By Rebecca Schmitz
Some things never change—and that can be a very good thing. Just ask the 50 campers wearing blue “Camp Wahoo” T-shirts and hunched over their lunches in Miller School’s dining hall on a steamy Friday in late June. It’s their last day at Camp Wahoo, and after a week of sports, home-cooked meals, games, laughter, and just plain fun, they’re about to go home.
Nearly 60 years ago, in 1957, a different generation of Camp Wahoo campers roamed the grounds of the Miller School, engaging in many of the same activities today’s campers enjoy. Though nearly 60 years have passed since a group of friends—all college sports coaches—founded Camp Wahoo, the guiding principles of the camp remain the same.
“It’s about being active, and having a healthy lifestyle,” said Fred Wawner, whose grandfather, Gene Corrigan, founded the camp, and who now runs the camp along with Corrigan’s daughter Kathy and her husband, Tony Zentgraf.
“Fair play and good humor. Those are the two tenets, I would say. It’s really important that you learn not just to play, but to play well,” added Tony Zentgraf, a former U.Va. baseball player who teaches PE at Burley Middle School during the school year.
For the past 10 years, Camp Wahoo has remained focused on not just skills and drills, but sportsmanship and teamwork.
“This is what sports in America should be about,” said camp counselor Rebecca Tweel Jolin. “It’s about knowing how to win and how to lose. Knowing how to be a good competitor, a good teammate, and a good person. You can apply anything you learn here to anything you do. How you are in the field is how you’re going to be in the classroom, and how you’re going to be in life. It’s about bringing integrity to everything you’re doing.”
The camp is unique not just because of its emphasis on sportsmanship and fair play, but because of its history. Camp Wahoo was born in 1957, when a group of friends were seeking a way to pass the time during the summer months and earn extra money. Gene Corrigan coached soccer and lacrosse at Washington and Lee (and, a few years later, at U.Va.) and Weenie Miller coached basketball at W&L. Billy McCann was the head basketball coach at U.Va., and Jack Null coached basketball at VMI. “They were all friends, and they loved to play,” said Kathy with a laugh. “Even though this place was filthy, and hot, they had a great time together. They didn’t mind it because they were having a good time.” The six-week-long camp involved a multitude of sports, including basketball, lacrosse, baseball, archery, and horseback riding.
“When they first started, the first 3 or 4 years, it was a struggle,” Tony said. “They had to do everything themselves. Then it took off as a boys’ basketball camp,” after Bones McKinney, who played for the Boston Celtics and later coached at Wake Forest, approached the men and suggested they reinvent the camp with a focus on basketball. “There was only one other basketball camp in the country at the time,” Tony said. “They got ‘Pistol’ Pete Maravich to come to the camp, and then [NBA player] Jerry West came out to coach.” With such a high-profile roster of coaches there each summer, the camp eventually grew to 200 to 300 boys. Corrigan’s niece, Debbie Ryan, long-time women’s basketball coach at U.Va., got her start there, and she wasn’t the only notable camper to wander the Miller School’s sprawling grounds each summer. Author Pat Conroy was a camper, and his experience made such an impression on him that he wrote about it in his book My Losing Season.
Despite its success, the camp left Charlottesville in 1967, when Corrigan moved on to become assistant director of the ACC. (He later became athletic director at U.Va. and then at Notre Dame, and was eventually commissioner of the ACC.) After a stint in Lexington, the camp faded away, only to be revived again years later at a Corrigan family gathering.
“At a family reunion in 2001, everyone was singing the Camp Wahoo song,” Tony remembered. “We started talking about our memories here and said, ‘why don’t we bring the camp back?” Wawner added. “At the time, I was working here [the Miller School, where he was athletic director and basketball coach], so it was a natural connection.” Although Wawner is now athletic director at a boarding school in Hawaii, he comes back every summer with his wife and four children, who all attend the camp.
Thus, Camp Wahoo was reborn a few years later, and in 2016 celebrated its 10th anniversary. “What we try to do is bring it back to 1957, and how it was when the camp was founded,” Tony said. Camp counselor Tweel Jolin noted that “They feel very strongly about the sense of legacy here, and they’ve kept the legacy going. Tony talks about it a lot. He’s very passionate about what Camp Wahoo has meant over the years and who’s been a part of it. There’s a reunion every year, and everyone who’s been affiliated with the camp is invited. It’s like a close-knit family.”
Junior counselor Ben Montes-Bradley, who first came to Camp Wahoo as a camper, echoes these sentiments. The rising sophomore at Western noted that, “There are some kids here who I consider to be like younger brothers or sisters. It’s like another family. It’s a home outside of home. I feel welcome, and I think everyone should be. And I think everyone is.”
