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Camp Billings Honors an Icon: After 46 Years, Bradford, Vt., Man Retiring From Full-Time Summer Post

  • Larry Drew, 81, of Bradford watches for traffic as the start of the 6.2 mile race around Lake Fairlee at Camp Billings in Thetford, Vt. Saturday, July 26, 2014. Drew is retiring after 46 years working at the camp. <br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Larry Drew, 81, of Bradford watches for traffic as the start of the 6.2 mile race around Lake Fairlee at Camp Billings in Thetford, Vt. Saturday, July 26, 2014. Drew is retiring after 46 years working at the camp.
    (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Larry Drew, 81, of Bradford, middle, calls out the names of Race Around the Lake winners at Camp Billings in Thetford, Vt. Saturday, July 26, 2014. Drew, currently the maintenance director at the camp, has been Athletic Director, Assistant Camp Director and held several other positions at the camp in his 46 years there.<br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Larry Drew, 81, of Bradford, middle, calls out the names of Race Around the Lake winners at Camp Billings in Thetford, Vt. Saturday, July 26, 2014. Drew, currently the maintenance director at the camp, has been Athletic Director, Assistant Camp Director and held several other positions at the camp in his 46 years there.
    (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Larry Drew, 81, of Bradford, the maintenance director at Camp Billings, instructs the timing table volunteers in their responsibilities before the start of the Race Around the Lake at Camp Billings in Thetford, Saturday, July 26, 2014. Drew is retiring after 46 summers working at Camp Billings in Thetford for 46 years. <br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Larry Drew, 81, of Bradford, the maintenance director at Camp Billings, instructs the timing table volunteers in their responsibilities before the start of the Race Around the Lake at Camp Billings in Thetford, Saturday, July 26, 2014. Drew is retiring after 46 summers working at Camp Billings in Thetford for 46 years.
    (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Larry Drew, 81, of Bradford watches for traffic as the start of the 6.2 mile race around Lake Fairlee at Camp Billings in Thetford, Vt. Saturday, July 26, 2014. Drew is retiring after 46 years working at the camp. <br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)
  • Larry Drew, 81, of Bradford, middle, calls out the names of Race Around the Lake winners at Camp Billings in Thetford, Vt. Saturday, July 26, 2014. Drew, currently the maintenance director at the camp, has been Athletic Director, Assistant Camp Director and held several other positions at the camp in his 46 years there.<br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)
  • Larry Drew, 81, of Bradford, the maintenance director at Camp Billings, instructs the timing table volunteers in their responsibilities before the start of the Race Around the Lake at Camp Billings in Thetford, Saturday, July 26, 2014. Drew is retiring after 46 summers working at Camp Billings in Thetford for 46 years. <br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

Thetford — As the sun neared its peak in the midday sky on Saturday, two young Camp Billings campers, puttering around the summer camp’s cozy maintenance garage, described camp icon Larry Drew, who in his 46 years working summers at the camp has served just about every role — from athletic director to assistant camp director to program director to his current role as maintenance director, and more.

“He’s always been here,” said sixth-year camper McCall Heimert, 13, of Burlington. “You can always feel that he loves camp.”

Fellow 13-year-old and third-year-camper Josh Berg, of Gladstone, N.J., agreed.

“Larry sort of is camp,” Berg said.

The scene in the maintenance room — Drew’s domain for the past couple of decades, bedecked with tools and saws and championship banners from the sporting teams he’d coached — was quiet and calm.

But just a couple hours earlier, the energy level on the campground was at a fever pitch, as scores of young campers ran clapping in unison while chanting “Larrypalooza,” all of them wearing bright yellow shirts bearing Drew’s name and a list of the nearly 20 roles in which he’s served at the summer camp on Lake Fairlee’s shore.

Unknown to Drew until shortly before the event, the 108-year-old camp was honoring him during the annual Around the Lake Road Race, as he plans to retire from full-time summer work at the camp at the end of the season. Big banners also celebrated the living camp legend, while alumni from six decades were on hand to offer best wishes to the longtime Bradford, Vt., resident and former coach and school teacher who will turn 82 in December.

