Jerry Richardson first went to summer camp at age 7 when his parents sacrificed to send him.
Now, the camper who later advanced to counselor is the man who brought the National Football League’s Carolina Panthers to Charlotte.
And this year, Richardson is the honorary chairman of the Observer’s Summer Camp Fund.
The fund raises money to send children from low-income families throughout the Carolinas to day and overnight camps.
“I’m just honored to be a part of your program, and I’m a great supporter of what you’re doing,” Richardson said recently. “I don’t normally do this sort of thing. … This is something I feel very special about. … And it gave me great memories.”
Richardson, 75, is from Spring Hope, in Eastern North Carolina. He’s the son of a barber and a mother who worked at a ladies clothing store.
Richardson says he owes a lot to the camps where he learned key skills.
“I’m not aware of anything ... that’s more helpful to a young person than going to a camp,” he said.
His first camp experience was a week at Camp Edgerton, north of Raleigh. Like most young campers, Richardson said he felt homesick, but that passed within a day.
Each year he looked forward to going back.
He attended Camp Sea Gull off the North Carolina coast the first year it opened in 1948.
For a young person to attend a camp of any sort is a huge opportunity, Richardson said. “It’s just all good wholesome things for young people to expose themselves to. You sing songs, you learn to say a camp blessing, you pledge allegiance to the flag.”
When he wasn’t at camp in the summers, Richardson mowed lawns and worked on his aunts’ and uncles’ farms.
The summer before his senior year of high school, Richardson became a counselor at Camp Sea Gull.
He was good at hiking, sailing and leading chants. Still, he had some things to learn.
One of his counselor duties was to send weekly individualized letters to his campers’ parents.
“When I wrote the parents, I told them my observations of their children,” Richardson said. “For example, if they didn’t make their beds correctly, if they weren’t on time, if they didn’t hang their bathing suits up.”
After a random spot check of outgoing mail, the camp director called Richardson to his office.
“He told me, ‘What were you thinking?’ ” Richardson recalled. “I said, ‘I’m trying to give them a report about how their child is doing.’”
That’s not the idea, the camp director told him. “You need to be saying good things.”
Richardson laughs telling the story.
Though Richardson’s first love has always been football, camp offered a different experience.
Unlike sports, where you’re always on a team or with people you know, a camp cabin may be filled with strangers.
“You can’t replicate that just playing in the neighborhood with people you know,” he said.
Camp taught Richardson to be independent and make new friends.
“There comes a time when you graduate from high school and you leave home and go to work ... or college,” said Richardson. “You have to get along with people, building relationships. ... Camping, for me, was one of the first environments that really exposed me to that.”
And, after his camp-letter lesson, he learned to read between the lines.
“For the rest of my life,” Richardson said, “if I got a letter from a school or camp, telling me how good (my kids) were, I discounted it.”