By Art Chansky
BRANT LAKE, NY – For a boys’ summer camp to last 100 years, the oldest under the same family ownership, a lot has to go right. And for Brant Lake Camp, in the Adirondacks just north of Lake George, it did not happen by accident. Generations have begotten generations with what might be termed super-connectivity.
“Brant Lake is about growing up, making lifelong friends, and creating an extended family that remains a part of us forever,” says David Lauren, Executive Vice President at Ralph Lauren Corporation, who attended the camp the 1980s.
The strongest link in what seems like a boundless bond is a little thing called Green and Gray; little because it lasts a mere four days in a summer of seven weeks. But the secret sauce of Green and Gray is if you’re a Green your first year at Brant Lake, you’re a Green for life. Same with Gray. And it’s a life that extends long after your last scraped knee in a basketball game on center court.
That unique identification in what other camps call color war has lasted a century, become the envy of rival camps that split up their teams randomly each summer, and continues to pop up regularly and humorously among alumni that include some of the wealthiest and most prominent men in America.
Greg Luckman is the great-great nephew of Brant Lake Camp’s founder, Bob Gerstenzang, and in the fourth generation of the family that has owned and operated the camp since 1917 (and has since changed its sir name to Gersten). Luckman, 42, is one of the most successful sports marketers in the country, having “handled” among other celebrities Tiger Woods during his endorsement days with American Express.
As a Vice President at GroupM, Luckman twice made the Sports Business Journal’s Forty Under 40. Now the head of Global Marketing for Creative Artists’ Agency (CAA), where he was so cited a third time, Luckman continues to put together complicated deals in the sports and entertainment industry. He goes into numerous meetings with Brant Lake alumni on the other side of the table and their first words to each other are, “Green or Gray?”
Luckman says those meetings always have a different dynamic and often end up with the two sides doing business because of the loyalty and camaraderie factors. “There’s an automatic connection,” he says. “You know you went through the same thing, even if it’s 20 years apart. It’s why I have hired so many Brant Lakers and will continue to do so. You are going to work with stand-up people with high values and strong character.”
Green and Gray can find its way into less formal but equally high-profile banter.
Jesse Itzler, the entrepreneur who wrote and recorded, “Go, New York, Go!” for the Knicks (along with songs for more than 50 other professional teams) that rocks Madison Square Garden and has since amassed a family fortune with his wife, Sara Blakely, founder of SPANX, owns a piece of the Atlanta Hawks. When current Brant Lake Camp Executive Director Richie Gersten emailed the four alumni who own or run NBA franchises to ask if he could mention them in publicity for their centennial reunion the last weekend in August, Itzler agreed only if he was identified as a Gray. Brett Yormark, CEO of Brooklyn Sports and Entertainment at the Barclays Center, fired back, “Go, Green!”
Green and Gray stories go back for decades, longer if anyone can remember. Bob Gersten, the second generation Brant Lake owner who took over the camp with Gerstenzang’s daughter, Karen, turned 96 the weekend of the reunion; he recalls captaining Green in 1942 against Gray captain William Kunstler, the now-deceased leftist lawyer who defended the Chicago Seven and other radical groups.
“He claimed he wanted to show good sportsmanship, and that we should walk around together,” Bob Gersten said. “We were supposed to meet at the waterfront, and he never showed up; he was already on the ball field cheering on his troops. When I asked him years later how he could do that when he hated the dirty tricks of politicians, he said, ‘Well, Green and Gray was important.’”
Brant Lake has a rich history of notable friends, from composers Arthur Schwartz and Lorenz Hart writing several camp songs in the 1920s that they still sing to Frank Sinatra and some of his Rat Pack summering there through the ’80s. But that has little to do with thousands of men, some rich and famous, most others successful in their future endeavors, who attended BLC as kids and ever since have refused to get it out of their hearts and minds.
Luckman, Itzler and Yormark were among the 500-plus former campers, counselors and staff who came for the centennial weekend and climbed the hill from the waterfront to central campus, some still young enough to put their hamstrings and Achilles heels at risk on the tennis and basketball courts of the magnificent 60 acres with first-class amenities for the campers. At some point earlier, G. Gordon Liddy, the Nixon lawyer who was imprisoned for organizing the Watergate break-in, paid a secret visit. Liddy attended Brant Lake as a kid. In his 80s and suffering from Parkinson’s disease, he showed up perhaps to say goodbye to his childhood playground and rode around in a golf cart with Bob Gersten sharing camp stories.
