preparation for Bob Zimmerman’s visit with his crew during the winter months to construct log buildings. We also hauled rocks to make cribs for docks that could resist ice movement in the winter and mixed concrete to cast footings for new building construction. There were also the on-going applications of “Wood Life” on the log buildings to protect them from insects. Whitey often worked alongside us on these projects.
Whitey was a master at building strong Boards of Managers, and, more than anyone I met over the years, he had a clear understanding of their roles, his role as the Y professional, and how they should work together. He nourished great loyalties and friendships among board members and many became very dedicated to Widji and its values. The board enacted many changes during Whitey’s tenure and highly valued his leadership.
Whitey was hired to be Widji’s camp director in the spring of 1950, but he didn’t actually start work until the fall of that year. He succeeded Bob Nankivell, and it was Bill Reitzke who filled in for him as the director that first summer. At the time, the camp was struggling to attract campers so there was an in-camp and canoe tripping program and a girls session. The in-camp program included rifle shooting, an archery range, volleyball, basketball and a craft program. But Whitey thought Widji should take full advantage of the wilderness canoe country at its doorstep. He wanted people to come to camp because they wanted a wilderness canoeing experience. He started making these changes in 1952 — as a graduate of George Williams himself, he also insisted that canoe trips be small groups with one counselor.
Whitey thought a lot about the girls program when he started at Widji. Nationally, many camps were offering coed camping but he thought it would be best if girls had the same opportunity as boys so he focused on girls programing. At that time, girls’ trips went out with a woman counselor and a male guide, and he followed that format until women staff learned good trail skills and demonstrated they could take trips out alone, without male guides. The first person to earn this trust was Lois Eyinck, followed by Ann Haugen, Helen Berg, and Sally Davis. Not long afterward all girls trips went out without male guides because Whitey trusted that women counselors had the ability and the experience needed.
Whitey looked for two qualities when he hired program staff: good camping and trail skills and good people-working skills. He said that if he had to pick one over the other, good people-working skills were the most important. Widji would teach the camping skills. As time went on, Widji was able to hire staff from within, campers who came back year after year who knew the “Widji Way.” Widji knew they could be good counselors.
He was skilled at managing and supervising staff, and his catch phrase was “expect and inspect.” He had great faith in his staff and delegated enormous responsibility to them. But he felt it was also his responsibility to know that his trust was well placed. He was constantly “out and about” and listening carefully. He often walked through camp at night to be sure that all was well. Staff in those days were constantly amazed that he knew everything going on. He also made himself available to staff whenever they needed to discuss things with him.
Of the many professional positions that Whitey held at the Y, I think he was the most proud of his accomplishments at Widji, and in retirement he was very proud of the continuing success of the camp (as well as the strength of all the Twin Cities Y camps). But for me, his crowning achievement was buying Camp du Nord and launching a YMCA family camping program there. There was nothing like it in the U.S. He did this while trying to convince the St. Paul Y that buying the du Nord resort was a good idea at a time when resorts all over the state were going out of business. He also helped to raise the money to buy Camp du Nord from private sources. I worked on both the Widji and the du Nord staffs. His innovative program at du Nord was masterful.
If I (and my father) had never met Whitey I would not have gone to Widji, probably would never have visited the Boundary Waters, would never have sat in the seat of an Old Town canoe. I wouldn’t have gone to George Williams or become a youth director, and I wouldn’t have worked in people-working professions. Our children never had the chance to meet Whitey but they certainly knew about him. One of our daughters went to Widji and joined the staff, and her two sons went to camp and one of them was a staff member last summer and will be again this year — none of that would’ve have happened either.
Those of us who were friends with Whitey dreaded the day we received the news he was no longer with us even though his legacy and his influence will be felt for a very long time.