Camp Wahoo is for rising 4th graders through rising 9th graders, and runs for one week in the summer, from Sunday through Friday. Nearly all campers stay overnight in the Miller School residence hall, but they have the option to sign up as “day campers” if they choose. Once campers turn 15, they can serve as junior counselors. “You have a little more authority when you’re a junior counselor,” Montes-Bradley said. “You help out the senior counselors. You make sure everything is running smoothly. The senior counselors can’t see everything, so you are their eyes and ears.” Junior counselors also help out in the dining hall, and have opportunities to learn outdoor skills such as building a fire and tying different types of knots.
In keeping with the camp’s emphasis on teamwork, the counselors reward the younger campers when they demonstrate the camp’s values. Junior counselor Taylor Sheffield, who started out at Camp Wahoo as a camper seven years ago, said, “Whenever we see something that stands out to us, like a camper helping someone out, or making sure another camper’s okay, or being very positive, we reward them with Fireballs. Or when I’m watching a game like lacrosse, and I see a kid that could clearly take a shot for herself instead toss it to someone else who hasn’t had the opportunity to score yet, I’ll give her a Fireball. It’s one of the happiest moments when you get one. I still have one of my wrappers saved!”
Days at Camp Wahoo are packed with games of every variety. “Field sports, net sports, everything you can think of!” Tweel Jolin said. In the morning, campers learn “skills and drills” for two sports—say, soccer and badminton—then break during the hottest part of the afternoon for “shade tree games,” which include everything from Scrabble to board games to paper football. In addition to tennis, lacrosse, and other sports commonly played in Virginia, the camp recruits experts to teach the campers nontraditional sports from Europe, such as cricket. In the late afternoon, they play a tournament in one of the sports they learned earlier, then break for dinner, then have a final tournament before bedtime. No technology—phones or computers—is allowed at camp.
“The whole camp is divided into four teams, named after our founders,” says Camp Director Fred Wawner’s daughter Ali, a rising 6th grader. “The teams are together the whole week and compete together in all the tournaments.” The co-ed teams are made up of a mix of age groups.
Ninth grade camper Joe Hawkes loves the atmosphere of tournaments. “Everyone is so jacked up to win. There is so much clapping and chanting and team spirit. It’s really exciting.” Montes-Bradley added: “It doesn’t matter if you’re competitive or not. If you just go out there and compete, you’re going to have a good time.” Tweel Jolin agreed, “Some people are clearly more competitive in general. They want to win every game. And then there are the people who just want to play a wide variety of sports, and aren’t so competitive. And it magically works! You would think it wouldn’t work, but it does. Everybody’s getting something from it, whether they’re really competitive and trying to relax and have a little more fun with it, or trying to get a competitive edge.” After the last game of the evening, campers gather on the porch of the “Canteen,” where they can buy late-night snacks and relax for a while before lights out.
The week is punctuated with other activities, such as a Talent Show, where everyone, even the counselors, participate in silly skits, magic shows, singing, cup stacking, and other acts sure to elicit laughs from the audience. Wednesday—the halfway point of the week—is deemed “Big Huge Day.” “Fred [Wawner] describes it as like the fourth quarter of a game,” said camper Joe Hawkes. “You give everything you’ve got.” Ben Montes-Bradley said, “Everything you do that day, you give 150 percent.”
A “Paper Plate Awards” ceremony is held on the last day of camp. The awards are similar to “superlatives” given in a high school yearbook, and everyone in the camp—even the counselors—receives one. Montes-Bradley said the awards are humorous, and “usually something funny, like an inside joke. They are very creative.”
Camp Wahoo also focuses on healthy eating, with an emphasis on local ingredients and home-cooked meals. Campers in the dining hall clearly can’t get enough of the food prepared for them by Kathy Zentgraf—they polish off their meals quickly and usually head back for seconds. Tweel Jolin said that “Everything is literally made from scratch—bread pudding, salsa, homemade biscuits, grits, everything. Kathy can cook like nobody’s business. The food is amazing.” Zentgraf, who co-owns a restaurant called The Spot near the downtown mall, is passionate about the importance of healthy food and the fuel it provides campers throughout their active days. On the last day of camp, she gives a short talk called “Food and Philosophy” to the campers, reiterating to them the importance of healthy eating.
The camp’s founders would be proud. Their original emphasis on integrity, competition, and sportsmanship, and most of all, play, is still very much alive in 2016. Counselor Keith Groomes said that for him, “This is like a vacation. I just have a really great time. As a child, I never went to a summer camp; I just went outside and played. So it’s good to be here and see everyone playing outside. It’s a great atmosphere. You feel welcome. Like family. I can’t wait for next year!”