“We hit the lottery!” Skip Stearns knew he was lucky being one the first occupants of the new 5A/5B cabins in 1961. Young Skippy had West End House in his blood. His father, Albert, was born in 1906, the first year the West End House Club opened on Blossom Street. His parents were immigrants from then Austria-Hungary, and he grew up on Poplar Street, which no longer exists. Albert went to camp with his good friend Joe Kaplan (father of girl’s camp Founder & Past-President Laurie), who he met in elementary school. Albert would go on to be the President of the West End House Camp from 1961-1962. So, when Skippy came to camp in 1961, he admits he may have received a little extra attention with his father being the Camp President. Not always favorable attention, he noted.
Skip remembers getting on the bus for the first time at the old club. There were a massive number of kids. The kids from the West End only came the first 2 weeks and Skippy remembers how one of the important camp concepts was to mix West Enders and the suburban kids. Having the West Enders there for only two weeks and housing them separately compromised the experiment. Skippy’s best friend in Newton, Alan Shapiro, was with him in 5B, along with John Parker, Joel Saperstein, Bennett Davies and Ben Shifman. It was Bill Margolin’s first year as a paid counselor, actually a junior counselor for the gang in 5B. Keith Sherman was nearby in 5A and would join the group for the rest of their camper years. Michael Berger and Stan Wyzansky also caught up with the core group before their last two years together in Gottlieb.
Skip was a five year camper. He was an active athlete, who just wanted to play sports all the time. He enjoyed Football, Basketball, Baseball, Softball (Watermelon League), and Track and Field. “But, I was less excited about Arts and Crafts.” Like everyone, he enjoyed Cake and Milk and tuna fish and fries on Fridays.
When I asked “What was so good about the tuna fish?” Skip sarcastically replied, “the guy (Ralph Haliburton) really knew how to open a can.”
He also remembers “washing clothes on the Wash Rock, back when a soapy, sudsy lake was a sign of accomplishment.”
Skip remembers when the campers and counselors played basketball vs. Robin Hood and Bobby Gordon was a masterful player/coach, teaching the boys how to cut off angles, extend their arms on defense and how to shoot the ball. The talent was so great back then Skip boasted that “Ricky Weitzman, a Brookline kid who played for a season with the Celtics, might have been only fourth or fifth on the counselor depth chart.” Rick Weitzman played in 25 games with the Boston Celtics in 1968 and scored the last basket of the game that clinched the championship over the Lakers. He went on to be a Celtics scout and helped to draft Reggie Lewis.
One of the most memorable events for Skip was in Gottlieb when he and his bunkmates tried to boycott swim lessons. The strike was led by his good friend Alan Shapiro, who gathered some friends who also hated instructional swim. Keith Sherman and Michael Berger were great swimmers, but Keith joined anyway. The group of rebels sat on their Gottlieb beds and did not go down to the H-Dock. Skip’s father, Albert, happened to be in camp that day. After learning of the political statement, he and other camp officials walked right past Skip sitting at the end of his bed, and Albert proclaimed to Alan “I’m surprised at you.” Skip was scared to learn that his father wasn’t surprised or disappointed in him. The Swim Strike did not succeed as the Program Director, Lou Fucillo, conceived their punishment. He made the boys chop down tree limbs to build a fashionable Adirondack-style towel rack by the waterfront. While his bunkmates enjoyed their very first taste of hard labor, Alan Shapiro entertained and motivated the group with a reading from Bob Hope’s book I Owe Russia $1,200. “I think Alan thought it would inspire the workers.” Unfortunately, it only inspired Fucillo to use a descriptor unbecoming a Program Director. Alan got the last laugh. After graduating Roxbury Latin, Harvard and Emory Law, Alan became a partner in Boston’s top union law practice. Fucillo unwittingly influenced Shapiro down a path that still has him representing the workers today.
“The Bunt,” unfortunately, is synonymous with Skippy Stearns and is the most disputed decision in Color War history. As a 10 year old, Skippy supposedly bunted (illegal in West End House Camp Softball) during the Watermelon (Softball) game (modern Omelet game) before chaos ensued. Skip did not admit that he bunted. The controversy lives on. Here is Skip’s account of the often told story.
I must say I felt really bad when Skip told me this story. I’d been looking forward to hearing this story from Skip for years and trying to understand the decision to replay the game after Song Night. The 1961 Spirit refers to it as a “highly disputed illegal bunt.” While Skip is a great sport and had no ill will for how he was blamed, this is a great lesson on the dangers of scapegoating. Ten year old kids don’t cost teams Color Wars, the officials and coaches are responsible for making sure the kids know the rules. The 1961 Color War had 1,115 available points and the All-Star Game (now called Omelet) was worth around 50 at the time. Several “if only” moments happen during any Color War and no one play decides it. As someone who has run 14 Color Wars, this decision to replay the game makes little sense. The maximum amount of intervention, I believe, would have been to restart the game at the point of the bunt, BEFORE Song Night. When Song Night ends, handshakes are made, friends are back to being friends and therefore Color War is over. Unless of course, Bill’s “Color War tiebreaker” envelope says otherwise.
