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A Life Without Regrets: The Camp Director’s Story

When I was 15, I went to YMCA Camp Hayo-Went-Ha on Torch Lake. The camp director there, Pat Rode changed my life, and thousands of others. 

To listen to the audio, click play. 

I first met Pat Rode (pronounced Roadie) in the summer of 1980. 

I was 15-year old kid, who’d just broken 100 pounds. He was 51-year old former Army captain. He was built like it, and acted like it: a tough, no-nonsense guy you did not want to disappoint.  

I was a rookie at Camp Hayo-Went-Ha, while Pat was on his way to becoming the director. 

I quickly discovered this camp wasn’t about making moccasins. Guys my age spent two weeks ripping through rapids in Ontario, sailing the Great Lakes, and climbing the Canadian Rockies – not what I expected. On these trips you discovered the outdoors, but also how to trust your teammates, and yourself. You found your limits – and you surpass them, again and again. And that’s how Camp Hayo-Went-Ha changes lives.  

Pat based camp on his belief that we can’t get through life alone, but there are plenty of people willing to help. 

He came by it honestly. As a child Rode was bed-ridden for months with severe asthma, so he spent his time reading the classics, like Robert Louis Stevenson. Those books gave him an expansive vocabulary – in his eighties he was still finishing the New York Times crossword puzzle in less than an hour, “And I do it in ink” – but more importantly, he told me, reading the classics provided the foundation for his literary and moral education. 

His mother contracted breast cancer in an era with few cures. After they buried her on Pat’s 12thbirthday, his father was often absent, and his older brother went off to fight in World War II. 

Through high school, Pat lived on his own, which must have terribly difficult and lonely. “But,” Pat told me, “so many people went out of their way to help me that, well, you’ve got to give back.”

He did. After Pat graduated from Aquinas College as the baseball team’s leading hitter, he turned down offers from the Chicago Cubs and the St. Louis Cardinals to play minor league baseball for $50 a month. 

Instead, Pat signed up to work at the Grand Rapids YMCA, where he coached an American Legion baseball team they called Rode’s Rowdies. One of his star players, Ron Goodyke, had an older sister, Delores, who seemed to attend every game. As she told me, “Those boys loved Pat. If I hadn’t married him, my brother would have.”

Pat and Dody raised five children, now all successful adults. For 65 years, he told me, “We had a love story.” When I asked Pat the secret, he said, “When I make mistakes, I apologize. And I usually don’t make the same mistake twice. But I keep inventing new ones.” 

Early in their marriage, patriotic duty compelled Pat to join the Army’s elite Special Operations unit – the predecessor of the Green Berets. He captained a unit that frequently parachuted at night behind enemy lines, attracting snipers fire. Rode never lost a man, but gained lifelong friends. 

“You’re Cold and wet, or your hot and thirsty, and it bindsyou,” he said, describing the inspiration behind the trips he would set up years later at Hayo-Went-Ha.“Physically, nothing could be harder than these trips — and I’ve been through Airborne training. When you finish, you can say, ‘Hey, I did that, and I can probably do a lot of other things, too.’”

That’s how it worked on me. I returned from my first trip through northern Ontario a different person – engaged in the outdoors, with a new confidence. I came back to camp to help lead the same trip as a counselor. I remember those summer weeks better than I remember some years. 

Pat Rode designed camp to give bored kids adventure, forgotten kids attention, and just about everyone — campers and counselors alike — a sense of belonging. He started each session at Bonbright Lodge with a candle-lighting ceremony, and closed it by reciting the Spirit of Hayo-Went-Ha, which he described as, “Honesty in dealing with people, respect for others, and an understanding of your place in a world that is greater than all of us.

“Whatever you’re feeling, you can talk to someone here about it. It could be another camper, a counselor, the camp nurse, or me. You’re safe here. You belong.”

When his friends asked him why he didn’t pursue opportunities which would have paid him many times what Hayo-Went-Ha could provide, he had a simple answer: “How many eleven-year-old friends do you have?”

Some of Pat’s favorite memories were simple ones: just sitting on the steps of the waterfront after lunch, sorting through his mail, while campers would come up to sit with him, and chat about whatever came to mind. He loved the easy back-and-forth, and often asked them, “When can I hire you to be a counselor here.”

For a 12-year old kid just making his way in the world, what a vote of confidence that must have been. Just as he’d promised, years later Pat hired many of them to be counselors. 

Pat could have made more money doing – well, just about anything. Instead, he gave the campers and counselors his time and energy, not to mention his hard-earned dollars to pay for their rent, college tuition, plane tickets, and even bail. All but one has paid him back.  

He said, “I believe in second chances. And third and fourth and fifth. As many as it takes. If you’re trying to help someone, why would you quit?”

Pat was a devout Christian, but rarely talked about it. He lived it. The Dalai Lama has said, “My religion is simple: Be kind.” I think Pat’s was just as simple: Be helpful.

Pat could cite the Bible chapter and verse, but his favorite was an obscure passage from the Old Testament. “I try to hold to Mica, one of the lesser prophets,” he told me. “Verse 6:8. ‘What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.’”

Early on, Pat decided if a camp like Hayo-Went-Ha is good for boys, it must be good for girls, too. In 1993, Pat launched Hayo-Went-Ha for girls on Bow’s Lake. When they quickly outgrew that site, Pat merged it with Camp Arbutus in Traverse City. More than two decades later, Camp Arbutus Hayo-Went-Ha is thriving – perhaps Pat’s  proudest accomplishment. 