Widji is part of a greater Outdoor Adventure community. One topic that has gotten a lot of needed attention over the past few years in this industry is managing and responding to mental health concerns in the field. Widji is just one of many programs who have seen an increase in participants coming to our program struggling with their mental health. To address this, Widji has adapted in many ways in order to effectively support our campers. Our administrative team are all trained in Mental Health First Aid, our seasonal staff receive basic training focused on assessing if someone is in crisis and in need of advanced care, and we work with multiple mental health professionals in order to determine how to best support each individual camper.
We also recognize there is a limit to the level of mental health support that we can provide. Similar to wilderness medicine where we do not practice beyond our scope, we do not want to set unrealistic expectations that put campers and staff at any greater risk. While trail has the potential to be a place of healing, it can also be an isolating experience and one of great struggle for someone coming without the proper support plan and network in place. We are working to be more transparent in what physical, emotional, and mental proficiencies are necessary for a successful trip at Widji. Our ultimate goal is to ensure the overall wellbeing of our campers. We will always be learning new and better ways to do this and have been challenged by this journey but also have grown a lot as an organization and as people.
If you know a camper who wants to come to Camp but is struggling with their mental health, we ask that you to reach out to us before coming to Widji this summer. We want to work as a team with campers and families to ensure that we’re providing an experience that will be successful for that individual.
Widji wrapped up a fun and successful fall Outdoor Learning Program season on November 8th. Overall, approximately 545 participants came to Camp and learned, explored, paddled, hiked and bonded with their classmates and groups in just over 2 months! Some of the comments from students, teachers and chaperones include:
“Parents are telling me stories about the impact Widji had on their kids this fall. Kids have become more independent and confident, are spending more time outside, and even guiding family adventures outside. It's so great! Thanks for facilitating this in these young lives.”
“I had a great time because it was an adventure every second.”
“I had a great instructor. He pushed us to try new things and let us explore. I loved getting over my fears and finding new ones. I felt like I could find my own limits.”
“I really appreciated the instructors’ patience and positive attitudes no matter what came their way.”
“I usually don’t enjoy my time at camps but I had an amazing time. The hikes were great and I had so much fun with the instructors and my friends. I can’t wait to come back!”
We’re looking forward to kicking off the winter season in early January and have a busy schedule of schools and weekend groups ahead of us!
On Friday, July 12th of this past summer Widji alumni from across the country made their way to the shores of Burnstide Lake to celebrate 90 years of Camp Widjiwagan! Some drove up from the Twin Cities, others made Widji a stop in their cross-country summer road trip, others flew in from the East and West Coast, along with a variety of other paths that brought folks together.
While the event occurred July 12-14, planning had begun almost a year earlier. Widji alums Sara Mairs and Mark Holloway graciously agreed to co-chair the 90th Reunion Planning Committee. Sara and Mark pulled together a core group of additional committee members with a good representation from different eras, to brainstorm, plan, and execute Widji’s 90th birthday party. Additional volunteers contributed to help with everything from program input to schedule design and housing logistics. It was incredible to see the energy and passion of people working together for this event.
After almost a year of meetings, emails, and phone calls, we were ready. The weather also cooperated with a nearly perfectly warm and sunny blue-sky weekend. If there were any concerns about the weekend, they quickly vanished as people arrived to check in at the Sigurd Olson Center. Hugs, pictures, and nametag coloring kept everyone excited and busy in settling back into a place so special. Joe Smith even provided a little fiddle background music to add to the charm.
Once folks were checked in the festivities began. On Saturday night there was a Barn Dance in Kirby Dining Hall along with a campfire happening in Burntside Circle. Saturday morning allowed the chance to explore camp, take a canoe out for a paddle, or a hike in the woods. Bruce Casselton also worked extensively on a “Pop Up Museum” in the Trail Building capturing the unique history of Widjiwagan.
By lunch on Saturday, we hit our maximum attendance at about 240 people! During lunch, we recognized Lois Eyink, the first female Voyageur Trail Counselor from 1956, along with Bonnie Mairs, a Widji alum who had been inducted in the YMCA Hall of Fame.