Skip loved the intercamp Baseball and Basketball games vs. Robin Hood. He did not come back as a 1st year CIT, as he got caught up in high school Football and then Soccer, which camp didn’t have at the time. Skip went on to play year-round competitive Soccer until the age of 60 when one final injury ended it. He did come back to camp as a 2nd year CIT, where he passed on being a Plaid in favor of coaching on the White Brigade.
One regret Skip had was not becoming better friends with the kids who lived in the West End. “Regrettably, we were somewhat separate, and then they left after 2 weeks.” Joe Petruzzelli “never bunked with us during my years as a camper, but was a fast friend and competitive track athlete.” They reacquainted when Joe started coming back for Old Timers’ Week decades later. He learned so much more about Joe than he had known as a camper. They were finally able to have an open dialogue about the assumptions the West End kids made about the Suburban kids and vice versa. Joe Petruzzelli still lives in the old West End, above the West End Museum near the Boston Garden and became an accomplished drummer.
During the 60s, you had to know someone to get into camp as a camper. “My father and Burt Savitsky’s father were partners in a business one block from Kublin’s Deli on Kneeland Street in Boston. They ate at Kublin’s nearly every day, as did Burt and I when we would work for other fathers. My father is the one who hooked up Danny and (current Board of Director’s President) Jeff Kublin with the lifelong camp experience.”
Bill Margolin often tells Skip about the influence his family had on him. In 1961, Albert hired Bill to be a junior counselor in the great new 5s cabins. Skip said of his dad, “It’s like Robert Kraft finding Tom Brady. My dad didn’t know what he had (in Bill), a non-sports guy who created another path for kids, like playing chess. No one could have predicted that Bill would give 60 extraordinary years of his life to West End House. Bill knows and relates to everyone who has ever been to camp, athletes and non-athletes alike, a spectacular influence.”
Skip has a great appreciation for the camp’s history and is impressed by the years of service given by other Directors like Mitchell Friedman, Jack Burnes and Allie Coles. Albert Stearns was on the Camp Committee with fellow legends like Joe Kaplan, Siggy Barr (Henry’s father), Manny Brown (Steve’s father), Max Feld (Jerry’s father), Mike Cataldo, George Kane, and Barney Yanofsky. Albert passed away in 1980 and many of “his West End cronies” were at the funeral. In his honor, there are plaques on each side of the Barbeque Pit, one of the most scenic and communal places at camp. The BBQ was first dedicated to Albert Stearns and later updated to recognize Albert & Elinor Stearns. Skip noted that “spouses of long-term active alumni certainly sacrificed plenty and deserve a bit of recognition.” Indeed.
Skip taught school in Newton briefly before beginning a lengthy career in the hotel business. He lived and worked around the country for Dunfey Hotels prior to and following its acquisition of Omni Hotels for over 20 years. His experience led him to consult in the hotel industry over the next 25 years. From his Stratham, NH home, today he leads a practice of his former Dunfey and Omni colleagues providing litigation support and expert witness services to attorneys trying lawsuits in hotels, restaurants and other hospitality businesses.
60 years after first arriving at West End House Camp, Skip still appreciates the relationships that he has formed. He stays in Bobby’s Cabin during Old Timers’ Week, with his 1960s camp friends Alan Shapiro, John Parker, Michael Berger, Keith Sherman and Stan Wyzansky. The best Old Timers’ Week veteran never to have been a camper, Bob Brown, rounds out the Bobby’s Cabin crew. Skip enjoys revisiting 5B where it all started during OTW because it houses Joel Saperstein and the next generation of campers and counselors from his era like Mike Finn, Peter Kaplan, David Bikofsky, Jan Singer, Steve Marcus, Peter Nason and Peter Avergun. Skip also treasures reconnecting at least annually with his first JC Bill Margolin. The Bobby’s Cabin relationships continue “in the offseason” as Skip called it, “the other 51 weeks.” For Skip, it’s true that when you’re one of the boys, you’re always one of the boys.
“It feels good to be around old friends, good memories and good people who are always there for each other.”
Thank you, Skip Stearns for “Remembering” West End House Camp with me. As for “The Bunt,” while Skip joked that, “Thou Shall Not Bunt” is not among the actual 10 Commandments, another Watermelon rule is. “Thou Shall Not Steal.”