I first met Pat Rode (pronounced Roadie) in the summer of 1980.
I was 15-year old kid, who’d just broken 100 pounds. He was a 51-year-old former Army corporal. He was built like it, and acted like it – a tough, no-nonsense guy you did not want to disappoint.
I was a rookie at Camp Hayo-Went-Ha, on Torch Lake in northern Michigan, while Pat was on his way to becoming the director.
I quickly discovered this camp wasn’t about making moccasins. Guys my age spent two weeks ripping through rapids in Ontario, sailing the Great Lakes, and climbing the Canadian Rockies – not what I expected. On these trips you discovered the outdoors, but also how to trust your teammates, and yourself. You found your limits – and you surpassed them, again and again. And that’s how Camp Hayo-Went-Ha changes lives.
Pat based camp on his belief that we can’t get through life alone, but there are plenty of people willing to help.
He came by it honestly. As a child Rode was bed-ridden for months with severe asthma, so he spent his time reading the classics, like Robert Louis Stevenson. Those books gave him an expansive vocabulary – in his 80s he was still finishing the New York Times crossword puzzle in less than an hour, “And I do it in ink” – but more importantly, he told me, reading the classics provided the foundation for his literary and moral education.
His mother contracted breast cancer in an era with few cures. After they buried her on Pat’s 12th birthday, his father was often absent, and his older brother went off to fight in World War II.
Through high school, Pat lived on his own, which must have been terribly difficult and lonely. "But," Pat told me, "so many people went out of their way to help me that, well, you've got to give back."
He did. After attending Aquinas College for two years, during which he led the baseball team in hitting, he turned down offers from the Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals to play minor league baseball for $50 a month.
Instead, patriotic duty compelled Pat to join the Army’s elite Special Operations unit – the predecessor of the Green Berets. He led a unit that frequently parachuted into Central America at night, attracting sniper fire. Rode never lost a man, but gained lifelong friends.
After graduating from Calvin College, Pat signed up to work at the Grand Rapids YMCA, where he coached an American Legion baseball team they called Rode’s Rowdies. One of his star players, Ron Goodyke, had an older sister, Dolores, who seemed to attend every game. As she told me, “Those boys loved Pat. If I hadn’t married him, my brother would have.”
Pat and Dody raised five children, now all successful adults. For 65 years, he told me, “We had a love story.” When I asked Pat the secret, he said, “When I make mistakes, I apologize. And I usually don’t make the same mistake twice. But I keep inventing new ones.”
When he became Hayo-Went-Ha’s assistant director in 1969, he drew on his experience in Special Operations to design rigorous, challenging trips for the older campers they would never forget.
“On those Special Operations trips, you’re cold and wet, or you’re hot and thirsty, and it binds you,” he said, describing the inspiration behind the trips he would set up years later at Hayo-Went-Ha. “Physically, nothing could be harder than these Camp Hayo-Went-Ha trips – and I’ve been through Airborne training. There’s nothing like that shared experience. When you finish, you can say, ‘Hey, I did that, and I can probably do a lot of other things, too.’”
That’s how it worked on me. I returned from my first trip through northern Ontario a different person – engaged in the outdoors, with a new confidence. I came back to camp to help lead the same trip as a counselor. I remember those summer weeks better than I remember some years.
Pat Rode designed camp to give bored kids adventure, forgotten kids attention, and just about everyone – campers and counselors alike – a sense of belonging. He started each session at Bonbright Lodge with a candle-lighting ceremony, and closed it by reciting the Spirit of Hayo-Went-Ha, which he described as, “Honesty in dealing with people, respect for others, and an understanding of your place in a world that is greater than all of us.
“Whatever you’re feeling, you can talk to someone here about it. It could be another camper, a counselor, the camp nurse, or me. You’re safe here. You belong.”
When his friends asked him why he didn’t pursue opportunities that would have paid him many times what Hayo-Went-Ha could provide, he had a simple answer: “How many 12-year-olds do you mentor?”
Some of Pat’s favorite memories were simple ones: just sitting on the steps of the waterfront after lunch, sorting through his mail, while campers would come up to sit with him, and chat about whatever came to mind. He loved the easy back-and-forth, and often asked them, “When can I hire you to be a counselor here?”
For a 12-year-old kid just making his way in the world, what a vote of confidence that must have been. Just as he’d promised, years later Pat hired many of them to be counselors.
Pat could have made more money doing – well, just about anything. Instead, he gave the campers and counselors his time and energy, not to mention his hard-earned dollars to pay for their rent, college tuition, plane tickets, and even bail. All but one paid him back.
He said, “I believe in second chances. And third and fourth and fifth. As many as it takes. If you’re trying to help someone, why would you quit?”
Pat was a devout Christian, but rarely talked about it. He lived it. The Dalai Lama has said, “My religion is simple: Be kind.” I think Pat’s was just as simple: Be helpful.
Pat could cite the Bible chapter and verse, but his favorite was an obscure passage from the Old Testament. “I try to hold to Micah, one of the lesser prophets,” he told me. “Chapter 6, verse 8. ‘What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.’”
Early on, Pat decided if a camp like Hayo-Went-Ha is good for boys, it must be good for girls, too. In 1993, Pat launched Hayo-Went-Ha for girls on Bows Lake. When they quickly outgrew that site, Pat merged it with Camp Arbutus in Traverse City. More than two decades later, Camp Arbutus Hayo-Went-Ha is thriving – perhaps Pat’s proudest accomplishment.
Two weeks ago I visited Pat with my wife and son. He was 90 years old, recovering from surgery, but looking pretty good. We sat on the couch, watching the Lions lose. When my 3-year-old son, Teddy, asked to squeeze in between us, I tousled his hair and told him, as sweetly as I could, “Not today, buddy.”
But Pat interjected: “We always have room for one more.”
I’ll never forget Teddy’s face when he looked up at Pat, then happily climbed on to join us. He had been understood, and welcomed. He belonged.
I knew exactly how he felt.
Last week, Pat passed away, surrounded by his family and friends.
A couple years earlier, I asked him if he had any regrets. He looked me right in the eye and said, clear as could be: “No. No regrets.”
Pat devoted his life to helping others – and now thousands of his proteges are doing the same.
I cannot imagine a better legacy than that.
John U. Bacon is a former Detroit News sports reporter. His website is johnubacon.com.