Director's Blog

  • Norman Thombs

On Ray Bailey


Ray Bailey, left, with Norm and Paul Marshall at Mechuwana's 70th anniversary on July 14, 2018.


As many of you know Ray Bailey, was Mechuwana’s first full-time Maintenance Director. He came aboard within months of Paul Marshall who was Mechuwana’s first full-time Camp Director. Together they brought Mechuwana into a new era.


Ray’s impact on camp was immediate, he organized the maintenance program and set the foundation of expansion at Mechuwana. Under his and Paul’s direction, The Gus Building (year-round health center), a year-round maintenance building, the Village cabins, the Commons was winterized, KK cabins, and a new cabin in the staff area were all built. On top of those things Ray did too many upgrades to mention here.


Ray’s impact was not just as a master carpenter; he and his wife Anita were a vital part of the staff, becoming friends and mentors to hundreds of volunteers and staff people. We all loved it when he would come to the campfires and lead us in songs like German Music, or take us on a Lion Hunt. One great tradition that many staff members will remember is the entire staff sneaking up to where Anita and Ray put their tent camper and singing happy birthday to Ray at one minute past midnight.


I met Ray when I was in college. I would come to camp three or four weeks before staff week and help get the camp ready for the summer. It was during these weeks of working alone for hours and hours with Ray that I came to know and form an incredible bond with him. The very first thing that Ray asked me was if I had my college degree yet. “ No, I am only a sophomore,” I said.


“That’s good, because the minute you get that degree your IQ will drop 25 points," he said as he shook my hand without a smile.


First, let me tell you right now that Ray was above all else an artist. His carpentry skills were amazing. Many of his creations can still be seen at camp. We did not have the money to purchase kitchen cabinets for the new health care center, so Ray built them from scratch. His perfect dove-tail joints and handmade door handles and doors, all cut by hand, have stood the test of time and look as good as the day I helped hang them.


At one point he remade every screen door at camp because, as he said, "the ones you buy are crap," and Ray's doors are still being used 35 years later. He made bookcases for the Conference office that were just beautiful, everything he made was done with perfection in mind.


Like other hard-working, talented people I have worked with, Ray was not talkative when he worked. So for a lot of our time working together we did not talk a lot. And also like a lot of people with this uncanny knowledge, Ray thought I could read his mind and know what he needed without telling me. This fact left Ray staring at me as I tried to guess what he needed me to do. Eventually I learned all I needed to do was ask, and so I asked and asked and asked, and he taught and taught and taught.


I was not always the best student. He would show me how to do something once and I would more than likely not get it right. Ray had the knack of showing up just as I would screw up the worst. I quickly learned that he did not care if I screwed up as long as I was willing to do it over the “right way.” I felt I had earned Ray's respect the minute he felt I wanted to learn from him.


I knew I would never have the talent Ray had as carpenter/woodworker but I learned so much just watching him. I also learned that you did not do a job hoping to get a compliment, the compliment was doing the job right. Later in life after he retired, Ray and I would joke that we both probably failed at letting people know they had done a good job. “I think some people must just need that feedback,” he told me once while golfing when he was almost 80. I laughed when he said this, but then he turned to me and said, “Norm, that’s probably not a good thing I taught you. We should do better at that,” he said. Ray was still teaching me many years later. I swear I tried do better after that.


This drive for perfection and doing a job the right way was never more apparent than as my first year as director. The American Camping Association had made a new mandatory rule that all bunk beds had to have a top rail so kids would not fall out of bed. All Mechuwana beds were old US Army surplus bunk beds with no top rail. We did not have enough money to buy all new beds so Ray put together a detailed plan for the beds. We began making bunk beds for eight hours a day as we had to make more than 70 sets of beds. At last we were down to one last cabin on the lake side, Cabin Two. Ray left me to do this cabin as he worked on something else. I was totally exhausted at this point. Each cabin had five sets of beds, and I was putting together the fifth set, making mistake after mistake, but I put it together anyway, I tried to hide a few of the mistakes by turning the bed so the boards that were not quite cut square were facing the wall. Ray came in just as I was securing the last bed into the wall of the cabin. He stood and looked at the five sets. “Norm, we really should do the cuts over on that bunk set,” he said, pointing to the bunk bed I had just screwed to the wall.


“Ray, don’t you think it's ok? I mean, no one is going to see those gaps,” I said. Ray walked around the room slowly looking at each of the other bunks, not saying a word. He knew I was exhausted.


“If we fix that bunk,” he said, pointing to the one in question. “If we fix that one then we will have five perfect sets of bunks in here.“


I took my drill and undid the bed from the wall and together we fixed the bed, making all the cuts square and long enough so there were no gaps. How could I not? Ray Bailey had just told me in his own way that I had made four perfect sets of bunks all by myself; I was finally a good student of this amazing artist.


During those days when I came to camp early, I ate many meals with Ray and Anita in the maintenance building, which doubled as their dining room and kitchen. Anita always made me feel so welcome, she always wanted to know everything that was going on in my life. She was just a joy to be around.


I think Ray loved to be grumpy, especially around young maintenance guys. But as soon as they got to know him, they loved him. When I became the director, he would come to me and say, "Norm, where did you get these guys? They have no talent and no imagination." But when I would tell him I could reassign them if he really wanted me to, he would always say, “No, they are good kids and you will probably just give me someone with a college education.”


When I became the director, Ray, who had been a professional camping person for more than 30 years, including a camp director himself, helped me in so many ways. The relationship we already had made it possible for me to go to him for advice about how to run a camp. He always had time for me. He was always willing to talk or play a game of cribbage or sneak away and play golf.


When Ray told me he was retiring, I remember being really upset and somewhat scared, I had come to rely on his wisdom and friendship. For many years after he retired, I would travel to Rockland and play golf with Ray a few times in the fall and spring and he would travel a few times to Winthrop where we played at Cobbossee Golf Course. During that time, I had to fill him in on the staff members that he had known from Mechuwana. He wanted to know everything I had heard about everyone of them.


Since Ray's death, most of my memories have gone back to the times before camp started when this 19-year-old kid who still had not lost 25 IQ points tried his best to learn from this master carpenter – this incredible artist.


​—Norm Thombs, Camp Director

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