By Chief Charles A. Teale, Sr.
(c) Connecticut Explored Inc. Summer 2010
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When I was a child living in the housing complex known as Bellevue Square in Hartford, I initially had a very good life. I had all of the resources necessary to be a very happy kid. Then at around the age of six things began to change drastically. My father became very ill and could no longer support our household. The most obvious evidence of this was the lack of food in the house. I can literally recall a time when the only thing in our refrigerator was a bottle of water. We frequently would have to rely on family and neighbors for our meals, which is why some people I knew back then are like family to me even now.
In the midst of all of this were many families of like circumstance. I distinctly recall the first summer that my sister Karen and I spent living under these conditions. We were playing outside one morning when the children of the Jones family passed us by. Two of them were twins, Debra and Dianne, and one of them said, “Hey Charlie, do you want to go to Camp Courant?” I said “Camp Courant, what’s that?” Upon hearing my question she stepped back and looked at me like I had two heads. She then replied “You don’t know what Camp Courant is?”
Now one thing that all of the Jones kids could do was run, so she ran up the four flights of stairs to my mother, and the next thing I knew I was standing in front of the Keney Clock Tower on Main Street, waiting for the bus to go to Camp Courant. Immediately upon entering the bus the children began singing songs that everyone seemed to know but me. I don’t think I said a word until we reached the entrance of Camp Courant, which meant that we had to climb a huge hill. At that time I joined in the chant “We’ve got to make it up the hill,” which we repeated until there was no more hill to climb.
When we got off the bus it was like stepping off of a plane and walking into Disneyworld. Because the project I lived in was almost all asphalt and there was no level grassy area to be found, we used to go to the front lawn of Union Baptist Church on Main Street to play football. From time to time someone would kick the ball inaccurately and it would end up in Old North Cemetery. (You could prove how brave you were by just climbing over the fence and retrieving the ball). There was no swimming pool or anything of the sort to be found outside. The basketball court was crowded with teenagers, and a kid of age six wasn’t welcome there.
But at Camp Courant I simply followed my friends from one activity to another for hours until I heard someone yell the words “lunch time.” As anyone will tell you who went to Camp Courant in the early 1960s, it was time for a milk, two cookies, and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. After that we had to wait an hour, and then we could go swimming in the pool that still stands in the same location today.
As if days like these weren’t exciting enough, there were special days for dignitaries and stars like Bill Savitt (Mr. P.O.M.G.) day and Pat Hogan Day. Although Bill Savitt day meant free ice cream, my favorite day was Pat Hogan day. Pat Hogan was the High Sheriff at the time, and he would have people hand out cowboy hats with his name embroidered on it. Walking home from the bus was always interesting on Pat Hogan day because if you were not careful someone would snatch the hat off of your head and the next thing you knew your hat would be on someone else’s head.
I was nine years old when we moved from the neighborhood where I used to take the bus to Camp Courant, and it would be another 30 years exactly before I would return to celebrate the 100th anniversary of this institution. With the exception of the maypole (which was gone), everything was exactly the same as I remembered. When it was time for us to eat at this celebration, I was stunned to see that peanut butter and jelly sandwiches were on the dinning table. I could not resist the temptation to reminisce about my childhood and made the obvious choice.
In the year 2000, I became chief of the Hartford Fire Department, and Camp Courant was going through major renovations. My wife Helaine and I had the opportunity to participate in this capital improvement project, which transformed the site for the first time in 40 years. Now the camp has the same meaning, but the programs offers far exceed those that people of my generation enjoyed.
As I look back on those days before Camp Courant, I remember as a child wondering if anyone cared about me and other children in my neighborhood experiencing the same challenges. I believe this question was answered in the affirmative by the actions of those who made Camp Courant possible, and their contribution helped to instill in me an attitude of service to others.
I will always owe Camp Courant a great debt of gratitude.
P.S. In 2009 I became the first lifetime achievement award recipient in the 115-year history of Camp Courant. I currently serve on the board of trustees for this organization that provides for thousands of Hartford’s children every year, without fail.
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