This is the story of a man who helped fight two of humanity's greatest enemies: fascism and racism.
George Greene is a bona fide member of the Greatest Generation who as a young man fought across the islands of the Pacific and then as a slightly less young man became an instrumental figure in the lives of thousands of poor kids.
"The experience I had in the war really contributed to my interest in doing things for people," George told me. "Seeing so many people get killed, I just wanted to come back and do work with people."
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Really we need to start in 1904, when the very first Family and Child Services summer camp for poverty-stricken children opened in Washington. Like everything else in this city back then, it was segregated. None of the children served by what was then called Camp Goodwill was black.
But the charity soon realized it needed to address what one contemporary report called the "sickness, unsanitary housing conditions, low wages, extreme poverty, high death rates and a dreadful infant mortality" that gripped the poorest members of Washington's black community.
In 1907, black citizens raised $480.48 to support a camp for "suffering children" and "worthy, overworked, sickly mothers." Camp Pleasant opened that summer on the grounds of a farmhouse in Tuxedo, in Prince George's County.
That's how things stood for the next 47 years: White kids went to Camp Goodwill, black kids to Camp Pleasant. Then came Brown v. Board of Education. The Supreme Court decision desegregated public schools, and it also provided an opportunity for Family and Child Services to desegregate its summer camp.
In 1954, John Theban, the group's then-director, went looking for a person to run the summer camp, knowing that, with the Brown decision, few people would legally challenge its integration. He picked someone who was no stranger to high-pressure situations or to camping: George Greene.
George was 29, an Army veteran of World War II who had served in the Pacific in combat intelligence. After the war, he'd used the GI Bill to attend Springfield College, a school that had been a hotbed of the summer camping movement and was closely associated with the YMCA.
George was the head of recreation for Connecticut's Crippled Children's Society when he got the call from Family and Child Services. He leapt at the chance to make history.
"I just believed in desegregation," recalled George, now 79 and living with his wife, Patricia Beattie, in Silver Spring.
He and the charity's leaders sat down and planned how to go about smoothly bringing together black children and white children.
"The first thing we needed to do was to have an integrated staff," George said.
Most of the counselors were college students, energetic and ready for a challenge, reminiscent of the idealists fighting Jim Crow in the South.
"These kids were an intellectual kind of a group," George recalled. "I hired people with a positive attitude on integration. We had prejudice on both sides, but I eliminated anyone who was prejudiced."
In 1954, the camps were located in Prince William Forest Park. Then as now, the camps served children from all over the Washington area. "We set up a plan where, as the school systems integrated, then we would follow the integration process," George said. The District went first.
George knew that any parents who had problems with integration simply wouldn't send their kids to camp. But for those kids who did go, it was a chance to introduce them to peers they possibly might not have ever met.
"The attitude you set in the first half-hour in working with the brand-new kids, that will prevail the whole time they're under your supervision," George said. That meant that the individual cabins were racially mixed, and George made sure the campers saw that black and white counselors interacted easily with each other.
George said he received a few threatening phone calls from racists opposed to the integration. And counselors would sometimes find that the positive attitudes they tried so hard to generate inside the camp didn't always reach outside the camp's walls. On their nights off, "they would try to go to a restaurant that was still segregated, and they would be asked to leave," George said.
Where there weren't problems was with the campers themselves. "I don't think I ever saw or heard of any fights between white and black kids," George said. There were fights, sure, but typically they were over something a bit more mundane: "Two kids see a turtle at the same time," George said. "Both want it, and there ensues a struggle over ownership. That's not a black-and-white thing, that's a kid thing."
Send a Kid to Camp
Before he left Family and Child Services in 1968 to work in Virginia's juvenile justice system, George Greene had a chance to do what every camp director dreams of: design his own summer camp. Camp Moss Hollow in Markham, Va., is his handiwork. And that's where your dollars do their work. Our Send a Kid to Camp campaign needs to raise $750,000 by July 23. As of yesterday, Washington Post readers had donated $132,901.31.
To contribute: Make a check or money order payable to "Send a Kid to Camp" and mail it to: Attention, Lockbox, Department 0500, Washington, D.C. 20073-0500.
To contribute online, go to www.washingtonpost.com/camp. Click on the icon that says, "Make Your Tax-Deductible Donation."
To contribute by phone by Visa or MasterCard, call Post-Haste at 301-313-2200 on a touch-tone phone. Then punch in KIDS, or 5437, and follow the instructions.