Uncle Ralph on the green benches from Babbie Lester
a sad day for camp billings
Because Camp Billings is our home, and a place where our present and our future are so connected to our past, today is a very sad day for all the Billings family. Ralph Lawrence, who served as Director for 38 summers from 1958 - 1996, passed away early on February 19, peacefully and without pain. For those of you who knew Uncle Ralph, met him, or had family members who were at Billings during his tenure, his influence as a teacher, mentor and friend are unsurpassed. He was singularly responsible for keeping Camp Billings afloat during tough economic times in the 1960's. There are thousands of young people who have been touched by his kindness and his spirit. We are better spouses, parents, citizens, and human beings as a result of having this great man in our lives. Today is a day when we should all reflect upon some of the memorable stories and unforgettable experiences we have shared with, and because of, Uncle Ralph. For many of us he IS Camp Billings, and always will be.
I gave this speech in 1996 at the 90th camp reunion. I read the speech for the first time in over ten years when I heard of Ralph’s passing, and it still captures the most important thoughts I want to share with Ralph.
- Yutaka Tamura
June 16th, 1996
On Friday morning, before all of you arrived, I sat on that green bench by that rock where Ralph always sits thinking of how amazing it was that so many of you were making your way to Billings, whether by Winnebago, by airplane, or even by foot. Sitting there, I came up with two simple reasons why we all decided to spend a few days here again, sleeping in saggy and too-short bunks, getting bitten by black flies and doing dances that I thought nobody does any more. My first reaction. In each of our lives, we have lived through countless experiences, but I can bet that each of us can point to a handful that have come to define who we are. For most – if not all – of us, camp is such an experience. So, we just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to be reminded of what camp is all about and how its mysterious forces have helped mold us into who we are.
The second reason I could think of that would make so many people gather from near and far is Ralph. We all came to Billings this weekend, not only to relive camp, but also to celebrate and thank a person who for 38 years kept Billings a place where we all could have such life-defining experience. But before I offer my words of thanks to Ralph, I’d like to quickly share a random thought with all of you.
Last week, my mom sent me a care package out of the blue. After thanking her on the phone, I started to think of how often I have thanked her for doing things – doing my laundry, picking me up in the car, or even buying my favorite type of orange juice, the one with the bits and pieces in it – but how rarely I have thanked her for what she most deserves being thanked for: for being a good mom. As I sat on that green bench, thinking of this weekend and of Ralph, I began to see a connection between him and my mother. Like so many of you, I have thanked Ralph for so many things. I have thanked him for passing the bug juice at the staff table, and I have thanked him for ordering extra basketballs, and I have thanked him for letting me come back year after year to camp. But as with my mother, I have rarely thanked him for the things he should be most thanked for.
It’s not that I’ve never thought about it. As the last few days of camp arrive every summer, I think of all the things I want to say to Ralph. But I always wait until the last minute, and as I walk up the ramp to the office to say goodbye, tears start filling my eyes. By the time I make it into the office, all I can muster is a quick good-bye and a tearful hug. So Ralph, today, I want to say all the things I never got to say during those last moments.
First, thank you for giving me the opportunity to meet some of the most important people in my life. Using your uncanny ability to discover quality people by merely an application and a few phone calls, you brought to camp, among so many others, Jay and Joe. In their own ways, they both took me under their wings when I was a camper and younger staff, and they guided me. And now they have become my close friends. And again with your skill, you chose staff from around the world, whether it by a Phil Mulligan, a Jungle Jane, or a Kevin or Paul Clunie. Year after year, they have infused camp with a newness and freshness. And of course, this is where my relationship with Luke and Paul has evolved into what I know will be a life-long friendship.
I also want to thank you for instilling in me a love for children. I came as a first year CIT eight years ago more excited about being with my friends than working with children. But with each successive year, I began enjoying my time with kids more, and I have now come to love being with them. I’ve also learned to appreciate watching children like Mike Harley and Kate Freitas turn into young men and women. Thanks to these experiences as well as an observation you made about me that I will never forget – that I am a person who needs to do something I can be passionate about – I decided to return to camp again this summer.
There is so much more I want to say to you, Ralph, but I am running out of time. I came to camp for the first time in 1985, a twelve year old boy not knowing quite what to expect. And as Luke and Paul would tell it, I did little else but go fishing that summer as they hung out with the ladies. Nevertheless, I fell in love with this place. Now, twelve years later, I look back at that summer and realize that coming here was one of the greatest decisions of my life. Quite simply, this place has made me who I am. In the confines of Billings, I have learned principles that you have worked so hard to share with every person who walks through these gates. And, those principles, which I could never explain in words, as well as all my experiences here at camp, may be your greatest gift. For even if I never return to Billings again, I want you to know that I will always turn to those memories and principles to guide my life. And when I start to lost sight of them, I will close my eyes and think of camp. And in my mind, I will always imagine the same scene. I will imagine the Clocktower lawn, the courts with a Luke Gebb playing tennis and a Paul or Jay playing basketball, the shimmering waterfront, and you, Ralph, on that green bench, guiding us, protecting us, and leading us. So Ralph, these are my words to you. Thank you.
