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.