An Interview with Ben Clawson by Sarah Kurtz McKinnon
Growing up, Ben Clawson, the camp director at Lindley G. Cook 4H Camp in Stokes Forest, New Jersey, did not think he would find himself living and working in the woods as an adult. His father was a National Park Ranger, so throughout his childhood, Ben moved with his family to different national parks. Despite his beautiful surroundings, the young Ben longed to live in a city or even a town.
But starting in 1995, Ben attended the Lindley G. Cook 4H Camp as a camper--and he has not missed a summer since. When the opportunity arose for Ben to become the interim director for summer 2016 and assume the role of director in 2017, he dropped his big city dreams to commit to making camp happen for the hundreds of kids and staff who come to 4H camp each summer.
I interviewed Ben to learn a little more about him, his job, and his aspirations. Here are his responses:
Kurtz: Ben, what’s your educational background?
Ben: I have a bachelor’s of fine arts in Theatre from Montclair State University in New Jersey. I have virtually no outdoor education or camping background; that’s all been in-the-field learning.
Kurtz: Tell me more about that BFA.
Ben: I was and still am a playwright. I find that it transfers so well and so easily. I really view camp as a creative endeavor. It’s something brand new that you make up for the group every season with a team of other people who have their own levels of creative control and responsibility.
Kurtz: As a kid, what kind of camper were you?
Ben: I was probably the extra-loud, extra-outrageous, extra look-at-me kind of camper. The one that 75% of the staff loved and the other 25% of the staff couldn’t stand and would argue with the other 75% of the staff about. I was the kid who built up to the talent show every week. The talent show was always the pinnacle of my camp week.
Kurtz: We need details on that, please!
Ben: It’s even more ridiculous because it’s true. During my first year at camp, Forrest Gump had recently come out. That whole summer, I did a Forrest Gump impression with my best friend, who pretended to be Lieutenant Dan. We did a detailed, scene-by-scene version of the movie for the talent show with some other campers involved. It went on for 10 minutes or so and then the staff realized we were planning on going on for about two more hours. They eventually kicked us off the stage.
A couple years after that, my talent show act was largely surrounding a hand-held cow puppet. That pretty much sums it up.
Kurtz: Are you still in the talent show now?
Ben: I endeavor not to be as camp director. I feel like I’m front and center enough. Any time there is an opportunity for a camper or counselor to be that focal point instead of me, I try to take it and give that to someone else.
Kurtz: I heard you became a father this past year! Congratulations. How has that changed your approach to running camp?
Ben: Because he’s an infant right now, I’d say that the way it will change my perspective for working with 8- to 16-year-olds is probably still ahead of me. The infant is such a different creature; it blows my mind that one day he will turn into one of our campers. I think I am slowly getting more sympathy for the sad parents who are having a difficult time entrusting the health and safety of their camper to us. I think I will get even more that way as he grows up and I will have to give him to other people for a small amount of time.
Kurtz: Did you meet your wife at camp?
Ben: Yep--but I almost wish it was something way simpler like, “we met online”! We actually met when we were campers here! We did not start dating until we re-met in our 20s. We knew each other since we were kids at camp, like 12 years old. And now we live here.
Kurtz: This was your second summer as the director. With the knowledge and expectations that you have now, what would you go back and tell yourself before you were about to embark on that first summer?
Ben: I think and I will probably need to continue telling myself this: I think the idea that especially when it comes to facility hiccups, we are ready to handle the things that break. And if something breaks, you will call someone and they will fix it!
Coming from a programming land, stuff I don’t understand like what holds up the docks, or well water permits...that was stuff I feel like I had a borderline phobia of. I think the idea is that when the problem arises, you can deal with it intelligently. There aren’t so many things that will fall apart that will be catastrophic, so don’t waste time being frightened.
The second thing is to trust the team of summer staff around me. The success of the past couple of years is really due to that team.
Kurtz: What are your personal goals for the next year, either for yourself or for camp.
Ben: For camp, we had a really good summer last year [in 2016], and then going into my second summer this year, I wanted to maintain and duplicate that quality. And we did that. But then at the end of summer, I realized that even though I needed that to be my goal, I could never make that the goal again! Maintaining quality--that’s the most boring goal in human history! I feel like we had a really successful summer that first, and I needed to have another to be ready to think that we could get way bigger, way hungrier, and think about something great and new!
For now, we are looking at adding new bunks and doing improvements to up our capacity...on the program side of things, on the last night of camp this summer, I saw one of the cabins run the best evening program I had ever seen. They had made such a tight community on a cabin level, and my goal is to make that camp-wide.
Kurtz: Anything else I didn’t ask you about that you want to share?
Ben: I have the tendency to ramble on, so I try to never make matters worse by floating topics of my own!
Thanks, Ben, for your insights! We’re thrilled to have you as part of The Summer Camp Society and can’t wait to learn with you and help get more kids to even better camps!
Name: Ben Clawson
Camp: Lindley G. Cook 4H Camp
Title: Camp Director
Location: Stokes Forest, New Jersey
Number of years at camp: Ben started as a camper in summer 1995, and has been back each summer since!