Two weeks ago I visited Pat with my wife and son. He was 90-years old, recovering from surgery, but looking pretty good. We sat on the couch, watching the Lions lose. When my three year old son, Teddy, asked to squeeze in between us, I told him, “Not today, buddy.”

But Pat interjected. “We always have room for one more.” 

I’ll never forget the Teddy’s face when he looked up at Pat, then happily climbed up to join us. He had been understood, and welcomed. He belonged. 

I knew exactly how he felt. 

Last week, Pat passed away, surrounded by his family and friends. 

A couple years earlier, I asked him if he had any regrets. He looked me right in the eye and said, clear as could be: “No. No regrets.”

Pat devoted his life to helping others – and now thousands of his proteges are doing the same. 

I cannot imagine a better legacy than that. 

* * * * * 

Please join the conversation, but remember: I run only those letters from those who are not profane or insane, and who include their full name.

As of November 6, The Great Halifax Explosion: A World War I Story of Treachery, Tragedy, and Extraordinary Heroism, a National Bestseller, is now out in paperback. It has also cracked the top ten in New England, and the Great Lakes, and now #11 in the South, and #21 nationwide. We’re already on our third printing of the paperback, so please pick one up for a nice holiday gift!

My latest book, “The Best of Bacon: Select Cuts,” is on its second printing.

Radio stuff: On Friday mornings, these commentaries run at 8:50 on Michigan Radio (91.7 Ann Arbor/Detroit and Flint, and 104.1 Grand Rapids), and a few minutes later,  I join Sam Webb and Ira Weintraub LIVE from 9:05 to 9:25 on WTKA.com, 1050 AM.

I also join Michigan Radio’s great Cynthia Canty on her afternoon Stateside show every Monday for a few minutes, and occasionally on NPR’s Morning Edition, and the afternoon Here & Now show. Check ’em out!

Follow me on Twitter: http://twitter.com/johnubacon.  We just cracked 43,000 followers and counting.   THANK YOU!

Like this story? Please feed the blog, and keep ’em coming! Hope to see you on the road! -John johnubacon.com

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8 comments Leave a comment  

  • John w minton jr December 21, 2018 at 11:23 am

    Message (Required)

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  • John w minton jr December 21, 2018 at 11:26 am

    Thanks for the lesson

    bomberjohn5

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  • David Darnton December 21, 2018 at 11:35 am

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    John, been reading you for years, never knowing we had something like this in comman. I am 15 years older than you and was at Hayo Went Ha in the summers of 1962, 63, and 64. I can add a generation to your moving tribute to Pat, who I suspect was affected by the camp director I remember, Cap Druery. Not sure about the spelling of the last name, but I am sure he was a larger than life, late 19th century man who lived as he believed and passed on his rugged love for nature, community, competition, and kindness. The memories of his challenges helped steer me into teaching high school for 33 years and coaching for 20. I suspect Pat was one of his protégés who carried on his legacy. Thanks for this piece. In these times, it’s important that we remember and celebrate the lives of men and women who really did lead by example, exhibiting true character.

    Reply
  • Jim Keough December 21, 2018 at 11:38 am

    Great Blog this morning John. Between your last Chapter in Select Cuts and this morning’s wonderful memory of Pat I am getting to know your Teddy a little. Sounds like he is going to be very much like his dad.

    Reply
  • Daniel Schuetz December 21, 2018 at 2:24 pm

    Dear Mr. Bacon:

    I can still see you coaching hockey at Huron High School!

    When I moved to Ann Arbor in 1992, I substitute-taught at Huron only to learn they called themselves the “River Rats” and no one smirked!

    Go Rats!

    What a wonderful story about Mr. Pat, who, as a Christian, gave to others, and went to be with the Lord, with “no regrets!”

    I had a shop teacher in Jr. High, similar to Mr. Pat, who impressed me greatly!

    Mr. Terrell went to be the Principal of a local Christian school!

    As I was delivering flowers for a local flower shop, and getting “high,” I ran into a snow bank, stranding the company car!

    A school bus passed by and out jumped a bunch of young men who helped get my car out of the snow bank!

    It was Mr. Terrell’s basketball or wrestling team and they helped me!

    I am not sure Mr. Terrell recognized me, but I certainly will never forget him!

    Appreciate you so much, Mr. Bacon, and so much enjoy listening to you on WTKA!

    Did you enjoy “The Roast?”!

    Proud to know you!

    Sincerely,

    Daniel Schuetz

    Reply
  • Mike Bailey December 22, 2018 at 10:05 am

    John what an awsome Bacon blog!!! Ive counseled for 23 years at Camp Canaanland in the eastern U.P.i still help there and my family fully involved in staff and worker duties. It mirrors this great blog. At a time were people are searching desperately for truth. Its hard to beat the great outdoors and the bible the word of God. Then people who live out the bible by showing Gods love and care to others. Pat truly did just that! Mike from the U.P. Pioneer 73. MERRY CHRISTMAS JOHN !!!! Pat is having his best one ever this year!!!!

    Reply
  • connie snow December 24, 2018 at 4:42 pm

    Thanks for sharing.

    Reply
  • Nick Roumel January 10, 2019 at 8:55 am

    Wonderful tribute, John.

    Reply

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