Lessons from Camp (in the 1950s and 1960s)

Lessons From Camp – By Michael Popkin (Harry Popkin’s son)

I was born in April, 1950, in New Orleans to Harry and Mona Popkin.  Two months later I went with them to the new site of the camp they had founded with their two brothers and their brothers’ wives (Herman and Rosalie, Ben and Florence) a couple of years earlier in North Georgia.  The camp was called Blue Star (as in “the star of David”) and it was the first camp in the Southeast with a Jewish identity.   It sat on a gorgeous piece of land around a small fishing lake with seven cabins at the base of Mt. Pinnacle, seven miles down Kanuga Road from Hendersonville, NC.  I spent most of the next 25 summers there, matriculating from babe in arms through the ranks of camper, counselor, and eventually Director of Senior Boys and Camping Unlimited.

That first summer was a little rough.  One family story has it that while resting comfortably in my crib in bottom floor of the “Infirmary” (WWII lingo was still in order back then) I was approached by a curious copperhead.  Fortunately, and this part depends on which part of the family is telling the story, either my mother or one of my aunts beat the snake away with a broom.  The point is that I survived and learned the first of many life lessons from camp:

Lesson #1.  Safety first.  Growing up in camp, the staff never assumed “everything will be okay.”  They (and later, we) ran drills, reviewed protocols, and watched the campers like hawks in places such as the waterfront. Creating fun comes easy, but making sure it’s safe fun requires adult supervision.  Kids just do not have the brain development yet to adequately recognize the risks and consequences of some behaviors.  But they are learning, and that learning may be a drag on fun sometimes, but it sticks and makes them smarter, safer people throughout their lives.

Lesson #2.  Think, “Can I help?” not “Can I have?”  I recall an overnight to the top of Mt. Pinnacle when I was about twelve.  The head counselor called us all together and gave a short talk about cooperation.  He said that there were two types of campers: those who ask, “Can I have” and those who ask, “Can I help?”  We all wanted to be the “Can I help” campers, but we were also wise cracking pre-teens.  So, we peppered him the rest of the day with questions like, “Can I help…myself to more food?”  or “Can I help…show you where to put up my tarp?”  It became a fun game, but again the lesson stuck.  Whether through cabin clean-up or in a softball game, we all learned the value of contributing, and that feeling of belonging it helped produce.  Years later as a psychology graduate student I learned that one theorist, Alfred Adler, had deemed belonging the essential human quality for both survival and mental health.

Lesson 3.  There is strength in unified numbers.    Remembering that Blue Star was founded by three Jewish brothers soon after they returned from the second world war, it is not surprising that American patriotism and Jewish identification were core values. I recently found an old photo from the early 50’s of my father leading a flag raising with a group of campers at the flagpole that stood by the stone wall down by the lake.  The earnest emotion on all their faces was inspiring.  When the movie, Judgement at Nuremberg, which told the story of the Holocaust came out in 1961, Blue Star rented the entire Hendersonville theatre and took every camper deemed old enough to experience it.  My cousin, Rodger, and I were eleven.  We were old enough.

We also learned about Israel and “living Judaism.”  We planted trees, like they did in Israel.  Do you know those giant pines that line the soccer field (softball field in my day)? We planted them as seedlings out of buckets.  We learned that America was strong, and that Jews were strong.   On a humorous note, I once asked my father why they didn’t serve bacon at camp.  “Because it’s not kosher, and we want all Jewish families to feel welcome here,” was his answer.  “Why don’t they serve steak?” was my follow-up.  “Because it’s not in the budget,” was his sage reply.   I guess I also learned that you can’t have everything.

Humor aside, camp taught to be proud to be American, Jewish, members of our cabins, units, divisions, and Camp Blue Star.  It taught us that belonging to good groups, unified for common goals, gave us a strength greater than ourselves.  And by belonging, learning, and contributing back to those groups, we lifted all of us higher, and felt better about ourselves in the process.

And so, we sang, louder and louder: “We are the Pioneers of camp Blues Star; S-E-N-I-O-R-S, Seniors are the very best; the drums will beat…in the Village; I’ve got that Blue Star spirit, Havana Gila, and…”

Much, much more.


