It was the dead of winter in 1973 when Paul Berkel and his wife, Jeri, first came to Camp Jewell. There was so much snow on Route 183 leading up to camp there were barely two lanes open. They walked around camp with Allen Beavers, executive director at the time, and were shown the apartment on the back of the Boathouse that was to be their home that summer. And, in Pauls’ words, “for some crazy reason, we said we’d do it.”
Paul didn’t go to camp as a kid, and hadn’t worked at a camp before coming to Camp Jewell. As a school psychologist in West Hartford, he was looking for something to do over the summer and heard about Camp Jewell from a P.E. teacher in his school district. When he started that first summer, it didn’t take him long to get used to the camp environment. As a child in a family with 10 children, he found camp a lot like what home felt like to him as a kid. “Only one thing was hard for me: the camp attire,” Paul said. “I was still wearing Bermuda shorts and everyone else there was wearing cut-off jean shorts. It took me some time to get with the program.”
He earned an advanced lifesaving and first aid certification before coming to camp that summer, which came in handy when he assisted with rescuing a camper at the waterfront. “I learned a lot that summer, from counselors and kids who had been campers and were junior counselors,” he said. “I was worried about them considering me as someone credible, but what I found was a group of people who were very generous and cooperative with their ideas.”
He didn’t return to camp in 1974, but Allen asked him to come back as assistant camp director the summer of 1975, and he did. That’s the first summer he and Gordon Hodne worked together.
“The connection Gordie and I had was almost instantaneous. We had an automatic connection the day he came up for his interview and we knew we understood each other and could talk openly with one another,” he said. “It helped that our wives hit it off right away, too, and that our kids were similar ages. The biggest commonality we had was our belief system in the counseling staff. We believed they were where the rubber met the road and that once summer started 70% of what happened was in the hands of the counselors. So that meant the week of staff training was critical and we needed to maximize what we did with them during that time.”
Paul and Gordie met several times over the winter to plan the following summer’s staff training. The pair also began attending annual conferences of the American Camping Association to get as much information as they could to make Camp Jewell’s program the best it could be. At one conference they presented the summer staff evaluation system they developed for Jewell.
“One of the beauties of the evaluation system was that Gordie and I would walk around camp and grab staff from their duties to conduct the evaluations. We’d sit on rocks or logs, or float in a canoe, and talk with staff. I called that my office. I never once found any part of being at Camp Jewell ‘work,’ even in the most difficult hours. I just loved the joy of being around all the staff and kids,” he said.
Paul worked as camp director through 1982. He intended to return the summer of 1983, but was offered an assistant principal job that spring that required him to work throughout the summer. He helped with staff training and the start of camp, but couldn’t finish out the summer. “That was a very tough car ride down the camp road, the day I left. I was excited about what I was going to be doing, but I had put a lot of time into camp and I was sad to leave.”
A lot of Paul’s time at camp, as a director and as a volunteer on the Board, was focused on leadership. “Leadership is leadership, that’s been my mantra since I started at Jewell. As a school principal I studied leadership, and I’ve taught it at university; it all boils down to how you lead people, how you treat them and how you understand their strengths and weaknesses and help them do their job.”
Paul values what Camp Jewell offered his children during the time they spent here, particularly the camp community’s diversity and the exposure his kids had to different people from different walks of life. And, a life lesson he learned from his father, but that was reinforced by his time at camp, is the idea of paying it forward. In addition to the volunteer work he’s done at camp over the years, he’s also been very involved with Habitat for Humanity, his church and recently became involved in restoring a lighthouse near his home in Madison, CT.
“The point is to give something back to others,” he said. “Giving financially is one way, but when you give your own sweat and blood, it feels even better.”