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April 4, 2020

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Couples who met at summer camp find lasting relationships

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Mary Gammell and her husband, Ron, cutting the cake during their 50th wedding anniversary Aug. 13, 2016, in Tyler, Texas. Mary and Ron met when they were camp counselors and fell in love. They've now been married over 50 years. (iStock)
Mary Gammell and her husband, Ron, cutting the cake during their 50th wedding anniversary Aug. 13, 2016, in Tyler, Texas. Mary and Ron met when they were camp counselors and fell in love. They've now been married over 50 years. (iStock) Photo Gallery

Ron Gammell first noticed Mary Turk on the bus en route to camp.

“She had a pretty smile,” he said of the young woman who would later become his wife.

It was the summer of 1963 and the two were headed to Cheley Colorado Camps in Estes Park Valley to work. Ron was going to be on the transportation crew and Mary was to serve as a social counselor. A few weeks later, he asked her out. After a memorable first date on which the car he borrowed blew out a tire and he had to change it in the rain, they started going steady.

They dated long distance while attending college in different states, reconnecting for two more summers at camp. In August of 1965, Mary told him: “You’re either in or you’re out.” He proposed, and they married a year later.

Meeting at the family-run camp had an impact on their courtship, the couple said now. They both understood that the Cheley family was selective about hiring, and carefully screened would-be staffers. “Being counselors at the camp that had such Christian ideals, I knew he had the same values,” she said. “We learned a lot from everyone — even the kids. It groomed you to have a good marriage.”

For Janet and Adam Guy, attending the same camp as kids helped jumpstart their romance when they reconnected more than a decade after they’d met at Eagle’s Nest Camp in Pisgah Forest, N.C.

“We had this instant shorthand,” Janet said. As they talked, it was apparent they had similar life philosophies. They both prioritized kindness and caring for others — values that were a focus of their camp experience. “Camp impacted how I try to live my life and how I move through the world, and I saw that Adam has similar views.”

It’s not surprising that romance can bloom at camp — especially among counselors — because so many camps are strategic about hiring young people with similar values, said Eric Ikari, who met his wife, Jennifer, while they worked as counselors at Tom Sawyer Camps in Pasadena, Calif.

“Camp helped us focus our attitudes and values — maybe even more than we knew,” he said.

Although camps certainly don’t encourage dating, campers and counselors who embrace the core messages may find themselves attracted to each other, said Ikari, who is now a director for Tom Sawyer camps and is active with the American Camp Association, the national professional association for camps.

As a director, he cautions counselors who are dating to avoid public displays of affection and reminds them that the kids are the priority. Often, couples think they are hiding their romance and are surprised when their bosses initiate such a conversation. They’re shocked when we say, “We can totally tell you’re dating,” Ikari said.

“We were pretty discreet,” said Mary Gammell, who remembers going to the lodge in the mornings in her curlers to visit with Ron, who was tasked with sweeping the floor.

Carving out time to date as camp employees is difficult, said Jim Fuller, who met his wife, Susie, on the job. “You have to try and coordinate the one day a week and the one night a week that you have off and try not to be so obvious about it that the other people know about it,” he said from his home in Fort Collins, Colo. The Fullers, who married six months after meeting at Cheley, will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary in December.

Janet Guy never dreamed she would end up dating, let alone marrying Adam, who was four years her junior, even though she always kept a memento from him on her bedside table. One summer, 11-year-old Adam drew 15-year-old Janet’s name for the annual campwide gift exchange. He spent the summer following her around, trying to determine what handmade gift she would appreciate. He ultimately gave her a tie-dyed T-shirt and wooden heart with her name painted on it that he made in woodshop.

“It was one of my treasured camp memories,” she said, explaining why the heart was always on display in her bedroom. “I was just touched that he put so much work into it. It was a real labor of love.”

Years later, when 28-year-old Adam, who was living in Atlanta, sent her an email, the couple began a regular correspondence that escalated to hours on the phone talking. Months later, when he visited her in New York City, sparks flew.

“The first thing he did when he got off of the plane was kiss me,” she said. “I was dazzled.”

They will celebrate their 15th anniversary this year.

“Camp was a special place,” Adam said. “It helped shape my values. Janet feels the same way. Our personalities just meshed.”

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