It had been 35 years since most of the camp counselors had seen one another. They’d been separated by oceans, busy schedules and family commitments.
So what better place to reunite than where it all started: Camp Grier.
The rustic camp is on 643 acres in Old Fort at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, about 100 miles from Charlotte.
During the year, the camp is a retreat center. In the summer, it’s a Christian camp for children of all denominations.
Camp Grier is a recipient of the Charlotte Observer’s Summer Camp Fund, which raises money to send children from low-income families to camp.
This year, the camp celebrates its 60th anniversary, and its spirit remains intact, says camp director Dave Cohn, 39.
The campers, from first-graders through high-schoolers, still sleep in rustic cabins and cook over fires. They row canoes, cross a rope bridge over a lake and zip down a natural water slide. The view from a favorite mountaintop, where people can see the camp grounds on one side and Mt. Mitchell on the other, is still exhilarating. For native Charlottean Dixie Cochran, 55, the camp holds some of her fondest memories.
Recently she got a Facebook message from someone she didn’t recognize.
“Is this the Dixie Cochran who worked at Camp Grier?”
“Yes, it is,” she replied.
Bill and Marg Klusco, an Australian couple who worked at Camp Grier in the summer of 1977, had asked their daughter to track down their old counselor friends.
Six months later, 10 of them from around the world reunited for a June weekend.
The accommodations at Camp Grier hadn’t changed. They slept on cots and ate in the mess hall.
But it felt like home.
“Who knew the friends I made when I worked there would be people I wanted to spend a weekend with 35 years later,” said Cochran.
Cochran first attended Camp Grier as a child, then became a counselor in college.
Her favorite summer was 1977. She’ll never forget when she and fellow counselor John Frazier blindfolded their campers for a late-night hike.
It normally took about 45 minutes. But with Frazier leading the way — he was the only one without a blindfold — it took an hour and a half.
“It was a trust-building activity,” Cochran said.
After graduating from Western Carolina University, Cochran taught elementary and middle school in Cabarrus County for 30 years.
Recently retired, Cochran says camp helped her relate to her students and provide for their needs.
For the reunion, Cochran brought sheets, towels and blankets for the people coming from abroad. She planned to donate them to the camp when the reunion was over.
Her friends convinced her otherwise: “They said, ‘we’re coming back in five years, so take them home.’ So I took them home.”
‘I could make that my life’
At the close of the last summer the counselors spent together, Susan Hartis didn’t want the walking stick she had carved.
So Cochran took it home and stored it in her father’s basement. She dug it out and presented it to Hartis at the reunion.
Hartis, 54, lives with her husband and two sons in Stanly County. She runs her own residential cleaning business.
But driving down the mountain after the reunion, she turned to her husband, James.
“I could make that my life ... if I had the money, I would own and operate a camp.”
A global perspective
When Frazier, 55, put his car in park, he saw his old friends chatting on a porch.
“The same porch I remember them sitting on 35 years ago,” he said. “It was amazing to me how fast we fell into conversation ... to pick up where we had left off.”
Frazier, who moved several times as a child, said his summers at Camp Grier were stabilizing. He started attending in the fourth grade and later became a counselor.
During that special summer of 1977, the camp was testing a partnership with an international program. Half of the staff were from overseas: England, Australia, Germany, Scotland and Holland.
“I was just a young kid from rural North Carolina,” said Frazier, who now is a social worker in Statesville. “It gave me some exposure to other cultures and other lifestyles. That has really served me well.”
He met Janet, his wife of 37 years, when they were both counselors at Camp Grier. Their son Kendall grew up there, too, as a camper and then a lifeguard.
“Those are experiences and friendships he’ll never lose,” said Frazier.