As a handsome, silver-haired, fit and trim man with twinkling blue eyes greeted me, I confess to thinking, “90? You’re kidding! This man is in better shape than most of the 60 year olds I know. This can’t be Frank.” But it was – Frank Wetenkamp – oldest living camper from the class of 1937 – Camp Joy’s inaugural year.
I first learned about Frank when attending Joy’s 2016 Harvest Fest. Our paths never crossed that day, as he was there enjoying his wife, four kids and spouses, and his 14 grand and 17 great-grand children. They had flown in from all over the country to take part in his 90th birthday celebration at the Fest. As we talked today, he humbly shared some of the letters his family wrote to him for that special day; it was often expressed how the males hoped they could become a father like he is/was. One would think he had exemplary role model parenting that he later shared with his own children. You decide.
Frank was one of 15 children. “Mom only had time to care who had dirty diapers and Dad’s preoccupation was on how he was going to feed us and provide shoes for us.” Case in point. Upon arrival from school one day, Frank (then seven) and his sister (nine), found their home vacant. Their family had moved; the two siblings had been forgotten. Fortunately, a neighbor was aware of their new location and the kids got “delivered.”
Yet another move later, the Wetenkamps settled in the West End on Findley Street in Cincinnati. Frank and two of his brothers, Earl and Elmer, were left alone – more often than not – to roam the inner city streets. They were hungry, growing boys. They’d frequently trek to a watermelon depot on Second Street to see Old Charlie, who would purposely drop and break a watermelon so the boys could eat and enjoy. The self–christened “Three Musketeers” perfected the art of knowing where to get free food – from the Zoo to various churches – and would go to any length to avail themselves to it! Let’s just say a few fences got scaled!
St. Barnabas Mission was also on Findley Street, next door to the Wetenkamps. When missionaries, Captain Laurence Hall (Cap) and his wife Sadie, were assigned to St. Barnabas, Frank had no idea how much his life would be changed. The great flood of 1937 occurred; the tragedy left many homeless. Frank and his brothers, although not flood victims themselves, helped Cap by doing whatever he asked to aid those who lost all in the flood. Cap, in turn, seeing the plight of inner city kids like Frank, made it his goal to get the kids out of the city and into the country and nature; there they could have a respite from poverty and enjoy being kids for a bit of the summer. Thus the idea of Camp Joy was conceived – and born – that same year.
Frank was involved with Camp Joy in several different locations, as Joy faced challenges looking for a permanent home. From the first Joy site in Kentucky in 1937, Frank had the opportunity to attend summer camp through 1943, then located in Batavia. He served as a counselor his last three years, giving back what he had been given. Frank thrived at Joy as he participated in an abundance of fun activities, learned many lessons and willingly did camp chores. He loved the campfires prompting stories, songs, laughter and a warm feeling of bonding. Joy folks listened and cared and encouraged…Frank bloomed!
In time, Cap and Sadie Hall, the driving force behind the Camp, moved on to another assignment in the church. Missionaries, Deac and Betty Mosley, then stepped in as the guiding hands and loving spirit of Camp Joy. Frank feels blessed to have known the Halls and the Mosleys and to have had the opportunity to be involved in Joy from it’s beginning. That trio of blessings, all wrapped up in the Joy package, changed his life for the better – and the lives of all others who have been touched by Frank’s character and love-filled heart. Joy and its folks sowed the acorn seeds of learning that would help Frank grow into the deeply rooted oak tree of the man, husband, parent and grandparent he is today. Frank Wetenkamp is indeed – a loving, living Joy legacy. Please listen to Frank, himself, as he shares the impact Camp Joy has had on his long life. It truly is worth your time.