Camp Directors Agree--It’s a Wonderful Life

By Steve Purdum

Sometimes I feel like George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, descending the staircase of his rickety old manse and pulling off the banister knob. In making improvements at camp each summer—like two new cabins last year and a new health center in the works—I can’t help but notice the loose knobs here and there. While closing up cabins recently and finishing the winterization of the water system, I couldn’t help but notice the peeling paint, crooked doors, and rotting sills on any one of the 74 buildings that make up Camp Mishawka in Grand Rapids, Minn. At the macro, or micro level, it can be somewhat overwhelming.

Today, just as my staff and I were winterizing the office (not a glamourous job), I was reminded of the unique opportunity I have been given, despite the physical ailments, and was compelled to put down my work and write down these thoughts.

Interpreted Best Use
Years ago, we took issue with the county assessor who valued the land at “highest and best use,” and in that estimation, the “highest and best” use of these 240 acres would be residential development. (Obviously, the assessor never visited Mishawaka for a final campfire!) I took exception to the fact that the assessor couldn’t have it both ways: tell me that the highest and best use is homes, and then tax me on structures that would have to be removed (at substantial cost) to realize this highest and best use. We went so far as to file a protest in tax court, and short of going to trial (a costly and risky proposition), we did not get much satisfaction. It turns out the assessor could have it both ways! There was, however, a reluctant agreement to decrease the amount of our annual increase in the years ahead.

Since I came on full time at Camp Mishawaka in 1990, the real-estate taxes have increased 213 percent. The value of the camp has risen as well, but not to that degree. And, yes, enrollment has risen, but not by anything that approaches 213 percent. If not for the continued support and patronage of families that know the highest and best use for this place is camp, main campus might well be Pottersville—the alternate, greed-ridden town in It’s a Wonderful Life. Instead, each summer, children from all over the world get to explore this place and their own limits in a way that does not exist outside of the shelter of a summer camp. If you’ve read this far, you know that, too.

A Pocketful Of Petals
As I put away my summer uniforms last week, I found the camp director’s version of Zuzu’s petals in the pockets of my shorts—sailing hardware, a sign-up sheet, a copy of the airport departure schedule. There’s nothing like these little items to trigger happy remembrances of things past, and to know, too, that ideas for the future are in the works. Sometimes I think I leave these items around for just this purpose—after all, it is a long winter.

I often recount the story of my 2nd grade “Career Fair” and how I chose minister as one of the professions I wanted to explore. I still remember the look on Reverend Mortensen’s face when, in response to his question of why I would consider joining the ministry, I said I thought it was great that ministers only had to work Sundays. Some may think I got my wish—camp directors only work in the summer, right? What makes this a “wonderful life” is that the work is, at times, physically or mentally challenging—sometimes even both—and that there is always something to do. But with every “Early Bird” registration that rolls in, I see anew the value of this work, and this place, even if the county assessor does not, and I am thankful for campers and staff members who call Mishawaka home—loose knobs and all.

Steve Purdum is the Director and Owner of Camp Mishawaka in Grand Rapids, Minn. Reach him at (218) 326-5011, or