Michael D. Eisner,
(Time Warner, 2005)

It's a natural human reaction. Whenever we find ourselves in stressful situations, we try to ease the pain by remembering the past, by going back to whatever were the best or happier or simpler times in our lives.

Indeed, Michael Eisner was in one of the most difficult positions of his business life when he wrote this book. He had long been a media executive; and for the previous 20 years he was CEO of the Walt Disney Company. But after a decade of poor productivity, personnel problems and a disastrous shareholders' meeting in early 2004, Eisner was stripped of his chairmanship. Criticism escalated, and he eventually resigned from Disney in September 2005. It was during that tumultuous time that Eisner returned both emotionally and physically to his childhood, to a boys' camp in Vermont named Keewaydin.

The tradition runs in his family. Michael's father, Lester Eisner, attended Keewaydin back in the 1920s and '30s. One of his campmates was a guy named Alfred "Waboos" Hare. Waboos became a returning fixture at the camp and eventually was named its director in 1945. He became a mentor for young Michael, who spent nine summers at Keewaydin -- beginning as a camper and ending as a staffman (counselor). A generation later, Eisner's three sons attended the retreat as well. Camp traces Waboos' life as well as the history of Keewaydin and the Eisner family's involvement in it.

It's plain to see the lessons learned at summer camp are ones that can serve us well in later life. Camp is "planned freedom," and unlike school, you cannot fail summer camp. But at the same time, there are some simple rules to follow. A plaque at Keewaydin lists the attributes of an ideal camper. Among these traits are "Must be willing to help the other fellow" and "Be a fair winner and a good loser." Eisner expounds upon these points and tells how following them helped him in his business career. In the second example, he aptly notes that "winning is rare and elusive, while losing is painful and common. One must know how to deal with adversity, control oneself in times of discomfort, and value the elements of competition that are ultimately necessary for either fair winning or good losing. I learned all this not during my days in business but at Keewaydin."

The storied history of this particular camp is housed in Hare House, where Waboos still makes his office. By the early 2000s, the wise man of Keewaydin is blind, a widower and approaching 90 years old. But he remembers campers, old and new, and he still dispenses his wisdom to those around him. When Eisner returns to Vermont, he spends much of his time chatting with Waboos, and it's obvious that he is still awed by the man. Perhaps in honoring Waboos, he is also quietly honoring his father. Now that his own sons are past camp age, Eisner discovers another way to keep a Keewaydin connection. He's involved in an organization that makes camp trips possible for deserving young boys and girls (for there is a sister camp next door, Songadeewin). Part of Camp follows Pepe and Q, two boys whom Eisner brought to Vermont from southern California. Though readers/listeners might be wary that stereotypical "street kids" can find success in the New England mountain wilderness, we learn that both have spent four summers at Keewaydin by the time this manuscript was finished.

The print version of Camp is slim, containing fewer than 200 pages, and some folks have criticized Eisner for not being much of a writer. But he's a good speaker, and I found the narrative to be the perfect selection for an audiobook. Here's a typical guy, talking about his experiences at summer camp and what they meant to him. If he jumps around topic lines, it's only because he seems to be involved in a casual, one-way conversation. The audiobook is abridged; and a comparison with the print edition reveals that only about 15 incidental pages were cut. The book additionally includes a glossary of camp terms. A nice touch is that the introduction is both written and read by John McPhee, the prolific outdoor writer who attended Keewaydin a few years before Eisner did.

I highly recommend Camp to anyone who has fond memories of going to summer camp as a child, or to anyone with an interest in the outdoors or education. Not just a biography of Michael Eisner, this book is above all, a tribute to the idea that camping is still a vital activity for young people to participate in. And if you can listen to the audiobook rather than read the printed page, so much the better. All Camp proceeds go to the Eisner Foundation, which provides scholarships for sending underserved children to Keewaydin.

[ visit the camp's website ]

review by
Corinne H. Smith

12 January 2008

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