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Director's Blog

  • Writer's pictureNorman Thombs

A Walk with Paul

It impossible to overstate the impact of Paul Marshall on Camp Mechuwana. His time as director of Mechuwana began with a tremendous act of faith by the Maine Annual Conference. After David Broadbent left his position as half-time youth director and half-time camp director, the Conference leadership asked Jeff Toothaker to be the interim director for a year. During that year a proposal was made that Mechuwana have its own full-time camp director and that the Conference would also hire another individual to be the youth director. Reverend Gary Akeley was hired as the youth director and Paul was hired as the Director of Outdoor Ministries for the Maine Annual Conference. This incredible investment in our youth would prove to impact thousands of people for years to come.

Paul Marshall was given the task of moving Mechuwana into a year-round ministry and to go through the process of the American Camping Association (ACA) accreditation. Paul hit the ground running, with tremendous leadership from the Mechuwana Board of Directors under chairperson Ruth Ayers.

The first steps were taken to winterize the camp. The Dining Commons was winterized, a year-round retreat/health center and a winterized maintenance building were built. Tent-based cabins were replaced by cabins, with electricity. New showers and bathrooms were built. The upgrade in such a short period of time was truly inspiring. But if you knew Paul like I did, you were not surprised. The man worked hours and hours with energy that was contagious. He also refused to take “no” as an answer to anything. It took this type of energy and attitude to bring Mechuwana to this new level of excellence.

For three years I worked with Paul to attempt to get us ready to be accredited by the ACA. We started with nothing but a bunch of unorganized policies and practices. I remember taking all our policies and spreading them out on three tables in the Commons. Then Paul started making a list of all the missing pieces. It was overwhelming. “How are we going to do this?” I asked.

“One policy at a time,” he said.

Since I was also working with Ray Bailey to help get the camp ready, much to Ray’s disapproval Paul made my schedule. I was with Ray Monday, Tuesday, Thursday afternoons and Friday mornings. I was with Paul all day Wednesday until Thursday at noon, and Friday afternoons, too. I had this schedule for Paul’s first two years of preseason. With help from a very dedicated board we put all the policies and procedures of the camp into the order the ACA wanted them in. We were scheduled for inspection that second summer. As the summer approached, I knew we were nowhere close to being ready. Paul knew it, too. In those days you could simply call ACA and tell them you were not ready and they would put it off another year. But Paul was not going to do that. I remember the conversation I had with him regarding the upcoming inspection. “We can’t be afraid to fail,” he said to me.

“Well at least we will know where we’re falling short,” I said.

“Yes,” he said, “but what we really need to hear is how much we are doing right. We need to hear that right now.”

Paul was right. Camp was in the middle of the biggest transformation since it has been purchased in 1948. For many people, understanding that we were moving in a right direction was very important. Paul’s ability to understand this showed the insight needed at this time in our history. So the inspection happened, and we did not meet the 80 percent needed. But Paul was right: we now had a road map; we now knew exactly what we needed to do. And as importantly, we got so much right that everyone had a great since of accomplishment, which motivated everyone to do the final work needed. The next summer we passed and became an accredited camp, at that time, something less than 25 percent of all camps in the United States had achieved. It was Paul’s incredible work ethic and vision that made this happen.

I was Paul’s assistant director for three summers. Paul worked out the areas of the camp program he wanted me to be in charge of, and then he let me do my job. We met every day to “check in” as he called it. He gave me incredible freedom to make mistakes and learn from them. He trusted me not to be perfect but to do the best I could. I trusted him to teach me and guide me. In many ways, we learned the profession of camping together.

His vast experiences throughout his amazing life gave him insights that were so unique. I could not have designed a better apprentice program if I had tried, even though at that time I had no thought of being the camp director.

One day when I was 22-years-old, I got a glimpse into part of Paul’s life that left such an impression on me that the words and images come to me almost every day in one way or another. We were outside the Commons on the Tuesday after Memorial Day, walking down the road to the lower part of camp. Paul, who had been, among so many things, a forester knew everything about trees. He pointed out the transition of the forest from hardwood to the giant softwood white pine trees. “On the right side, the new young hardwood, on the left the ancient towering pines,” he said as we walked down the road. Near the bottom of the road, a large opening appeared where Hurricane Gloria had taken down hundreds of trees, including ancient pines. In this opening where now the sun could hit, blackberry bushes shot up. “Look under the blackberry bushes,” he told me. I bent over and could see small hardwood trees that I knew were white birches, just beginning to grow. “The forest is regenerating itself. It’s going through a rebirth,” he explained.

Then for the next period of time—I am not sure how long—Paul spoke, his eyes looking into the forest. I listened as he told me about walking into a place of unspeakable horror, of unspeakable cruelty. He spoke of the unspeakable fear he felt as he looked into the eyes of victims of Nazi Germany in a faraway land, in what would be known as Buchenwald Concentration Camp. I remember being scared myself, hearing him speak in detail of what he witnessed. I remember those young birch trees protected by the blackberry bushes. I remember the sun hitting the ground where it had not for maybe 80 years or more, I remember Paul’s words: “Look, the forest is regenerating itself. It is a rebirth.”

Later, I remembered thinking I was older then at 22 than Paul was when he landed on Utah Beach on D-Day.

Paul and I never spoke again about his experiences until many years later when he was finishing up his book. But, I can tell you I have never walked down the camp road without remembering.

A couple years later I got a call from Paul, who said, “I am retiring, Norm. I think you should apply for the job.”

“I am not sure I am ready…”

Paul stopped me mid-sentence (remember how I said he didn’t take “no” for an answer). “Yes you are,” he said. “You were trained by the best,” he laughed.

He was certainly right about that.

Thank you, Paul.

-Norman Thombs, Camp Director



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