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Miller Fagley

Miller Fagley & Jim Vaus, 1967

Yesterday, a dear friend of our family passed away. He was almost 98 years old. His name was Miller Fagley and I wrote a chapter, mostly about him, in my book, My Father Was a Gangster. In tribute to Miller, I want to share that chapter with you here. The reference to Camp Champion is to a Christian youth camp my father started in upstate New York for teen gang members from Spanish Harlem. Today it is a Young Life camp and the ministry to youth continues. But it all started largely because of the funding of people like Wall Street wizard George Champion, the vision of my father, and the hard work of people like our friend, Miller Fagley. Here is the excerpt from my book.

Over the years Camp Champion developed into a combination of manicured village, blended with natural wilderness, tended by Miller Fagley’s expert hands. Miller is an amazing man who grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania and as a young naval officer landed on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day. Miller and his wife Dottie, the postmaster of Glen Spey, became part of our family in
many ways. Growing up on the east coast, away from extended family, I referred to the Fagleys as Uncle Miller and Aunt Dottie from my earliest years.

The dining hall was the first building Miller and his team constructed at camp. It sits atop a grassy knoll, which slopes gently
down to the shore of the lake. The kitchen inside was top-notch with five commercial size ovens, long sinks and enough supplies
to feed an army. I especially enjoyed the walk-in refrigerator and
freezer in which a deer carcass would invariably be hanging in late
autumn. The chef back then was Henry Bosch, former chef to
General George Patton.

The original cabins at Camp Champion were set up in villages
nestled in the woods just the other side of the lake. Miller
re-created an early New England covered bridge to connect the
villages to the main part of the camp. The wood was taken from a
neighboring dilapidated barn built in 1790. When the kids from
Harlem needed a raft to float on the lake, Miller manufactured
the U.S.S. Tom Sawyer.

Miller designed it all, including the Lodge, Chapel, Springbrook
(a house for visiting VIPs), the Recreation Hall, Administration
Building and Rainbow’s End. Even the railings around the porches on some of the original buildings are extraordinary, containing silhouettes of arrows pointing toward heaven. One day when Dad asked Miller why he created the railings with that design, he replied: “Isn’t that what this place is all about, pointing people to God?”

It took Miller a while to decide to become the manager of Camp Champion after he constructed the first buildings. He and Dottie had a young daughter, Kathy, and they were nervous about her being around the delinquents from the city. But my father had ingenious ways of talking people into things.

One day Dad said to Miller, “I want you to design the perfect house with all the facilities needed for a resident manager.”

“Okay,” Miller agreed.

“Another thing,” my father continued. “I would like the house to be ready before the end of the year. Be sure that there’s a fireplace, a good kitchen, and comfortable rooms. Just go to it.”

Miller did. And when he was finished Dad said, “How about moving your family in for Christmas?” Miller did move in with his
family and remained as resident manager throughout YDI’s years
of operating Camp Champion.

One of my favorite stories involving Miller Fagley took place the day my father was at Camp Champion and received a letter from one of his former clients, J. Paul Getty. Dad had contacted Getty, asking him for a contribution toward the work of YDI. Dad strolled over to where Miller was standing in front of the Administration
Building and said, “Miller, I have in my hand a letter from the richest man in the world. I wonder what size contribution is inside.” Dad opened the envelope and found a check for $25.

Faster than you could say “Jack Robinson”, Miller Fagley got out his checkbook and started writing a check to YDI. My father queried, “What are you doing, Miller?”

“I’m writing a check to YDI for $30. I want to be able to say that I gave more than the richest man in the world!” Miller really did give more than the richest man in the world to make Camp Champion a reality, not only financially and in terms of his time and talent, but in other ways as well.

The people of Glen Spey thought it was great for there to be a camp for poor kids from the inner city, but they wished it wasn’t in their community. Some were scared. One woman wouldn’t even use the road that passed in front of camp. She would take an alternate route that went far out of her way. Other people were downright nasty. During early construction, the “Lake Champion” sign was torn down and in its place was put a sign which read: “This way to the tax-free n***** camp.” The bottom line was the community did not welcome YDI, so Dad started a campaign to win them over.

The most influential man in that campaign was Miller Fagley. He was well known and respected in the community. Miller and a local insurance man invited some of the townspeople to dinner as camp guests. After the meal Dad told them he had heard the rumors floating around, that an ex-gangster was opening a camp for delinquents from the city. Though that was true, Dad tried to convince the crowd that it wasn’t as bad as it sounded. He shared
his life story and then cast the vision of YDI. My father assured
people from the community they wouldn’t see city kids running
wild through town; they had enough room for them on the 360-acre campsite. Dad didn’t win any enthusiastic support that night, but it bought him some time to prove to the community that YDI could fit into life in Glen Spey.

Youth Development did its best to be a part of the community. As a tax-exempt organization they didn’t have to pay local taxes, but YDI made contributions to the volunteer fire department and the highway fund anyway. Slowly, Dad earned Glen Spey’s respect.

The most important thing was that Camp Champion had a powerful impact on the lives of inner city youth. Prior to camp, the most that these kids had seen of the wilderness was Central Park. At camp these teens learned how to swim, canoe, and handle themselves out in God’s creation.

One moonless night two camp counselors were taking a group of kids on a hike through the woods. The leaders stopped for a few moments to decide which trail they would take back to camp. The kids walked on. Suddenly they realized their leaders were not with them.

“Where are we?”

“How do we get back to camp?”

“What was that noise?”

The counselors caught up with the boys and listened in on the conversation waiting to see what these young men would do. Finally, one guy said, “Let’s pray.” The counselors were silently
thrilled. A boy named Felix was elected to say the prayer: “Please
God, help us out of this darkness. Lead us your lost children, back
to camp safely.” Each boy added his own “Amen.” After a golden
moment of silence one voice pierced the darkness: “O.K., now
what the f*** do we do?”

I know that is a funny note to end on, but I think Miller would appreciate the humor. If you would like to know more about my book, you may click here: My Father Was a Gangster


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