Mentor Profile #1: Kris Cooper

I wonder if it is the Enlightenment that makes me think I am supposed to KNOW and/or be able to put into words what I LEARNED from a person… something about that seems to not fit.

Alas, Mr. Cooper is my answer to the question of ‘who is your hero?’.

I attended Kanakuk Kamps from 1985-1991. I was at Mr. Cooper’s Kamp for the first 5 of those years. He was the director. During that time I lost my right thumb. Well, I didn’t ‘lose’ it. I know exactly where it has been until the day after they finished the job started by the… Well, that’s another story isn’t it? Anyway, Coops assures me that there was some discussion amongst camp counselors about my missing digit the next year šŸ™‚

In 1996 I went to work for him as a Counselor in Training. I turned in my application at least 2 months late, without references. I was accepted – this is grace; especially if you know how difficult it is to work for Kanakuk.

I was a total smart ass and therefore had the unenviable job (at the track meets) of ‘runner’. You run 2 sprints for every race there is (once there, once back). There are 9 50’s and 9 100’s. It was a good work out. Coops told me I would be the runner, made sure I understood it was kind of voted on (by the other counselors; did I mention I was a smart ass? I was), but he didn’t say it with animosity or even joking in his voice and the amount of respect he commands dictated that the other men were sort of humbled by his announcing it to me – they wanted it, but he could have vetoed it at any point). Men have to deal with men, we have to learn lessons, etc. This was good loving of a young man; gracious, but without pretense. I remember another example from that year, but it served the same point as the ‘runner’ one.

Next year and the year after I was not challenged or humbled by life or my assignments at camp. In 1999 all of that changed – I was asked to be an ‘Uncle’ which means you show up for about 10 days, get paid 120 bucks, and work very hard. I was in a bad relationship at the time and felt I should tell him about it – grace. I learned about hard work (friends like Joe Mitchell helped with this also). I repeatedly lost at a game centered around your work gloves and not losing them. When I say repeatedly I mean: I lost my gloves five times. Every time you lose them you have to draw a penalty from the hat (someone steals them really… mine even were taken by another camp, that is how bad I was at the glove game). I got the ‘free’ pass, which means I only had four penalties.

It did not occur to me to attempt to renege on my penalties. It is worth mentioning these penalties to understand why it was significant that I didn’t weasel out of them. I had to wear a Cape for 10 days. I negotiated being able to take the cape off for sports competitions. I had to sleep in a pup tent. Very few know this, but at 6:00 AM the next morning I took my pillow up to a Chapel and got exactly 1 hour of non-dew sleep. I wore 8 Russian Dancing outfits in one day. And, I had to wear a climbing harness all of another day.

It did not occur to me to renege – I probably assumed I would be crucifixed or something if I didn’t follow through šŸ™‚ Apparently, it meant a lot that I did my best (with the now-public one hour segment unknown at the time) to keep the penalties. I also started to receive affirmation from some different things at camp; these almost always came from being humbled and finding out later that I persevered well or something.

It was a hard summer, in the way that college students think is hard. At the end of the summer I was offered a strange position called ‘trip director’. I told the guy (Joe again) that I would do it if he needed me. I remember learning the lesson, the next day, that people don’t ask for things they don’t really need. Being a trip director was a blast, it was very hard work in some senses. It was that summer that I learned how much better people learn if they put something together on their own (random, but this is a random-thoughts blog right?).

What does this have to do with Kris Cooper, why he is my hero, and what I learned from him about masculinity? First of all, I’m not in any of these positions if he didn’t believe in me enough, and secondly, I am slowly learning – mostly not from words – what it means to be a young man. To follow through, to finish a job, to handle a chain saw – to be a man.

The next year was much harder. My dad and step-mom began divorcing, I was again in a bad relationship, I was very disoriented and lonely. I rode back from a campsite with Coops and talked about where I was – grace from him. It was a lonely Summer. I stole a parking sign for reasons that do not concern you – it was VERY funny to my fellow trip men, and I think Coops thought it was funny too. He was often willing to bend the rules a bit, or laughed with us when we bent them in acceptable ways. The first day of Uncle Week I got to follow Coops around and drag away trees he cut down with his chain saw. Joe White was cutting too, but I felt like I was following Coops. It was a good day, and not just because it seemed anecdotal šŸ™‚ At the end of the day he asked one of our work crew directors if anyone stood out as a hard worker; the guy told him I was the first one who volunteered to hold re-bar while it was sledged into what would later become a pool. He asked about this because there was an “uncle of the day” thing. We decided to forego the award for that day, but Coops later told me that that was what the guy said. I think what is important here is that he just told me; didn’t try to pat me on the back with extra words or adverbs or something. He just wanted me to know what this man said, and let it stand as encouragement from one man to another. Here is what I heard from a man I respect, “Good job today.”

