Jack Erler, whose legal career supporting Maine youth camps spans more than 50 years, says he is certain: there may be no more valuable experience for children than summer camp.
Erler is certainly qualified to make such a statement. He began practicing law in Portland in 1969 and has spent decades representing both camps and their supporting organizations. And while Erler recently passed the baton to fellow Curtis, Thaxter lawyer Rebecca Klotzle (he is now “of counsel” at the firm) his work is far from done.
“I don’t like the ‘R’ word,” Erler recently said in his new office at Maine Summer Camps (MSC), a nonprofit membership organization serving almost 140 youth camps across Maine. Erler, now 80, has made a broad range of essential contributions to the camping industry, including writing the regulatory framework governing Maine’s camps over the past forty ears. His next chapter? To provide a full range of government relations expertise to MSC. And, just as he has since the 1990s, Erler will continue to educate – and entertain – scores of camp staff members this summer in training sessions that cover everything from sexual harassment to confidentiality to duty of care.
Camp matters to Erler. A lot.
“I think it’s critically important for a child to have that experience,” he said. “I’m willing to bet that, by and large, kids who have camp experience end up being better adults. Healthier and more adjusted.”
Erler’s own experience with summer camp began as an eight-year-old, when he traveled from his Pittsburg, PA home to attend camp in upstate New York. From that summer on, whether in West Virginia, or Michigan, or Wisconsin – and finally Maine – Erler was immersed in camp. From camper to counselor-in-training, from counselor to senior staff member, his roles changed over the years; his commitment didn’t. Indeed, not until his time as a Coast Guard officer in the mid-sixties were Erler’s summer months spent away from the outdoor adventures and true communities of traditional residential camp.
Erler’s introduction to Maine’s camping industry took place 60 years ago. As a Grinnell College psychology student, and then-aspiring psychologist, he had a professor who served in a senior leadership position at Camp Wyonegonic in Denmark. If he were to become a psychologist, she told him, he’d have girl patients. He should come to a girls’ camp, she said.
“I told her, ‘I have a sister. All girls do is comb their hair.’” Erler said. “She said, ‘you really need to come to camp.’”
So, in 1960, Erler traveled to “Wyo” as head of the sailing program. “I loved it.”
But after two summers at Wyonegonic, and a year in a doctoral psychology program at the University of Iowa, Erler left graduate school. Amidst “all kinds of conflict around the world,” he attended Coast Guard Officer Candidate School in lieu of being drafted, then landed in Cape May, NJ to lead the scholastic element of the Coast Guard’s educational program for enlistees. There, teaching the Uniform Military Code of Justice, “I became knowledgeable in that area. I loved it, found it fascinating,” he said. Rather than staying in the Coast Guard, Erler left after completing his three-year commitment, attended law school at the University of Connecticut thanks to veterans’ benefits, and returned to Camp Wyonegonic the summers of ’65 through ’68. In fact, Erler said, he and his wife took the position of senior unit head, the very job his former Grinnell professor had held.
Erler graduated from law school and began interviewing for jobs in Vermont, where his mother grew up. But when he approached former Wyonegonic owner Roland Cobb, who served as the Maine’s Fish and Game Commissioner, about job possibilities in Maine, Cobb “got me lined up in a law firm here.”
That was 1969. Fifty years later, Jack Erler still isn’t ready to think about that “R” word.
In fact, he is working on the rewriting of the very DHHS regulations he first drafted back in 1974, when he was hired by Camp Fernwood’s Maxine King, who also served as board president of MSC’s predecessor organization.
“Apparently she said ‘I just hired a young lawyer to help me with the rules. He looks like a baby, but I think he’s really smart.’”
“That’s how I got involved with the [youth camp] association,” Erler said. “I still hear that story.”
Erler’s involvement with the industry continued to grow. After writing much of the original rules, he worked with the agency to make revisions in 1975, 1985, 1990, 2000, and 2007. “And I’m working with them again now.”
Erler, who collaborates with MSC Executive Director Ron Hall in the organization’s efforts in Augusta, said “we’ve worked really hard to form a relationship with all of the agencies involved with camps. We have a very close relationship with these guys, and it’s paid huge dividends for them as well for us.”
Along with DHHS, MSC also works closely with the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. Thanks to a statute governing Trip Leaders, youth camps in Maine are the only programs that can undertake wilderness trips that are not led by a Maine Guide. That same statute governs the Junior Maine Guide program, a strenuous outdoor living skills program taught at camps across the State.