Saturday afternoon was focused on the dedication of 2 BN Morris canoes that were originally owned by Joe Seliga’s family. These canoes had been donated to Widji years ago and had been in pretty rough shape. Widji worked with Alex Comb at Stewart River Boatworks and Tim Eaton at Urban Boat Builders to restore these two canoes. They were dedicated back to Widji to recognize the history and legacy of Joe and Norah Seliga as well as adding two more canoes to the fleet for Widji campers to paddle. Representatives from the Seliga family attended the event making it even more special.
The restoration of these canoes also aligned well with the release of Canoeman Joe, a children’s book written by Robin Radcliffe and illustrated by Consie Powell. This book chronicles Joe Seliga’s journey as a canoe builder and references the 2 BN Morris canoes as part of his early work and inspiration. Robin and Consie were on site for a book reading and signing. Proceeds from the sale of the book are generously going towards the Seliga Wood Canvas Canoe Endowment. Saturday night many gathered on rocks in Burntside Circle for a sing-a-long led by Widji alum, Phil Bratnober. Saunas under the northern sky concluded the full day of activities.
On Sunday morning we gathered at Chapel Point for a beautiful Reflection Service coordinated by Phil Bratnober and facilitated by Katie Lawson. Readings and reflections were shared that made us all think of the experiences and friendships we’ve made at Widji, while also acknowledging loss in our lives. A reading of the names of those who have passed help expand our circle a little wider that morning.
It was an incredible weekend that reminded us all how powerful the experiences at Widji can be generation after generation. Conversations could have lingered well into the afternoon, but as we were all reminded, campers were packing up in preparation for their Widji experience to start that next Monday.
The term “banquet” has become synonymous with the completion and celebration of a Widji camper’s trip. However, it was not that long ago that this event primarily involved just the campers. Over time, family and friends have wanted to come to camp to help celebrate the return of their camper. For the past number of years this has involved the banquet meal in Kirby Dining Hall, along with time to connect with the campers and trail group, a tour of camp, and the Closing Campfire. These events have become a special part of the experience and serve as small mini-reunions for those that have a history with Widji.
One challenge with this program has been a growing interest of people wanting to attend the Closing Celebration, but a limited amount of seating for the meal in Kirby Dining Hall. We have also been challenged in trying to communicate that while the “banquet meal” is full, people are still welcome to attend and participate in the rest of the activities of the Closing Celebration. This seating capacity has led to people feeling excluded and unable to fully participate in the experience.
So we’re going to try something new! Starting in 2020 we will not limit registration for the Closing Celebration by the capacity of seats in Kirby. Instead, anyone will be able to attend, but we will not be offering the “banquet meal” for family and friends. The campers will have their banquet meal with their trail group and family and friends will then join them for dessert and songs. Below is the schedule that we will be using this coming summer:
Closing Celebration Schedule for Visitors
Closing Celebration Day:
5:30 - 6:00 p.m. - Welcome at the Sigurd Olson Center
6:15 - 6:45 p.m. - Dessert and Songs at the Kirby Dining Hall
6:45 - 7:30 p.m. - Social Time and Camp Tour
7:30 p.m. - Closing Campfire
We will still be offering a breakfast for families picking up their camper on the last day of the session.
*Closing Celebrations for Voyageur and Mountaineer groups will continue to include the banquet meal for family and friends as those are the only groups in camp at that time.
Our hope is that we can allow more people to attend the Closing Celebrations without the stress and concern of the banquet being full or not. There are plenty of options for meals in the town of Ely as well as picnic options in the surrounding area. We will still ask folks to register for the Closing Celebration and breakfast so we can plan accordingly.
More information will be shared in our summer communication, but as our lottery deadline approaches, we wanted to alert families to the change. We look forward to seeing even more of you at Widji this summer.