Picture of Uncle Ralph at 100th reunion
I wrote this song in 1994, titled it "Ralph's Song" and sang it for Ralph at a post-taps concert that summer. His only comment, besides "Thank you," was to smile and mock-glare at me then say, "Old man?"
Here is the recording from that concert. It was in Dartt Hall, the original one. Ralph sat in the back. He never liked attention, never wanted the spotlight, but I was glad I could give it to him for at least those five minutes.
Thanks for giving me camp, Ralph.
Uncle Ralph with Jasmine St-Laurent from Babbie Lester
I must admit that I will remember Uncle Ralph fondly not only for his hugely genuine smile (his eyes really did light up) but also his stern looks that never needed accompanied words. Uncle Ralph earned my respect right away when I was a young camper. He also earned my very sincere gratitude when I was a young CIT who finally became a Senior Counselor. He served as my summertime teacher, parent, employer and friend. How fortunate I, among thousands of souls, have been to have known Ralph Lawrence.
Amy Martineau Lechner
Camper 1978-81, Staff 1982-86
Picture of Uncle Ralph in Sunnyside from Mike Lemme
I wonder who I would be today if I had never met Ralph Lawrence. Believe it or not, when I met Ralph in 1992, I was an angry teenager. He helped me navigate through the worst of those akward years by hiring me as a first year CIT, even though I had never been a camper at Billings I had gone to lesser camps up until then. At Chlo Deraiches suggestion, I lied in my application letter about being friends with Philippe Canac-Marquis. She said he was a responsible guy and that he was well-liked by the camp directors. So although I had never met Canac, I sent in a letter saying he recommended I apply to be a CIT, and sent pictures of myself taken at a photo booth in the Berri Metro station. I had taken profile shots from each side, and some looking up and down - pretending that I was a convict getting mug shots. For some reason, Ralph hired me anyway and changed my life by bringing me in the Camp Billings family. He showed me those pictures a few years later while I was photocopying the Clocktower Times in the office. I asked Ralphi why he hired me in spite of my mug shot prank. He chuckled and said with his usual grave voice, Oh, I had a feeling you were a Billings gal. I remember flushing with pride at this compliment and I confessed lying about Canac, who was one of my best friends by that time, and Ralph just smiled.
Indeed it was at Billings that I met almost all of my best and oldest friends. Ralph was a role-model for keeping in touch trough letters and phone calls, and thanks to him I am blessed with wonderful friends from all over the world. These dear friends have taught me to be accepting and loving to everyone I meet. They have also inspired me to Carpe Diem and dive from the high dive. Ralph encouraged us to live life to the fullest and to try to see the good in people, as this enables them to shine. Accordingly, Ralphs camp was a safe place where I could reinvent myself, and take a break from being a teen with a huge chip on my shoulder. At Ralphs Billings, I was a sunny kid, and with time I gained enough confidence in myself through positive experiences at camp to bring this attitude in the outside world.
As I grew older and became a senior counsellor, Ralphs approach to managing camp encouraged me to take initiative, show leadership, creativity and dedication. It was also at Ralphs Billings that I acquired a work ethic heeding to Dad Hurds dictum anything worth doing at all is worth doing well - advice which has helped me be successful in my various careers since working at Billings. When I became a manager, I tried to find the kind of balance that Ralph achieved to motivate his staff to surpass themselves every day, to feel the rewards of constantly redefining their own limits and thus living up to their potential. It was also his coaching about working with youth that led me to dedicate my life to teaching teens.
Through his celebration of diversity, Ralphs camp turned me on to being curious about people from other cultures. He hired international staff like James Chisholm, Johan Green, and a plethora of Oooolas who inspired me to travel with a backpack as they did. Travelling has inspired me to teach kids to have a compassionate opinion of mankind and a broad perspective in understanding the world. Ralph was always very supportive of traveling and often put camp alumni in touch so as to assist CBers to host each other. Accordingly, he helped me appreciate my parents generosity as they lovingly agreed to host many generations of camp travelers passing through Montreal.
Ralph was also a model for forgiveness. His love was unconditional and he encouraged everyone to keep an open mind about peoples actions. One of the darkest hours of my life was getting kicked out of camp in 1994. Ralph cried when he told me I had to go home and to comfort me, he told me about other proeminent camp alumni (and board members) who had suffered the same consequence for the same mistake. Most importantly, he said I could come back the next summer. Ralph accepted all the children he mentored by that I mean the campers and staff alike. He radiated acceptance, love and in turn inspired us to be the best person we could be.