Brief bio – Michael Popkin

Building on his experiences at Camp Blue Star, Michael went on to complete a PhD in Counseling Psychology and work as a child and family therapist in Atlanta.  In 1983 he founded Active Parenting Publishers to create the first video-based parenting education program.  He has authored and produced over thirty books and video-based programs, including Active Parenting: First Five Years; Active Parenting, 4th Edition; and Active Parenting of Teens, 3d Ed.  A frequent keynote speaker and media guest, he has appeared on over 200 television shows including multiple appearances on The Oprah Winfrey Show and CNN.

14 thoughts on “Lessons from Camp (in the 1950s and 1960s)

  1. Camp played a vital role in my growing up Jewish. I came from a relatively small town in Louisiana and had never experienced being immersed in such a large group of my Jewish contemporaries

    1. Camp Blue Star was the best ten years of my life. Growing up in the south was tough for a Jewish child, especially the only one in my elementary school. When I arrived at Blue Star, I was like everybody else. Accepted for who I was not outcast by ignorance. I took to Iaraeli dance and had the opportunity to be schooled by the master himself, Fred Berk.

      I loved the majestic mountains, the refreshing lake stocked with all sorts if fish and the waterfront with Barry and Syd. I loved Indian lore with Julian Braverman, learning how to shoot a rifle and become Marksman First Class, climbing Eagle Rock and making pancakes over an open fire, camping on Pinnacle, skiing at Lake Lure, but especially services at the Elmo Solomon chapel. I could go on, but I would be taking up too much room. Thank you, Poplin family for your devotion to Jewish youth.

      1. I have always said Blue Star gave me my love of Judaism and community. Spending 10 summers there have continued to be some of the most cherished memories I have…..my only regret is that I am not 70 years younger so that I could do it all again!! Having so many of my actual family members there strengthened family bonds as well…so many wonderful things experienced at Blue Star❤️

      2. When the wait staff quit in 1970 (71?), Uncle Harry moved me from Boone Lodge to the Kitchen. Since I got to work with Mama Juanita & her husband (who died in Atlanta that next year), they made it a pleasure!
        Harry came off as a tough guy. Regardless, I loved him enough to attend his funeral.
        It was sneaking my motorcycle up the back roads to store in my cabin (the lower parking lot was too open) that got me in trouble with Rosalie. I worked hard enough that Herman and Roger kept me anyway. It all went well until I got blamed for a joke (gone bad) some counselors pulled at the last staff meeting – they threw small cereal boxes at the Popkin’s and were supposed to scream “Have a Happy Snap, Krackle and Popkins!” Whoops, they didn’t say it and I got blamed cause I had keys. Rosalie, I turned down their request to use my keys but agreed to throw. Boy was she mad. Sat on top of me at Boone Lodge for a week.
        Blue Star is an interesting place.

  2. My first year at camp was Michael’s last I believe and that was one of the last years for camping unlimited. Working on the waterfront was the best place to be in camp. You were able to meet every camper and every staff. That last summer with CU, I remember teaching a young boy to swim. It was a slow process, but we both stuck with it. At the end of the week this young boy was in the water, confidently, with all of the rest of the kids. There is no reward greater for a teacher. As we were clearing the waterfront for the day, Michael came up to me and asked if I knew who it was that I had been teaching. All I knew was his first name was Dexter. Michael told me his last name was King, one of the sons of Martin Luther. But that was the thing aboout CU and of Blue Star in general, it didn’t matter who you were. We all shared the same experiences. For several summers I was Mike Waterfront. A title proudly worn. Herman kept calling me Mike Stern, I think he subconsciously was trying for a conversion, and maybe on some level he did. But during that time I made a number of friends who are still friends today, 50 years later, bound together by our Blue Staf experience.

  3. Michael,
    I am indebted to you and your family for many summers spent enjoying a beautiful camp and a unique Jewish experience. My grandmother, Florence Lippman, served as dining hall matriarch after the passing of my grandfather. I spent 6 summers at Blue Star as a Pioneer, Senior, Prep CT, CT, and counselor. I miss those days and again, appreciate the foresight of your family in providing a wonderful opportunity for children.

  4. I was there in 1965 and 66. I knew the Popkin family from the Margaret Mitchell neighborhood. Some of my Augusta cousins were there at the same time, as well as friends from the neighborhood. Great memories!

  5. Shalom, Michael. You and my brother, Donnie, were cabin mates in 1056, our first year. We were there through 1967. Blue Star affected us Miami boys so much, that we have lived our adult lives in the mountains.

