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Zimmerman marks 6 decades delighting Council Fire audiences

July 29, 2011

Dick Zimmerman's Culver career could almost be fodder
for those ancient-sounding recordings which underscore
Council Fire programs at Culver's Woodcraft Camp
each summer Saturday night.
"60 summers ago," the nostalgia-inducing voice might intone, "as the sun rose high in the Maxinkuckee sky, Chief Zimmerman made his first foray into Culver."
Zimmerman, currently enjoying his 60th summer as an instructor in Culver's Woodcraft program and himself the stuff of legend, isn't the subject of one of the weekly, American Indian-themed performances, of course, but he's made them possible, and to a large extent shaped them, all these years, and made a great many friends -- local and
scattered throughout the world -- along the way.

Indiana blood

The director of Indian Lore at the camp since 1964, Zimmerman says he grew up in Western Michigan, though today he calls Levonia, a western suburb of Detroit, home.
"I know you're going to ask me if I have Indian blood," he smiles. "I always say, 'No, I have Indiana blood because my father all the way back to my great, great grandparents all occupied the Kendalville, Rome City area, so I feel like I'm half Hoosier. I grew up near Grand Rapids and went to Michigan State."
He taught high school most of his career at Fordson High in Dearborn (their mascot: the Tractors), where he led classes in public speaking, creative writing, senior composition, mass media, and appropriately enough, Indian folklore. Also appropriate to his Culver role, he was
involved through the years in theater production at the school.
Zimmerman didn't attend Woodcraft camp as a youngster, but attended YMCA camp in Muskegon ("The four best summers of my life, as a kid!").
Initially pursuing a Journalism major, he found he "couldn't cut a foreign language," and after next abandoning a theater major, landed on Education as a career path.
A teacher of his who worked at Culver during the summers introduced him to the summer program here, and Zimmerman became one of the 10 or 15 percent of the camp staff at that time not to have graduated from college yet, in the summer of 1951.
"I liked it," he recalls, "and decided to keep coming. I was a drum instructor in the drum and bugle corps and a counselor. Then I worked in Arts and Crafts. I started the Indian Crafts program. At that time, Major Ed Myers was the director of Indian Lore. He wanted to expand the program beyond Council Fires, and he had me take a class of three or four kids who gave up their swimming period, to get started. Each year it mushroomed. We did moccasins, beadwork...all Indian type things."
He says he and Myers, himself a longstanding legend at the camp, "just kind of bonded.
"He was in his late 50s, and he rekindled the interest I had as a kid in American Indians."
Zimmerman uses the term "American Indians" with great intentionality, noting many tribes have voted in preference of the term over the more recent "Native American," a term he says is primarily pushed by those of European descent.

Taking up the Council torch

Zimmerman's involvement in the hallowed Woodcraft tradition of Saturday night Council Fires started due to his role as drum instructor, who back then dressed in Indian garb and "drummed" the Woodcraft corps into the ring area. Myers soon "snuck me into taking some minor parts" in Council programs, and gradually the young Zimmermann was brought in.
Myers' last summer at Woodcraft was 1963, the same year he died in December. Col. Mel Estey asked Zimmerman to take over in Myers' stead the following summer.
Originally, says Zimmerman, Council Fire gatherings revolved around Boy Scouts, with a camp staff member performing one Indian dance as part of the festivities. As the camp grew, so did the number of dances, until Myers' arrival in the 1940s, when he brought his American
Indian background (he was made an honorary Chief of the Blackfoot Tribe in 1945) into the program as he took over the Council Fires. Starting in the late 1940s, Myers shifted the program to its present format of an Indian story with dances incorporated.
"He was really lucky that one of the staff members who was in mass communications -- radio and motion pictures -- Bruce Blythe, who later went on to work for Disney, was the narrator. It all used to be live. He'd sit at a little table back behind the (Council ring's) rock with a script and microphone in front of him. Finally in the mid-1950s,
they started putting him on tape. Music was added, such as "Reflections of an Indian Boy," which was written by an American Indian, and he got symphonic bits for background as well."
Those recordings make up part of the assembly of recordings
still heard today at Council Fires, which to a large degree explains the nostalgic feeling conveyed in the audio.

The shows

"When I took over (in 1964), there were 15 programs," explains Zimmerman. "We're now at 36, though the workable ones are about 25; we can go five years now without repeating one. Some they had done before, I have never produced (as shows). The second Hiawatha show has Hiawatha fighting the raven. He captures it and ties the raven to the top of the teepee pole as punishment. I never could figure out how to tie a guy in costume up on a pole! Some others were just too difficult, even for a theater major!
"Others came from legends, or from my travels, reading, or talking to Indians that I know. I'm pretty heavy on the educational ones. I think our purpose is two-fold: to educate and entertain. Anytime we can get an educational message across about Indians, to help clarify their contributions to our society, I like to do that."
From what the staff tells him, says Zimmerman, the Sitting Bull story is very popular, as well as a show centering around magic ("That's a hard one to do!" he notes). "Indian Summer" is a favorite of Zimmerman's perhaps in part because he gets to play the old man narrating his memories of Indians gone by, and it's a story he recalls growing up. He says the "Pilgrimage to Maxinkuckee" show will be back next summer, for the Woodcraft Camp's 100th summer, as will another popular show, "Little White Beaver" (he notes the always-popular puppet in that show was made by former Culver Citizen editor Tom Zoss). The beloved hoop dance -- during which Master Dancers leap through flaming hoops, takes place during the last show of every summer.
Zimmerman says Culver technician Lew Kopp is re-mastering all the old tapes into a cleaner, digital format, and Zimmerman intends to keep the original recordings. "I will not destroy the old tapes. There are voices there of people from the past who came in as characters that I don't want to see gotten rid of."

