What was my first boss like?


Anyone who didn’t know the full story might guess that Norm Osborne was a merchant marine or maybe a clerk of the works—-if the work environment was far from an office. In his mid-fifties when I first met him, he was bald with bushy grey lamb chop sideburns and dark penetrating eyes that saw through bull crap before you had a chance to give him any. Of medium, wiry build, he was weathered but not reclusive, the right mix of woods smart and people savvy to make you want to join his cause. He smoked a pipe. Or, more accurately, he clenched a pipe in his teeth in a way that always made me wonder how much of his expression was habit and how much came from discussing my current job performance. Years later, I’d come to understand the man behind the manager and the unique combination of heart and hard ass required by his role. That first summer, though, I was literally a babe in the woods, not ready to admit I needed his direction, or much of any direction. But I did desperately want his stamp of approval, his cocky smile. I just had to figure out how to put on my big girl pants to get it.

It was the Summer of ‘72, my coming of age in the working world of real responsibility. My dad had called Norm repeatedly that spring, giving his “selling water to a drowning man” type sales pitch on my behalf. And even though my prior experience was limited to babysitting and helping the lunch lady so I could earn Christmas money, Norm agreed to hire me as his youngest volunteer camp counselor. Now if that brings to mind me in a sporty uniform leading sporty kids through a YMCA roster, think again. Within the context of the above description. Norm was not your typical camp director. And he didn’t run a “normal” kind of camp.

Norm created and ran Camp Friendship, an overnight camp for intellectually disabled individuals located in the woods off Lake Winnipesaukee. It was rustic—-back when rustic meant roughing it, not having all the amenities tucked into a varnished, well-lit, backwoods setting. It was an extension of the iconic Geneva Point conference center, a mile or so from the grand green-shuttered hotel, store, and cute cabins clustered around a gazebo. Camp Friendship didn’t have cabins, per se. It had a lodge/office/activities room/rain shelter, a tarp over the “dining hall” picnic tables, a communal bath house, a flag pole circle, a couple fire pits and some novel adaptations on tent camping. I was assigned a covered wagon (primo accommodations compared to the hogans and wall tents) where I slept with my co-counselor, Cheryl, and two teenaged boys. (New campers came and went each week. But, due to a severe lack of male counselors, we were assigned male campers not too much physically younger than we were.)

Norm occupied a big wall tent somewhere over near the camp-centric flag pole, where everything important that could happen outside happened. I don’t remember anyone every going inside Norm’s tent or him coming into ours. He’d summon us via messenger up to the lodge. Another counselor would open the covered wagon flap or stroll up behind when you least expected it and say “Norm wants to see you.” What now, I’d wonder as I trudged up there for my talking-to. Did he notice me mooning over Jim, a senior counselor from Kent State College, instead of paying attention during morning circle? Did he find out a bunch of us were extending our breaks because someone at the conference center had a stereo system and the brand new Neil Young album—-and we just had to go listen? Cheryl, a veteran counselor and special ed major, was not impressed. Her reports, combined with Norm’s affinity to appear out of the blue and be standing next to a tree, watching and smoking his pipe, got me called up to the lodge a lot that summer.

I just wasn’t measuring up, Norm said. While I never left my campers alone or in danger, I needed to pitch in more, to help give them the full experience, to take charge instead of tagging along. “Me? Is he really talking to me?” I wondered silently. According to my dad, I could do anything I set my mind to. Shouldn’t this other dad figure naturally see that as well?

Fifty years and a hard-won career later, I’m still stunned by how far I needed to come to add any value that summer. And grateful Norm had enough patience and faith to let me start taking baby steps outside my sheltered universe. Out there in the woods and water, the sun, wind, thunder, and clouds of mosquitos, “putting my mind to it” meant I had to give up coasting on platitudes and start putting my left brain—-and my whole body—-into the tasks at hand. It meant shedding my romantic fantasy of being another Annie Sullivan, Helen Keller’s teacher, able to open closed minds like a miracle worker, and begin making Camp Friendship miracles. Like running with Laura to third base, watching Bobby build and eat his first s’more, and coaxing Davy from timid splashing toward swimming. Going above and beyond to make every day away from home a good one—for campers and parents, many of whom hadn’t had more than a few hours respite since their children were born.

I did make Norm proud a couple times that first summer. Or so he said with a squinty smile. Enough to  return to Camp Friendship for two more summers and earn an official staff jacket and a three-digit stipend that still makes me smile when I see it at the start of my lifetime Social Security printout. Eventually, I realized my true vocation was writing, not special education, and turned my way with words—-and the fundamentals I learned during those Camp Friendship summers—-into a rewarding career.

The last time I saw Norm, I was on assignment for the New Hampshire Sunday News, my first “real” fulltime employer. I interviewed him—-about his transition from retired army medic, to working for NASA making prototypes of astronaut gloves and helmets (who knew?), to directing various state agencies for the intellectually disabled and, finally, creating a safe place where special individuals could expand their boundaries in a challenging but safe outdoor environment. As Norm talked and smoked his pipe, I knew he wasn’t just talking about the campers. He was remembering me.