Oh, Ralphi. I am heartbroken. I will miss his poise, his wisdom, his giant heart, his dedication, his passion, his love. I thank my lucky Fairlee, Vermont stars that I met Ralph Lawrence. I guess the only thing I can do is strive to make him proud.
Picture of Uncle Ralph with Elaine Connors from Mike Lemme
Hello Camp Billings Family,
Yesterday morning I learned of the passing of "Uncle Ralph". Wow, I just sat there and great big tears started rolling down my face. This just can't be, this isn't happening.
I wondered back to the summer of 1960, my first at Billings. Two weeks, too short, and way too much fun. I cried that day my parents came to pick me up because I found the best place on earth for a kid to spend their summers. You can bet the next four years I was there all eight weeks of camp. Why, my mom asked, would you want to go there for the whole summer? One simple answer, the Camp Billings Family, and Uncle Ralph.
How many times have we watched Uncle Ralph walking around camp, holding the hands of little boys and girls. Helping with their homesickness, making them feel at home and welcoming them into the Billings Family? Quite often 6, 8, 10 or more children walking with him. You can see it like it was yesterday, can't you?
Now think back to lining up for meals. Uncle Ralph in front of the door standing tall quietly looking over the cabins, deciding who gets to go first. Singing after meals and everyone moaning when Uncle Ralph stood up with announcements. Didn't he know we could sit there, out singing other cabins for hours?
Uncle Ralph was Camp Billings, period. He touched thousands of campers and staff over the years. I know he touch my life and that of my brother, Ken Noyes. He was a gentle giant and often he would place his large hand on my shoulder, and that of others, and turn us in the right direction, often without a word spoken.
I returned to camp in 72' for my only year as a councilor. Even today, 37 years later, I can remember that feeling that overtook me when I entered camp. I was home, home with my camp family and Uncle Ralph. You see, if you are a member of the camp family you know all this. We only need to look each other in the eye and we all know what it like to be a member of the Camp Billings Family. For non camp family people, it's hard to explain. It is something that will bond us all for life.
Uncle Charlie, Uncle Connie, John and Anne Freitis, Mrs. Rector the chief and all the other staff back in the early 60's made camp the great place it was. And the leader of that group? Uncle Ralph.
Over the years we all go on our different paths in life. I have driven by camp many times but have not returned in 37 years. I think I speak for all of us when I say I dream back to my days at camp often. I smile, remembering the wonderful times I had and always, without fail, Uncle Ralph is in all of these memories.
I wrote Bob Green yesterday that God's camp is in great hands today. Uncle Ralph is there, met at the front gate by all the Camp Billings Alumni. They have their Camp Director. All is good.
The last time I saw Uncle Ralph was when I stopped for breakfast ten years, or so, ago in Wells River. There sitting at the counter was Uncle Ralph. He saw me walk in and before I could gather myself I heard his voice. "Chuck Currier, come over here and eat with me. How have you been, I missed you." That is Camp Billings Family, that was "Uncle Ralph".
I regret one thing today. I wish I could tell Uncle Ralph good-bye and how thankful I am for his being in my life and everyone's at Camp Billings. He was such a wonderful man and I will miss him so much.
God Speed "Uncle Ralph"
Picture of Uncle Ralph sitting in trunk from Paul Levine
Arriving at Camp as a 16 year old CIT in 1989 I had no idea what to expect. I had never been to the United States before and had no idea what summer camp was all about...... I certainly did not expect to be greeted by a 6' 6" giant of a man determined to serve reheated Chop Suey to a very jet lagged kid from Scotland!!
Five summers later I "graduated" from Billings changed by my interactions with this great man and the camp family he introduced to me.
I could write for days about my memories of Camp and Uncle Ralph's part in most of those recollections. Many of stories would no doubt mirror or merge with your own. But I stumbled across a phrase a few years ago that in my mind sums him up better than I could do using any number of words:
"It's nice to be important: but it's far more important to be nice".
These were not Ralph's words. The credit for this philosophy goes to a gentleman called Trevor Bethell who played for Ledbury Rugby Club in England a number of years before I played for the same team; but few would argue that Ralph lived his life by this sentiment.
My abiding memory of Ralph is his quiet willingness to share his time and energy within anyone who chose to take a seat beside him on those green benches. Seemingly always putting my interests and needs ahead of his own.
Thank you Uncle Ralph, for building a confidence in me that I have drawn upon everyday since we met.