“Well, I will have to roll with it,” Drew chuckled shortly after the festivities began, smiling from beneath a modern-style blue baseball cap with “Boston” written in red letters across the front.

Drew started the road race in 1970, when he challenged a counselor-in-training in the dining hall to a one-on-one road race around Lake Fairlee, a clever attempt by the nearly 40-year-old athletic director to get the 16-year-old more interested and involved in athletics.

Now in its 45th summer, the roughly six-mile contest routinely attracts campers from Camp Billings and other camps around Lake Fairlee, as well as Billings alumni and Upper Valley residents ranging from youths to seniors.

And Bob Green, the young counselor-in-training who was on the receiving end of the original challenge, is now director of the entire camp.

“I think (Drew) was a guy who had a very tough exterior, but underneath (had) a heart of gold,” Green said, recalling his impressions of the native Vermonter when he first arrived at camp as an 11-year-old from out of state.

“Right away you could tell this was a guy who was committed to making sure everyone had a great experience.”

Green said about 20,000 campers, about 60 percent of them from Vermont, and about 3,000 young staffers from around the world have enjoyed Camp Billings during Drew’s long tenure. The camp expects about 530 campers over the course of this summer and has 176 campers currently, many of them called on by Drew by name throughout Saturday morning.

Green said roughly 100 to 120 people raced this year, while many more showed up just to give their support to a person whose name has become synonymous with Camp Billings, and who will likely continue to contribute to camp on a part-time or informal basis for summers to come. Indeed, Green said, the only person who ever had a longer full-time tenure at the camp was its founder.

The oldest former camper who attended on Saturday was 97-year-old Helen Wallstrom, of Newton, Mass., who first attended Camp Billings in 1927. She and her family stayed involved in camp in various capacities over the years, she said, and she always recognized Drew as the glue of the camp, even if he didn’t always seek recognition for many of his quiet contributions

They included stepping up to keep the camp together when Ralph Lawrence, who was camp director from 1958-1996 and also hailed from Bradford, experienced health problems.

“Larry is more than all those things on the back of the shirts” that the campers and staff were wearing, Wallstrom said. “He sustained camp many times. … Camp should be very thankful to him to be such a loyal, loyal friend.”

Beth Freitas Crocker and Carolyn Sylvester Churchill, former campers who now sit on the board of directors, described Drew as somebody who couldn’t be slowed down and loved to keep busy working, problem-solving and being a master handyman.

“If you need to know about where something is or how to put it together,” then Drew was the person to go to, Churchill said.

Heimert and Berg, the young campers in the maintenance shop, said when Drew used the megaphone to make announcements — as he did throughout the race on Saturday — the campers enjoyed his old-school charm with the phrases and intonations he used.

For his part, Drew said he received from camp just as much as he gave. About the only job he didn’t do, he said, was head director, because he didn’t want the administrative responsibilities.

“I like the kids and the fun and the activities,” he said.

He recalled one time recently when the campers were singing Happy Bi rthday to Camp Billings, and he told the campers that , as a person in his 80s, he doesn’t really get birthdays anymore.

“I never should have said that,” he said, laughing. “They all stood up and sang Happy Bi rthday .”

Among the many attendees Saturday morning was Drew’s son, Ed , of Keene, N.H., who traveled to the event with several family members. They included his daughter, Hannah, who placed first among girls age 13-15, and, like the other division winners, took home a blue T-shirt with a white cartoon outline of her grandfather’s face.

Ed Drew was one of Larry Drew’s three children who joined him at Camp Billings as a camper. On Saturday, Ed Drew said he was excited for his father for achieving “quite a milestone” by keeping the race alive for 45 years.

His father has loved camp so much — and camp loved him back — because he “just loves helping people,” Ed Drew said.

“I just hope I can influence as many people positively as he did over the years,” he said.

Maggie Cassidy can be reached at mcassidy@vnews.com or 603-727-3220.