Keeping the dances real

Dance instruction, prior to Zimmerman's taking over the program, came from a Koshare Scout group in Missouri, though these were soon phased out.
American Indians had been involved in the program up to the late 1940s, he notes, to handle demonstration of the dances and training of campers for the original Council Fires, but they were eventually phased out.
"(Camp leaders) realized, even though they added color to the program, they only knew about their own tribe. They were also hard to find. Chief Bull (one of the American Indian instructors) -- I've got his picture up in the office, along with some others. We did have a lady, an Indian consultant for six years, and it's been about 10 years since she was on staff. She was very helpful with, 'Don't do this; it's too religious,' or, 'The phrasing is not proper as far as Indian conduct is concerned.' She was a big help."
Instruction shifted towards past campers handing on their training to younger students, says Zimmerman.
"My idea was that we have trained kids in authentic Indian dance, they know the policies of the camp and how the program runs, so why don't we use them? Some, like John Robertson, who has been involved for years, were not involved in the program from the past, but knew their Indian lore (from elsewhere). Occasionally someone fills in who is not a Culver Woodcraft dancer."
He notes several Sioux representatives visited the school for a week, a few years back, and observed some of the students performing dances.
"They were very pleased with what they saw, both in performance and knowledge the kids had of the dances, which tickled us no end," Zimmerman smiles.

The old ring evolves

"We don't know where the first Council ring was," explains Zimmerman. "We have pictures of kids sitting in the woods on two rows of stumps. I assume the first camp was on the 500 acres owned back then by Culver (prior to its growth today to 1,800 acres), close to (today's) chapel area, where camp was, but it was wooded.
"For the first 20 years I was there, the ring was a tight circle, and the seating sometimes made it hard to see. When we rebuilt the ring (in the 1970s), I said, 'Let's open it up to a U-shape.' It's still the Council ring, but we needed the shape for the audience as well as the performers."
As the old viewing stands deteriorated and became increasingly less safe, by the 1970s the effort was on to reconfigure the ring according to Zimmerman's suggestions. He and several dance staff members went to Chillicothe, Ohio, site of the famous "Tecumseh" outdoor drama, for inspiration on the new setup, which led to the current "wall" and other attributes which helped facilitate better backstage flow and more dramatic presentations for the audience. The illustrated panels in the ring's entryway were further embellishment, brought into being by a staff member who taught art outside the summertime.
"As we expanded the Council ring, I could use a heck of a lot more kids than I could when it was a circle," explains Zimmerman, "so I had to add dances and stories that incorporate more kids. We now use 70 to 80 kids per show. A kid who's been in class for weeks, how do you tell him, 'We can't use you'?"

Kemple, others made the look

While he's unsure about the earliest costumes, Zimmerman says during Major Myers' day, Esme Kemple, in Culver, made them, to the point that some 95 percent of those in use each week are still her work. "We would throw a sketch at her, and she'd make it," he recalls.
Some of the dazzlingly elaborate feathered headdresses were made in years past by the Missouri instructors, and a few were made with actual eagle feathers, which Zimmerman points out is now illegal.
A family affair through the decades
So in all those years, has "Chief Z" ever missed a summer?
Yes, during a two-year stint in the Army.
"When I proposed to my wife Nancy," he laughs, "I reminded her, 'You know, I go to Culver every summer!' By the tone of her voice when she said, 'Yes, I know that,' I could tell she thought she could cure me of it!"
Nancy Zimmerman taught an academic course in Woodcraft for 10 summers, and the couple's son Steve attended Woodcraft and the Naval School, besides returning as a counselor, and daughter Betsy went to the girls' Naval program. Three Zimmerman grandchildren have been through the specialty camps. The couple's oldest daughter, he adds, had never ridden a horse until a stint in Culver's specialty camp; she now has a degree in equitation.
As for Dick Zimmerman himself, he says he didn't mind working with kids both in winter and summer, since his high school students were of a different age than the younger Woodcrafters.
"If I had ended up in Upper Camp, I wouldn't have lasted!"
He says he plans to keep returning "as long as they want me.
"When I celebrated the 50th (summer here), Jim Henderson made me promise to come back for the 100th!"
The author of a book on the 75th anniversary of the camp, Zimmerman says he's also working on a book for the Woodcraft centennial next year.
Another advantage to summers in Culver, he adds, is "we've made good friends with the people in town...when I first started here, we had to find our own houses, and we were renting. We lived next to Norm and Marilyn Kelly and became good friends with them. We lived in the old Lords house, and Nancy became good friends with Barbara Snyder. The Lawson kids used to play with our children...you got to know people who were neighbors. And I grew up in a small town; the people were friendly."

And 60 more to go...

What keeps eager audiences -- and not just campers' parents -- returning each weekend, every summer, to the Council fire programs?
"Bygone culture," Zimmerman muses. "Wanting to see the good old days. I think with the Indians, it's that they were so involved in nature. And I think we sucker them in by having them walk through the woods on the way back (to the Council ring)!"
And what keeps Dick Zimmerman coming back, summer after summer?
"How great the staff is," he says.
That staff includes four dance instructors, Zimmerman, and the assistant director; two instructors in Indian crafts, full time; plus 15 or16 who work during various periods. Russ Bjornstad, the technician, handles lights, powder shots, magic tricks, construction -- "Almost anything you ask him to.
"No other camp does Council fires the way we do," he notes, "and I think we have the best facilities for a Council fire. It revolves a lot around staff: a good bunch of people together for a common purpose. You can achieve good things. We've been blessed over the years to have mainly good instructors."
Also, he says, "I love working with the kids. I like the challenge of the job...the change of pace. I did plays for so many years in high school and community theater, and that it's in your blood too much to quit cold turkey!"

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