For so many young, middle-age and older men to retain such passion for the summers of their youth, there has to be more to it than their lifetime loyalty to Green and Gray. And there is. The camp is dedicated to “excellence” over “efficiency” and a unique, well-honed philosophy of togetherness through the years that fosters friendships forever and millions of moments to share.
Brant Lake Camp’s philosophy also permeates its two girls’ programs held each summer with capacities of 45 girls each. Brant Lake Dance Camp established in 1980 runs for four weeks and specializes in ballet, tap, jazz, hip-hop and modern dance. It is followed by Brant Lake Sports Academy, founded in 2011, a two- and- a- half week program featuring instruction and competition in volleyball, soccer, basketball, softball and lacrosse. The girls also have use of Brant Lake’s expansive waterfront as well as arts, tennis and the fun and camaraderie of a high- quality sleepaway camp.
The Dance Camp was founded by Sharon Gersten Luckman, the long-time executive director of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and presently directed by Mieks Gersten. The Sports Academy director, Rachel Milim, is a former All-American lacrosse player at Cornell.
The girls’ campus is separate from the boys but on the same grounds, and some supervised co-educational events are held among the older boys and girls. The Sports Academy girls participate in many Green and Gray activities.
All of it fits together in a well-conceived camping concept that has been tweaked over the years by the Gersten family. “We are proud of our girls’ programs in their own right and feel that they enhance Brant Lake Camp for boys”, says Rich Gersten.
“That system basically divides Brant Lake into three camps, Sophs and Juniors, Inters and Seniors. Their cabins and playing courts are separated and bunk counselors and key staff remain within their age groups all summer as they plan and move from activity to activity. Two college-age counselors live in every Soph bunk of 7–9 year olds, and one female counselor is assigned to every two cabins on Soph Row. Key staffers who might be in their 30’s or 60’s also stay within their groups so they too get to know their campers as a family. The ratio is 2–1 for the younger campers and never worse than 4–1 for Seniors. Merl Norcross, 88, has been at Brant Lake since 1950; supposedly retired, he remains visible and beloved as the unofficial “camp uncle.”
Each of the divisions has the same inclusivity, a head counselor, at least two bunk counselors per cabin and anywhere from six to eight key staff who are trained to be acutely tuned in to whether their campers are comfortable with their surroundings and developing deep friendships. And if a problem occurs that warrants an email or call to parents, the head counselor or a key staff member is at the computer or the phone being “out in front” with positive reinforcement before the camper writes a letter home with his own version of what happened.
“We believe in EXCELLENCE not EFFICIENCY,” Richie Gersten says. “We are also unusual in that we are a community much like a family with grandparents, parents, college students and campers. We believe having adults is hugely important because they are our problem-solvers as well as lead coaches and guidance personnel. College-age counselors, while great, have a major flaw?—?they are college age, meaning that if given lots of chances sometimes poor judgment can occur. The job of our college-age counselors is to be a great friend, role model and problem recognizer, not solver. Our key staff gives counselors and campers clear expectations and supervision, guidance and feedback.”
If all this sounds like the science of happy camping, that’s exactly what it is since Gersten took over 30 years ago and developed the together-but-separate system. Besides being something of a scheduling savant, Gersten and his wife, Annemiek, are the common denominators of the camp. They know the faces and names of every person and Richie spends the day constantly in motion, walking from group to group, meting out praise and thanks, always with a smile on his face. Not seeking credit he so richly deserves for taking Brant Lake to the elite level in camping, Gersten says, “I get my guilty pleasures by seeing the impact we have had on so many lives.”
Many campers throughout the years have pointed to their Brant Lake experience as being more influential than even their college days in preparing for adulthood, because they have been part of something bigger than just themselves. “Your group is like family, staying together all summer,” Luckman says. “You eat together, sleep together, travel together and play together in a structured environment that teaches you friendship, sportsmanship, loyalty, honesty, how to be a man.”
