When Ira Fish first opened the Jefferson Lakes Day Camp in 1958, kids were wild about hula hoops, not iPads. They listened to the Everly Brothers instead of the Jonas Brothers.
But Fish said today’s campers are not so different from those who attended the Stanhope-based camp 54 years ago.
“They’re really still the same,” said Fish. “They still enjoy playing basketball and baseball, doing arts and crafts and things like that. You know what one of the most popular things in camp is now? Lanyards. And they have always been popular.”
After more than five decades leading the camp — a favorite summertime choice for many generations of campers in Essex County — this past summer was Fish's last as camp director. (He has now officially handed the baton to his daughter Jane Kagan.) Fish said he will still spend plenty of time at the camp but it was time for him to move on.
“I think I’m getting too old,” said Fish, who chose to call himself ‘a young 70-something.’ “I’m still going to be there all summer but I won’t be doing as much. As the kids say, I’ll spend most of my time on the golf course.”
In the camp’s first year Fish said there were 29 campers; now there about 800 annually. Given those numbers, Fish said that it’s possible he has seen about 30,000 campers in his time. Many campers grow up to send their own children to Jeff Lake. Plus, Fish guesses there have been at least 50 “camp marriages” — couples who met as children at the camp.
"It’s very rewarding to me when I see someone bring a child up when I knew the parent in 1959 or 1969," he said. Fish said his favorite part of the job is, of course, the children.
"Kids are so inquisitive and they always give you a straight answer," he said, joking that one camper once told him that he liked another camp better than Jeff Lake. But Fish said he believes the Jeff Lake family keeps campers and their parents coming back.
"We offer tradition and a sense of belonging," he said.
Fish and his wife, Linda raised their three children in Englewood, N.J. Fish said he grew up with fond memories attending a sleepaway camp in the Adirondacks in New York. As a youth, he worked at camps and when he inherited a piece of property in Sussex County, opening a camp made sense.
Lori George, of Rockaway, attended Jeff Lake as a youth. Her three children were Jeff Lake campers and two of them are now counselors.
“The whole experience was so memorable. I learned to swim and canoe and sail,” she said. “The things I learned and friends I made were incredible. And now when I drive up to the camp, it’s just like being a kid again.”
George said that Fish’s devotion to the camp is what makes the place so special.
“Ira is always around,” she said. “He always knows what’s going on with everyone. He makes everyone feel like family.”