At one time Erler also lobbied extensively in the legislature for camps, he said. The role demands extensive time in the State House, however, and was made logistically complicated by changes in Curtis, Thaxter’s offices that required Erler to commute daily to Augusta. Today MSC contracts with another lobbyist as part of its multi-pronged mission while Erler works behind the scene sharing his knowledge and experience.
While the value and benefits of camp remain constant, elements of the industry have changed over the past several decades, Erler said. In the earlier years of his career, Maine boasted upwards of 400 licensed camps. Today that number is closer to 200, about half of which are day camps, he said. “You can’t start a resident camp from scratch” these days; property is too costly and regulations too complex.
“A hundred or so years ago, New England was full of private high schools,” he said. “Headmasters and coaches came to Maine to buy back pastures from farmers, so kids had somewhere to go.” Many Maine camps have celebrated the century mark, but over the years the total number of residential camps has declined steeply, Erler said.
That decline can be attributed to the sheer cost of operating a camp, such as the expense of regulatory compliance, taxes and insurance, he said. Camps that have been in families for decades may find themselves without a successor. Such properties are often sold as valuable real estate, he said.
One preservation strategy Erler has helped camps implement has been to harness resources from camp alumni and form a board of directors and nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization. That entity, in turn, purchases the camp from its owner/director. In such situations, a camp “is more likely to live on,” he said.
Camps also face competition with children and families’ other summer activities, Erler said. While most camps used to operate for one full-summer session – seven or eight weeks – most now run shorter sessions. Travel, other camp commitments, and academic programs have all influenced children’s availability and camps’ schedules, he said. “A few are full-summer, but those elements have put pressure on camps.”
Nonetheless, camps continue play a vital role in children’s lives, Erler said. Among the greatest values is learning “how to get along with other people.”
Campers can’t always get their way, can’t always complain, he said. “You learn how to live socially. You learn about falling down.”
The more a parent intercedes, the less impactful camp will be, he said. “My biggest complaint is helicopter parents,” he said, recounting the story of a child who, with a hidden cell phone provided by her mother, called home from the camp playing fields when she was penalized during a game.
“The mother came to camp and threatened them,” Erler said. “That child will be lost forever. She never had the chance to say ‘yeah, uh, I screwed up.’”
Failure is part of learning, he said. And camp can offer the instructive and valuable opportunity to learn how to say, “that was a screw-up.”
Campers also benefit enormously from their role-model counselors. Counselors model being a good sport, as well as being polite and being caring, Erler said. And they guide campers in managing free time, which is “maximum learning time.”
Back in his days as a Camp Wyonegonic unit head, Erler said one morning he unknowingly put on two different sneakers. When campers discovered this mistake, Erler was the “butt of jokes,” by campers “who thought it was fabulous.” The next day? Those campers all wore different shoes. Counselors’ connections with their campers are profound, yes, partly because they are playful.
These past 25 years Erler’s mission to teach counselors about their legal responsibilities benefits from his storytelling and “being a ham.” The material can be “drier than dry,” he said, but injecting anecdotes, having counselors perform skits to act out problem behaviors, and remembering that he is advising young adults aged 18-25 who “go to sleep, are bored, or think they know more than you,” are all key.
“I guess I’m a teacher by interest,” he said. “I’d be a lousy politician because I have no two-word answers. I like to start an explanation with the cooling of the earth’s tectonic plates . . . ”
Issues affecting camps are changing, Erler acknowledges. The MeToo Movement has had an impact, for example, and child abuse and employment laws are evolving. In addition, the legalization of marijuana will present new challenges for camp directors once retail outlets are approved, he said.
“I’m always on the cutting edge,” he said. Campers present more complicated mental health issues than they have in the past. “Kids come to camp with difficult 21st century problems. We help with that.” Transgender staff and campers are another part of the changing landscape, he said.
Jack Erler said that while his practice may not have been as financially rewarding as some legal practices, he has never regretted his professional choices. Camp personnel are “people people,” he said, clients who are almost universally positive.
It is no surprise, then, that Jack Erler exudes that same positive outlook. His father, who Erler says worked until age 87, used to say a person dies “if you let your body or brain rest,” Erler said.
“You have to keep working your brain, working your body.” That may be working in the fields of the 130-acre farm and his wife Ellen own in Parsonsfield. It may be outdoor activities at their second home in Puerto Rico. And it most certainly is providing decades’ worth of camp expertise.
So, retirement is a couple of years away, he said. Right now, he still has more to accomplish.
Camp experience for kids “is just so critical,” he said.
“I’m just a believer. I’m a true believer.”