“I was 21 years old. I had just completed my junior year in college [at Georgia Tech] and had never been out of the country,” said the lifelong Buckhead resident, who spent one summer there as a counselor. “We got on a DC3 and flew for what seemed like forever and landed on a grass strip on the middle of nowhere and it was at night. We went in a van and drove the full length of the island to Speyside [village], where the camp was located. [Camp co-owner] Ann Petry cooked the best meal I had ever eaten. I didn’t know where I was. We were all tired, had a great meal and the adventure started the next day.”
Those memories and countless others will come flooding back June 9 when the camp hosts a reunion at Capital City Country Club in Brookhaven at 2 p.m. The camp’s co-owners, Bill and Ann Petry, live in LaGrange, where they grew up, but resided in Buckhead from the 1950s until 1995. They chose Atlanta for the reunion site because 30 to 50 percent of the campers and counselors were from the metro area.
Named after the title character in Daniel Defoe’s 1719 book, “Robinson Crusoe,” who spends 28 years on a deserted island, the camp opened in 1957 and closed in 1971, when civil unrest on Tobago caused safety concerns.
The Petrys discovered the campsite in Tobago’s Batteaux Bay in 1953 while on their honeymoon in between graduating from Florida State University and Bill starting a two-year tour in the Air Force. They leased the land for only $1 a day.
Those interviewed for this article each said the counselors and campers all gained self-confidence and a sense of adventure from being at the camp.
“I think so many of the campers matured so much at Camp Crusoe because they had to make their own decisions,” Ann Petry said. “It was the land activities. They decided what they wanted to do. They were taught safety and accepted the rules of safety. There was still that spark of doing something different. They loved the water.
“[Former campers] Lloyd Davidson and Edgar Faust sailed around the world by themselves once and then they took their wives on the next trip around the world. Look at [former camper] Peter Hughes. Bill taught him how to dive and he’s now a world-famous diver with his own business. We had one boy who would go on a sailboat and got stranded [on a] Samoan islands in the Pacific and fell in love with that island. The boys were just willing to take off and do different things.”
LaGrange resident Whit Perry, who spent one summer there as a camper at age 15 and five more on the staff in different positions, wrote a book on the camp, “In the Footsteps of Robinson Crusoe: Stories of Camp Crusoe, an American Family’s Daring Adventure on the Caribbean Island of Tobago.” It was published in January 2011 and is available on www.whirlwyndpress.com. Perry was inspired by Bill Petry’s uncle, camp staff member Gardner Allen, to hitchhike across Europe.
“I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with the rest of your life,” Perry said. “He said, ‘You’re young; see the rest of the world.’ I went to Europe and said, ‘I’m here, might as well keep going,’ so I went all the way around the world. Bill offered me a job at the camp running it year-round.
“I thought that was too good to be true.”
Bill Petry added, “[Former camper] Jim Wade went on to be a captain in the Army and went on to win the Silver Star in Vietnam. He gives us a lot of credit in the book for his success in life.”
The camp had a similar effect on longtime Brookhaven resident Jim Fluker, who spent two years as a camper and one as a counselor.
“I scuba dived up until I was 60 years old,” said Fluker, now 71. “I would never have had the interest or the desire or known about diving but it created a love of underwater life and one that I would never have had otherwise.
“Because of that, I have been to Belize, Bonaire, the Caymans, St. Bart’s, Curacao, Saba, so many little islands on my own diving that I would never have gone to. It became a ritual. I taught my son [Slate] to do it and he took lessons at the Y and we did it together. It created a hobby that I enjoyed for the rest of my life.”
Though few have returned to Tobago since the camp closed, Longino, a retired banker who later started an youth art program, International Paint Pals, did. In 2009, he traveled to Port-of-Spain, on Tobago’s sister island, Trinidad, to bring a children’s art exhibit to the city, which serves as the capitol for both islands.
“I was able to find four of the locals who had worked at the camp,” he said, “and we had a wonderful reunion.”
A closer look
The Camp Crusoe reunion organizers are inviting former campers and staff members and their families to attend the event. Information: Ann and Bill Petry, (706) 882-5094 or Whit Perry, (706) 883-7851 or email email@example.com.