A reflection about my friend, Gary Chastain, on his life and career at Sherwood Forest:
Mary Rogers, Executive Director Emerita
In my memory, we are hiking in Cuivre River State Park on an autumn Saturday. We are campers in the Leadership Program at Sherwood Forest. The woods are rust and brown colored, the leaves crisp under our feet. It’s the first time I met Gary Chastain. We were fifteen years old. Since that autumn day long ago, we have been a part of Sherwood Forest. Back in those days, the boys and girls in Leadership rarely interacted; only on those occasional Saturdays in the Park, so my next memory of Gary is when we were both young staff members. He taught Pioneering and I was a Village Director. In addition to that role, Gary was also a kitchen worker, counselor, Leadership counselor, Village Director, Program Director. He led wilderness trips, taught orienteering, created outrageously funny costumes for Staff Hunts and Super Snacks. Gary’s quirky, great sense of humor showed up in his capacity to lead songs and tell campfire stories unlike anyone I have ever heard.
In the fall of 1978, Sherwood Forest left its camp in Cuivre River State Park and moved to a camp in Lesterville. Gary became the Director of Facilities. He moved to camp that fall, and except for the time he left to finish his undergraduate degree, camp has been his home. But in that late September of 1978 when we first saw our new camp home, it would have been almost impossible not to feel great sadness for the loss of the only camp home we had known, but also overwhelmed by all that had to be done to have this one ready for the next summer. Gary was 24 years old. While he had worked doing maintenance jobs while in college, the task ahead was daunting to say the least. There was only one building that could be lived in. Every other building had to be renovated: 11 cabins, an old farmhouse, an old craft shop, a log cabin, two old washhouses, a small residence, the barn, and the dining hall.
I would say now and I am sure that Gary and everyone else involved in that massive undertaking, would agree, that in retrospect, it just couldn’t be done. We didn’t know that at the time. And it had to be done in order to have a summer camp in 1979. Under Gary’s leadership, this old camp, having sat unused for ten years and in a total state of shambles, got renovated. Built walls in cabins, built windows and beds for those cabins. Re-roofed, plumbed, electrified. Tore down what couldn’t be saved. Transformed a 26 stall barn with all the evidence of having been used for horses into a program center. Built a laundry facility in that building with a floor made of old pallets. Designed and built the tables for the dining hall. The only building we just cleared out but did not renovate was the dining hall, which was professionally done. And just seven months later, we hosted a small school for their outdoor education program, serving meals for them from a tiny apartment stove since the new kitchen was not ready. The first day of the summer of 1979 the plumbers and the cooks were in the kitchen at the same time.
Since that eventful first year in Lesterville, Gary has designed, adapted, and built many buildings in our camp. There was probably not a right angle in the whole place. All of it built quirky and inventive, definitely not the usual run of the mill construction. And all of it has required Gary’s own deep dedication to getting the job done, no matter how many hours it would take or how many creative fixes had to be implemented. Determined, tenacious, some would say, deep down stubborn. Day in and day out, year after year, for more than four decades, Gary has lovingly maintained, many years by himself, and more recently with a small team of one and then two additional members of the Facilities team, every single structure in our camp. His handiwork is literally in and on everything we call our camp today.
That is Gary, our Director of Facilities, who will retire at the end of 2021, after such a long time in this one job. I think that as long as Sherwood Forest continues to exist, there will never be anyone in any single role at camp for that length of time. Forty-three years. But there is another part of Gary that few get to know, unless you are privileged to spend time with him. Gary is a quiet fellow, but when he speaks, wisdom flows. You would want to pay attention, because what he imparts is often a lesson for the ages. And you should listen carefully because that wicked sense of humor that I first discovered when we were teenagers, is still very much part of Gary. Only now it is aged and distilled, part of his storytelling, self-deprecating voice of wisdom.
As much as he has accomplished for the built facilities of our camp, Gary has most importantly been the ultimate steward of our land. He has walked virtually every inch, in all weathers, all seasons, all the times of the day. I would say that he knows our camp like he knows his own hands. The love and care that he has bestowed on every structure he has worked on at camp, is only magnified in how he sees and cares for and lives on our land.
It is likely that Gary’s strongest emotion is curiosity. As a little kid, Gary took things apart because he had to see how they work. As an adult, that natural curiosity helped him become an amazing facilities director by learning not only how to repair a machine, but also interaction of systems and processes. Curiosity also propels him to explore wherever his feet can take him. So it is no wonder Gary knows every square inch of Sherwood’s 487 acres. This same curiosity has led Gary to be the care-taker of the hills, streams, lakes, fields, and all they hold.
A hike with Gary is an adventure. He’ll lead you up hills, through streams, across rivers, over bolders, into caves – always wondering what’s on the other side. If you can keep up, it’s definitely worth it. There’s the cool, deep pool of the little shut-ins up the valley, a fresh paw print of a wild animal who was just there, and the view by the east ridge’s tallest tree. Worry about your sore mucles tomorrow.
Gary’s love for Sherwood’s land and living things is evident in how much he has learned. While other staff track campers who come and go, Gary tends to focus on the resident deer herd munching ripe apples by the basket ball court, beaver who cut down another willow, ruby crowned kinglets singing in the upper canopies, the five different kinds of ducks on Buder Lake migrating north, the occasional bobcat or otter, dragonflies just hatching in the field, coyotes hunting rabbits by the barn – you get the idea. He doesn’t prioritize one over another. Of course he knows the mammals, but also the birds, fish, amphibians, snakes, spiders, and insects. He can explain soil composition, minerals, rocks, and help you find fossils. He’ll guide you – hickory trees, pine forests, cedars, and what hopefully is becoming an oak savanah. Gary can get you to see how cute hispid cotton rats are as they jump in the field, spend 3:00 am watching a metor shower from Buder Lake’s dam, and push through thorns to munch on this summer’s batch of ripe blackberries. He’ll inspire you to sweat shoring up the dirt for a salamander pond, and plant hundreds of trees that somehow decide that, yes, they can live in what passes for soil. Gary said he has learned to wait to see what wants to grow in a particular area, instead of trying to impose what humans think should grow there. Then he does what he can to encourage the native trees, shrubs and wildflowers to take hold.
Gary has always been aware of his role as one of many who have acted as care-takers of Sherwood’s hills and valley. One of his sincerest desires is that kids find their own curiosity about the world around them by discovering what happens when they ask, “What’s over there?” or “Why does that act that way?” Curiosity is the first step to forming deep relationships with where we live and each other. He hopes the next generation of care-takers will develop their own, deeply loving relationship with Sherwood’s plants, animals, and land, like he has. And that they will be curious enough to explore not only the trails, but will wander deep into its quiet places and far along its ridges.
I asked Gary a long time ago what he hoped would be the way he would like to be remembered, the thing he would be most proud of in his time at Sherwood Forest. Without a pause, (unusual for how thoughtful he is ordinarily) he told me. “All the little trees I have planted.”
As all of us, someday Gary will be no more than whatever stories and legends continue to be told. But the trees he planted and the trees that come from those trees – they are his legacy. As long as there are those trees at camp, Gary Chastain’s influence will be here in the little valley we know and love as Sherwood Forest.
Gary’s Forever Friend and Fellow Camper,