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Rick Lipsey
September 02, 1996
At the last caddie camp, boys continue to be made into men the old-fashioned way
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September 02, 1996

Happy Campers

At the last caddie camp, boys continue to be made into men the old-fashioned way

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Mike Flynn figures that if the Sankaty Head Golf Club had not bucked the odds and hung on to its caddie camp, he would have spent the summer in jail. Instead, Flynn did a 10-week stretch on Nantucket, the swanky Massachusetts island 25 miles south of Cape Cod. Welcome to a place where worlds collide, Nantucket's Camp Sankaty Head, the last caddie camp on earth.

Flynn, 17, clearly does not fit the Nantucket profile. And while he's not typical of the modern Sankaty camper either, his case underscores both the age-old values on which caddie camps were founded and the high esteem in which the last one is still held. An eighth-grade dropout, Flynn has done time for larceny and breaking and entering. He has shot and been shot at. Earlier this summer he was in court again, this time facing another larceny charge. But when the judge learned that he had lined up a job at Camp Sankaty, Flynn was given a suspended sentence so that he could earn the nearly $2,000 restitution ordered by the court. Flynn came home with $1,600. More important, he earned some self-respect.

"You learn you ain't going to get nothing in life if you don't work hard," he says of his summer at Sankaty Head. "I'd love to get my G.E.D. and go to college someday. Man, that would be cool. This place makes me think that's possible. That I can do it."

Camp Sankaty Head has been having that effect on young men for 66 years. Campers have gone on to become doctors, lawyers, policemen and, yes, golf pros. It's a place where boys go not to become the next John Glenn, Michael Jordan or Baryshnikov but, as camp director Doug Ellsworth says, "to get ready to go out into the real world and survive and, of course, to have some fun along the way."

Sankaty I lead is the last link to a bygone era. In the early 1900s the first caddie camps were the inspired result of a convergence of social service and practical need. Cities in the Northeast teemed with working-class boys with limited options. The fashionable resorts and country clubs sprinkled throughout rural New England—isolated retreats at such places as Fishers Island, N.Y.; Bethlehem, N.H.; and Poland Spring, Maine—needed caddies. So the clubs built the camps and imported the kids to work the high season. In most cases schools and youth organizations like the YMCA and the Boys Club managed the camps and recruited the caddies.

At the peak of their popularity, in the 1940s, about 20 camps existed. Then, around 1950, came the motorized golf cart, and along with it the beginning of the end for caddie camps. Yet Sankaty I lead's camp has not only survived, but it has also thrived. And for two reasons: Over the past 33 years the camp has been run by two devoted leaders, and the club's members decided early on that the ambience provided by caddies was worth a substantial investment.

Camp Sankaty Head was founded in 1930 but by the early '60s had hit hard times. Enrollment was down and cash flow reduced to a trickle when the Sankaty Head Foundation, a charitable trust, took over ownership of the camp. In 1963 a new camp director, Norman L. Claxton, was brought on board to right the ship. A schoolteacher and a retired captain in the U.S. Navy, Claxton loved kids and discipline, and he had an immediate impact.

Claxton, now 83, ran Camp Sankaty until 1985, when he promoted Ellsworth, his longtime assistant. Their relationship dates all the way back to Ellsworth's days in high school. When Ellsworth was 14, his father died of a heart attack, and Claxton, the school's disciplinarian, became his surrogate father. "I decided that if I could do for one kid what Dad [Claxton] did for me, my life would be a success," says the 57-year-old Ellsworth.

Sankaty's members subsidize the camp to the tune of $60,000 annually and last year spent $750,000 to build new dormitories, a mess hall and a recreation center. The foundation has also awarded campers more than $40,000 in academic scholarships in recent years.

Perhaps that's why filling the three dorms—huts, they call them—that compose Sankaty Head's caddie camp has not been a problem. This summer 52 boys between the ages of 13 and 18 attended the 10-week camp, some coming from as far away as Ireland and California. Another 100 applicants were turned away. Many of the kids are the sons (sorry, no girls) of camp alumni.

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