Kevin Clunie (Staff 89-93)
Picture of Uncle Ralph with campers in 1963 from Alumni Room
Hello everyone. Reading Jasmine SL’s thoughts on Uncle Ralph got me reminiscing as well. I remember in the summer of 2002, still winded from finishing the round the lake 10K, I was sitting on the Rock with Jasmine, watching Ralph slowly stroll across the clocktower lawn. I casually asked her, “do you think he has any idea how important he is?” Jasmine replied, “you should tell him.” I was 19 year old, and this was when I was really starting to understand just how important camp was to me. I decided to tell him in a letter. This began a correspondence between Ralph and me for the next several years, which, I’m sorry to say, tapered off in the past couple. Nevertheless, I am so grateful that Jasmine encouraged me to write this letter, for it materialized a friendship that should have started long before it did. Below is the first letter I wrote him.
I am embarrassed to say that you have probably been the most influential person in my life over the past decade, and I’ve never even introduced myself to you.
As I sit here typing on my little laptop computer, I am reminded of the fact that things are always changing. Things are always being updated or modernized, claiming to be more efficient or better in some way. Everything is always changing. But when I look at old photos from the late forties I always enjoy seeing the sign on the lower tennis courts that says “please park all autos here,” or something like that. I always enjoying finding landmarks in pictures of the past, knowing that the faces in the picture all traveled the same path I have. Gazing at this one little sign, I am reminded that what makes Camp Billings so unique has not been updated or changed at all.
People come and go, counselors and campers, each one leaving with a piece of camp in their minds. Camp is left with nothing but an echo of those who once dwelled there, a random comment in the dining hall about a past camper or absent counselor. But it is those people who outlast everyone else, solely because of their love for camp that make the difference. It is the people who put aside their summer internships, or their soccer tryouts so that everyone one on Lake Fairlee can see them for just one more summer. It is those people who continue to give and give to camp, because they are forever indebted to this Billings.
When I go home to New Jersey, and my friends want to know just why I love this camp so much, I can’t really give them an answer that will satisfy them. I have no idea. Sure, being on a lake is fun. Sure, we have a water-ski boat, which is fun. But that’s not why I keep coming back. When I really try to explain to them why I love it so much, they cannot comprehend… No one can. Unless you have actually been at camp and seen what it can do for people, there is no way you could ever get it. But once experience it, it becomes an addiction.
Since my first summer here in 1995, I have been addicted to camp. I had three incredible summers here as a camper. After two years as a C.I.T. I continued to return each subsequent summer. I am now in my fourth year as a counselor. However, since my arrogant days as a cabin fifteen kid, my attitude towards camp has shifted. Developed is probably a better word than shifted, because my attitude continues to develop every summer that I come back. Yes, I came back to see all my friends. And yes, I came back to camp so I can relax in Vermont for another summer. But this year, I can say with one hundred percent sincerity that my returning to camp is the first time I have ever been empathic in my life; I really wanted to give back the way camp cave to me. Camp gave me so much when I was camper. I didn’t realize it then, but being a staff member intensifies it I suppose.
I cannot imagine who I would be without camp. I don’t mean the memories or the friends; I mean the actual type of person I am. Camp has put everything in perspective for me. Everything always stays in proportion. I understand what is important in life and what is secondary. I have met so many people in the past few years of high school and college, and so many of them just “don’t get it.” They don’t understand how singing in the dining hall can be fun. They don’t get why a game like Jack’s Alive would one of the most anticipated evening programs. They don’t get why all my stories come from camp, and not somewhere else. They want to succeed in life, they want money or power or fame or something else, and they don’t care who they step on to get there. But I feel like I have already succeeded in life because I do “get it.” Camp gave me such a strong foundation for how to interact with people, a sense of what is right and what is wrong, a sense of what matters and what doesn’t. The core of who I am has been influenced by camp more than any other factor.
I guess I may as well get to the point, because I could probably write a book on why I love camp so much.
One hundred and fifty kids each session… Four sessions a year… Thirty-five years. The number of lives that you have touched is unfathomable. Camp Billings is epitomized by the people who continue to give back. I am forever indebted to camp. I think there are tens of thousands of other people who feel exactly the same way. The fact that you continued to come back year after year, just to give back to camp is why people like me feel so strongly about Billings. My addiction is nurtured by the fact that when the current cabin seven kids are senior staff ten years down the road, I want them to be thinking the way I taught them to think, the way that my counselors taught me to think, the way you taught my counselors to think— with the knowledge that the sky is the limit, and no matter what you do, everyone at Camp Billings will love you for it.
Camp Billings is what it is because of you. I am who I am because of you. Thank you so much for feeling so strongly about camp forty years ago, because I can feel the same way now.
The number of lives you have touched is unfathomable. Please don’t ever forget how important you are.
August 5th, 2002
Rest in Peace, Ralph. You will be missed by those who knew you best, by those who only knew you a little, but mostly by those who will never get a chance to meet you.
Picture of Uncle Ralph at crazy hat night circa 1970 from Paul Levine
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