  6. I am deeply grateful for my summers at Blue Star.
    Learned and loved so much:)
    Best wishes to all,
    Bobby Pailet

  7. Blue Star and the friends that I made there have been with me for over 60 years. I was one of four sisters that enjoyed the beautiful summers, wonderful friendships, Jewish life and all the learning experiences. I was able to be there at a time with Harry and Herman and their wives were still integral parts of the camp.
    My children and grandchildren followed in my footsteps and Blue Star is now part of their lives.
    It gives me such a thrill to go and visit my granddaughter and see what a wonderful job Lauren and Seth are doing leading the camp.
    Thank you to the Popkins for creating a wonderful summer experience for me and my family.

  8. I was a counselor at BlueStar in the summer of 1958 after my freshman yeat at MIT, and was planning to return the following season but had to opt out because of family illness. It was a great and defining summer, and one that always stayed with me. The Popkins were kind and gracious to me and wonderful people. It was my last carefree summer and memorable in many ways

    Ken Singer MD

  9. Camp Blue Star was an enormous factor in the person I evolved into. The Jewish values, sabbath services, love of Israel, friendships formed were the most meaningful and have stayed with me to this day.
    I met my husband Stanley there at 15 and this June we will be married 61 years. I was a camper, CIT, counselor and unit leader. We sent our three children to Blue Star and this year our first grandchild will be going to camp! The Jewish values gained at Blue Star are a part of all our lives. I worked closely with Uncle Herman and especially Uncle Harry. The psychology course taught by Uncle Harry inspired me to major in psychology and education and truly impacted me in my life decisions! Forever grateful that I was privileged to be a part of this legacy and remain close friends still with many of my Blue Star family !

  10. I’ve written about CBS Every Time Camp calls for comments—And at Other times Unsolicited! I enjoy writing about Camp—Every aspect of it.
    I claim to be the youngest camper at five years old in 1950–an Overnight-train-ride Eight-Weeker! The famous true story around here is that when my mom met my brother and me at the train after Camp that she assuaged my tears by reassuring me that I was home but quickly realized that my tears were for missing Camp—My friends, my counselors, the mountains and the mist, the late-night highway noises on Kanuga Road, Shabbat with Israeli dancing, the sounds of the cabin door slamming, the smells of the Carolina earth and wet bathing suits on the line, daddy-long-legs, options, Bernie’s belting out “Summertime,” Art Diamond and Boone Lodge, the mail room with I can’t remember his name (!), photographer Les Fuchs, the Brav family, the Shimshaks, Edie Klein, cut-offs, socials, bar-b-cue on the Point, Zimriya, Maccabeah, CT dancing at the Asheville folk festival (among antisemites who thought we were some kind of alien pagans), staff meetings, cabin duty, Rise and Shine, pj breakfasts, Rod Hayom and cheating on the hand squeeze, campfires, the Outpost, overnights, Sliding Rock, Kalmia Dairy and Hershey’s after roller skating, Unto These Hills, skiing Lure, Grandfather Mountain, Granny’s store, Tootsie Pops, candy and gum from counselors’ days off, lanyards, ear piercing, singing, singing, singing, singing, letters home, letters to parents; tadpole, brim, whale, lifesaving, Jan Pierce (!!!) visit, Sid Greenspan, Elsie Solomon, Hilda, Stephanie, the Winkles, the Maisels, the Altmans, Louis Levy, the Weinsteins, people from Gastonia, Reidsville, Lumberton, the waiters, bug juice.
    Get the picture? My feelings Clear??
    I Loved, Love, and will Always Adore CBS—Everything Wonderful that it taught and gave me, my parents who gave me the opportunity and experience to go to a place that afforded me almost every life lesson that I know, Every Blessed Memory that I pull up whenever I want to go to my Happy Place, my love of and appreciation for being Jewish, and my friends who are Lifelong for the past sixty-five Plus Years.
    Thank You, Blue Star.

  11. Reading all of the above comments truly brings back a flood of memories while being a camper (’57) and staffer from ’65-’67 ,as Unit Leader Sr. Boys. There have been many years since CBS. But. I was lucky enough to drop by CBS during pre-camp and give Roger Popkin a big hug by the front office and his invite to take a walking tour down memory lane, which I did. How gracious he was and generous with his greetings. Years went by from my Blue Star days, but one day Harry, while in Miami , stopped by my office for some professional advice, it made me glad he did and the roles where reversed. That’s family for you. Once a Blue Star member , always a family member. Good luck with the new pod here. Still in touch with Harold Klein and many others, as well.

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