2001 was my last Summer working at Kanakuk. I remember being sad coming into the Summer – it had been another difficult year, much worse circumstances than the year before in regards to my family. I remember being so tired that the thought of good hard, uncle-week-like-work sounded amazing… And, it was. Kris and his wife were very happy Rachel and I started dating that Summer. When possible they would schedule us together at parties and stuff for the kids. Some other staff members actually held my letters to her up under lights to try and read them… I still find this amazing and funny.

I remember a few things about Coops from this Summer. At the end of ‘Uncle Week’ girls arrive. We have had our guy time, and sometimes think they are intruding. its dumb I know. Coops was talking to us about them arriving, trying to encourage us in welcoming them. I don’t know if you have caught on to this, or if I have mentioned it – he isn’t a big talker. He will talk, but isn’t one for speeches. So, he is encouraging us. I think I was the first to dissent, but it doesn’t matter really, we started being 22 year old guys and whining about them ruining our guy time. He gave us a second, and then, without looking up, repeated himself about the importance of encouraging them. Same tone of voice, same words. I have NEVER seen a group of stupid young men quiet down so fast and look so guilt-stricken. We were mortified that our hero and friend had to repeat himself because we were joking around. He just commands that kind of respect. I don’t think our guilt lasted either – because we knew he wasn’t mad. We just knew we needed to change the way we were thinking about the girls coming, we changed immediately. Because he repeated himself.

I remember a few other stories from my last summer – of him coming alongside some of the most obnoxious people I knew, of fighting for men’s hearts when they did incredibly dumb things. But the last story is about me – because this is my blog! The last summer I worked at camp I stopped being a director and went back to being a ‘regular’ counselor. There were a lot of reasons for this, but essentially I wanted to. One night we were playing a very large and elaborate game of Capture the Flag, and about 6 minutes into it I realized my cabin only had defensive capabilities. I decided to change that by using every fire extinguisher I could find in defense of my 13 year old boys – and because I was tired of these rules that enabled me to get hit by water balloons every four minutes.

I also played “Pour Some Sugar on me” in a skit… that was just dumb, this is a conservative, evangelical camp!

Anyway, back to the extinguishers: the ‘Safety Officer’ wrote me a ticket for taking my cabin up a slide that night (you’re supposed to go down, as we tell Caroline). I asked him about the Extinguishers and he said I would have to talk to Coops. This delighted me because 1 – it was funny, 2 – I knew Coops well enough to have some idea of how this would go. Maybe a week later I asked him if we needed to talk about it. He said, “what do you think that I think?” I said, “I think you would have done something similar in my shoes.” He said, “That’s probably right…” Or something like that.

It has been a few years since I have seen Kris Cooper. I follow his oldest son on Twitter. I assume word has gotten back to him that I am a pastor, I know some of his staff knew I was sick. He has 6 children and I learned from him as a father and a husband. He and his wife have a special whistle if they see each other but are too far away to chat – its awesome. He was on a panel once on marriage, and the only thing I remember him saying when someone forced the mic on him was, “Give… give.. give…” then he handed the mic to the girl next to him. Then, he took it back and said, “And give”.

Those kinds of stories are not the point though. I remember that he said that not because it was powerful or even because I agree (irrelevant); I remember that he said that because of who he is

I used to say that Kris Cooper lives the Gospel that the Apostle Paul wrote about. I think that that is still true. But, I think what actually happened is that I grew up and became a man under Kris Cooper’s watch. I can talk about the Bible, funny stories, or how he is with his kids for many more pages (stories keep coming to mind). But, I’m not going to. I’m just going to say one more thing: we aren’t close. We weren’t close when I worked there. But, I still grew up and became a man under his watch. I doubt he will read this, but if anyone at Kamp does read it – tell him I said thanks.

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2 responses to “Mentor Profile #1: Kris Cooper

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