Three generations of teachers and coaches have run the camp. Bob Gersten, known to most as “Bobby G,” starred in basketball and baseball at the University of North Carolina and Tar Heel ties run deep at Brant Lake. Richie followed him to UNC and later coached at the Dalton School in New York City, where a similar pipeline has produced campers and counselors for decades. Max Gersten, 30, continues the connection as a coach and teacher at Dalton and has lived and learned at Brant Lake since the day he was born; that heritage will make him the most qualified executive director when his time comes to carry forth the philosophy refined by his father.
In the camps-within-a-camp structure, kids don’t face the pressure of competing with younger or older campers on a regular basis. Gersten cites ample opportunities for everyone to be together?—?shows and other special events, bonfires, cookouts and, of course, Green and Gray. The Sophs and Juniors know the Inters are there, the Inters know the Seniors are there and aspire to reach that age level and the expanded privileges that come with each next step, such as Seniors sleeping later and going to bed later after eating what amounts to a fourth meal because that’s what growing teenagers do in real life.
The older campers also take glamorous trips to Montreal, Toronto, Boston and Cooperstown, which is not lost on Sophs and Juniors, who hike and pitch tents at nearby state parks and mountain peaks.
“There are no words to describe what BLC has done for our family,” a parent of two sons at BLC emailed Gersten after the 2016 summer. “There is nothing like the magic you create at your camp. We give you our children in June and they come back better people in August.”
Gersten does not know of another camp in the country that runs the same way since “they want the best coaches to be specialists working primarily with an activity and less with getting to know their campers.” Brant Lake hires counselors who excel in certain sports and can teach at a high level, but Gersten’s first priority is always to find bunk counselors who want to be with their kids and establish a meaningful experience for all the campers in that age group. “At camp fairs, I don’t ask for the best basketball coaches or tennis instructors,” Gersten says, “I ask for those who were the best students or demonstrated leadership qualities. Most of them are pretty good athletes, anyway, or they wouldn’t want to be camp counselors.”
Brant Lake Senior athletic teams play unselfishly against other camps because they have long ago bonded in their group. Thus, it is far more a teaching, than a coaching, camp with a double major of sportsmanship and kindness called Citizenship, for which about 15 percent of each group is recognized at the end of the summer. Camper of the Year is the only award given out, and it’s for Leadership and Character. Counselor of the Year goes to the staff member who best emphasizes to youngsters the traits that Gersten hopes they carry into life away from camp.
That is the main reason Brant Lake works so hard, and puts considerable money back into the camp, to design a daily environment that is so memorable to so many. “It’s the one place where I was the happiest I have ever been,” Luckman says, “and I still feel that way in the moment every time I visit. Richie adds something new each year but the camp is still the same; it’s still home. That’s an amazing skill.” When campers arrive each summer, the message is always, “Welcome Home!”
From a daily key staff meeting at 6:30 a.m., the pre-set schedule is often changed to accommodate the weather or an opportunity for one age group to get to the expansive waterfront earlier on a torrid day. Gersten calls it being “quick and nimble?—?organized but flexible.” Head counselors communicate with each other through walkie-talkies and can change the schedule if they sense their kids need more, or less, rigorous activity. Bunk counselors get one day off a week, but otherwise are relating with campers. Those who wander off by themselves or spend time sending personal emails or texts generally do not last very long.
This “excellence” over “efficiency” has resulted in a full camp most summers of 350 boys, most from the East Coast, making all those memories and friendships, with well over a 90 percent retention rate and a $12,000 tab for the full seven weeks, although for years the altruistic Gersten’s have partnered with various foundations to award scholarships to less-affluent children. And while they are no better than some camps at visiting homes during the winter and sending out newsletters, DVDs and, more lately, Tweets, Snaps and Instagrams Brant Lake has built this unmatched connectivity that lasts lifetimes.
And it always includes three words: “Green or Gray?”
Art Chansky has written many books on the University of North Carolina and Duke Sports rivalry. His latest book is due out September, 2016, entitled Game Changers?—?Dean Smith, Charlie Scott and The Era That Transformed a Southern College Town