Over the years, Davis Wiggin has touched the lives of countless young people and their families. We are overwhelmed by the kind and powerful words being written on our Facebook page and sent to us via email. The following is a beautiful piece written by last summer’s Assistant Head Boys Counselor, Jonathan Sirlin.
This will be, I’m sure, one of many eulogies and remembrances written about Davis Wiggin over the next few days, and I’m afraid that I’m going to be forced to start it in much the same way that the rest of them will. There are very few people in my position, that of having first met Davis through my experiences as a camper at New England Music Camp, that first encountered the man under any other circumstances than those I’m about to describe. For us it is this moment that will stand out in all of our minds as we think back on the life of a man who devoted so much of himself to spreading love and tradition to the strangers around him, and who aspired to eliminate all these strangers by turning them into his family.
I’m one of hundreds in a generation of campers, parents, siblings, and extended family members who met Davis for the first time in the doorway of their home, welcoming in a stranger who promised to show them a very persuasive, but brief, video (as long as they had a VCR), and who only wanted an hour or so of their time to talk about a place up north in Sidney, Maine that he held near and dear to his heart. And yeah, sure, he’d love to stay for dinner, as long as you’re offering.
And this is just how my family and I first came to know Mr. Wiggin. In the foyer of a modest suburban house on a sleepy road in New Rochelle, New York, just as the leaves had finished falling and the front lawn was preparing for months of hibernation under a blanket of snow. My mother had told me earlier in the day that a man was coming by to talk to me about how much fun it’d be to go to my sister’s old summer camp. Confused by the prospect of having to already think about summer when I had just yesterday found my Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles winter hat after hours of searching in my closet, I decided it was best not to ask questions and to just sit and smile while my parents tried to get me to go to that dreadful band camp my sister wouldn’t stop talking about. Besides, my mom said she’d be cooking a special dinner for the occasion, and I’m not one to ever turn down a free meal.
So, after finishing my homework and mentally preparing myself for the evening’s half-hour of hysterics with a new episode of The Simpsons, our doorbell rang. My family had tidied up the house a bit for our guest and encouraged me to do the same, so I changed out of my New York Mets t-shirt and put on a solid-colored collared shirt. When the collared shirt came out, that’s when you know I meant business. We opened the door to a cheery-eyed smiling man who was just so very happy to see us all again. We welcomed him inside and, after a few formalities and pleasantries in the entry way, we all made our way to the television room and watched the New England Music Camp promotional video.
I remember thinking the video was incredibly boring. Like, mind-numbingly, drool-inducing, watch-your-fingernails-grow boring. Not because it didn’t do a good job of depicting how wonderful the camp was, but because my sister had already told me every single thing the video said (and more), and her stacks upon stacks of photographs from summers past were in regular rotation throughout the house. She was the world’s best saleswoman, singing her cabin’s favorite songs, explaining their inside jokes, and practicing her viola eight thousand hours a day, a custom she says she learned at camp. My family had been to the camp before, and though I was young, I already understood what made the camp special.
So, when Davis asked me if I’d enjoyed the video, of course I said yes. My parents and I engaged in a conversation with him about the prospect of my going there the following summer, and I told him I had a few reservations about being a camper. I wasn’t like my sister: I hated practicing. I liked goofing off and playing around on my instrument more than playing anything written on the page of music in front of me, and I’d had some bad experiences with sleep away camps in the past. I just wasn’t sure if it was right for me. It was in reaction to this that Davis’ smile grew the widest it had been all day, and he told me that it was for all these reasons that I should go to New England Music Camp. That the camp was really a fun, exciting environment in which music played a big factor but didn’t necessarily have to be the most important part of any camper’s experience. That the counselors are all qualified to help soothe away my homesickness on that dreadful, eternally long first night. That I was not alone in my reservations about attending a camp that had “music” in the title. That I was among dozens of other kids who would be right there along with me, unsure of their surroundings at first but soon carefree enough to enjoy every second of their time there. I had to go to New England Music Camp, he said, to prove to myself that I could do things I didn’t think I could do, and I would never be alone doing so.
Then we ate and it was awesome. Over dinner Davis had the opportunity to tell me about the traditions in the dining hall at New England Music Camp, that we got a fresh loaf of home-made bread with every meal, that everything was served family style, that tables competed to see who could finish their meal first, that we got ice cream sandwiches as regularly as we wanted. He had me at “home-made bread.” I attended my first summer at New England Music Camp in 1999, and I’ve since returned for eight summers in various capacities.
At camp over the next few summers, as I got to know Davis better and as I got to understand the world a little bit clearer, I saw that what Davis embodied in his spirit and tenacity was at the very core of what the camp stands for and what makes the place run so well. New England Music Camp has a formula that they know works: their summers are consistently enormously successful at providing a warm, welcoming environment enriched by music for countless kids who sometimes don’t really feel like they fit in so well anywhere else. It’s a place where you say grace before you sit down to eat, even if you don’t believe in it, not because of religious persecution, but because that’s just what we do. It’s a place where you’ll learn the lyrics to Simon and Garfunkel’s The Boxer whether you like it or not, because everybody around you seems to know it, and they look like they’re having a pretty damn good time singing it. It’s a place where you’re going to dress up several times a week regardless of how much you dress up at home, and no we don’t care that you only have two white button-down shirts you’ll dress up anyway, because that’s the way it’s always been done and that’s what makes us feel good. It’s a place where at the end of every night you’ll put your arm around the person next to you, whether it’s you’re best friend or a counselor you haven’t spoken a word to all summer, and you’ll sing a song about tranquility, strength, faith, and peace. It’s a place steeped in tradition, a world untouched by the insanities and injustices of the outside world, a place where every member of the community knows his or her role because it is both clearly defined and totally malleable. By the end of the summer, whether you like it or not, you belong. Davis knew how important tradition was for a healthy, joyful life. His was one filled with people who knew just how happy he was, because they got to see him smile as he watched his world thrive summer after summer, rather than crumble down and fall into the past.
As sad as an occasion this is, we must be thankful for a few things. We have to be happy that Davis lived to see the seventy-fifth anniversary of his camp. We have to smile thinking about the hundreds of faces who got to see him laugh one last time, whose lives he must have known he touched forever. We have to be happy that his and his wife Jeanette’s endeavors have created love, happiness and life in this world, especially with the recent arrival of Matt and Kate Quayle’s beautiful baby Helen, a child truly born out of a New England Music Camp romance. As long as there is love at New England Music Camp, there will be life, and as long as there is life, Davis’ traditions will live on.
I owe a great deal of the successes in my life to my experiences at New England Music Camp, and I’m happy that I can pinpoint the moment when Davis convinced me it was my time to join the NEMC family. As I continue my relationship with the camp, in whatever capacity that might be, I’ll always have a face and a moment to stamp on the birth of my time there: a smiling face, a jolly face, a face that knew what was right for me before I did. Every time we go and tell a friend, neighbor or stranger about the beauty, love, and everlasting impact of New England Music Camp, we’ll be doing Davis’ bidding, and as long as that goes on, he’s as alive as any person could ever hope to be.