Bowen Country Club: The Hull House Summer Camp

Bowen Country Club: The Hull House Summer Camp

Vince Romano, et al

Bowen Country Club:  Rosenwald Cottage mothers and their babies.

Bowen Country Club: Rosenwald Cottage mothers and their babies.

In 1912, Jane Addams and Mrs. Louse DeKoven Bowen purchased the 72 acre site on the north end of Waukegan, IL, to add to the recently completed 13 building Hull House complex on Chicago’s near-west side.Jane Addams, who had become one of the premier sociologists of her day, recognized the potential of a summer camp that could provide a change of environment for the inner-city slum dwellers that made up “The Hull House Neighborhood.”

In India, they have a saying reserved for those individuals who had influenced and reshaped our lives. That saying is, “You are my Gemma.” The Gemma is a tributary to the Ganges River. From the point at which the Gemma flows into the Ganges, theGanges is no longer the same river. Its course is forever influenced by the Gemma as it winds its way down to the ocean–ultimately influencing and shaping the landscape of distant shores.

“You are my Gemma.”  A tribute reserved for those who had become our Gemmas during our personal journeys through life. A tribute reserved for those who made us something different than we would have been had we not met them. If we became something different than we would have been because of our experiences at the Bowen Country Club (BCC), then, by definition, Bowen Country Club was a Gemma to us.  “And for some of us, those early childhood experiences had inoculated us against what could have been our latter day Gemmas.”


Mom and Pop Hicks. (Ada and Bob) ringing the dinner bell

Mom and Pop Hicks. (Ada and Bob) ringing the dinner bell

Many of us have praised the camp directors, Bob and Ada Hicks, for the experiences we encountered at the Bowen Country Club. Some have done so with thoughtful eloquence as attested to by their writings, which they graciously shared with us. The majority of us had not, however, openly expressed the impact the Hicks’ and the other ingredients that made up this phenomenon we know as the Bowen Country Club had upon our lives. Our silence does not mean we were/are oblivious to the impact of Bowen Country Club in shaping and defining us.

“…and not so easily described, are those memories that travel the back roads of our minds.”

Each of us came away with our own set of BCC memories. Some were vividly imprinted upon our senses and emerge as the cognitive memories of recognizable people, places and events. Other memories, not so easily identifiable and not so easily described, are those memories that travel the back roads of our minds. Those affective memories, blurred feelings of bliss, are periodically awakened within us, Pavlovian style, by a thought…a sound…a word…a summer breeze. Those memories were imprinted upon us by that complex pool of Gemmas that made up our Bowen Country Club world of campers, counselors, staff members, directors, and the physical setting of BCC—(not necessarily in that order).

The metamorphosis that occurred on those 72 acres was subtle. Recognizable or not, seeds that were planted decades earlier at Bowen Country Club contributed to what we later achieved during our lifetime and all that we eventually became.

For many of us, it was only after we had settled into our 3 bedroom suburban air conditioned homes or only after we celebrated our children’s breaking the blue collar cycle that we paused to reflect upon the course our lives had taken and the impact our BCC experience had upon us. Not only had our Bowen Country Club experience been a Gemma to us, it also afforded us the opportunity to become Gemmas to the lives of those whom we, in turn, later touched. Like Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull, we did not remain “pages in search of a word.”  We became, in due course, “words in search of a page.”

“We welcome you to BCC; we’re mighty glad you’re here.”

Was it the song that made us feel so special…or was it the singers?

“Those were the best years of my life”…  “I can never forget that place and all the people who meant so much to me”… “Simply and purely, Bowen Country Club was Shangri-La for those of us who grew up on the streets of our Little Italy (The Hull House Neighborhood)”…“How can you measure bliss?”  

Comments such as these are heard over and over again from those who were both participants in and beneficiaries of this phenomenon called Bowen Country Club.

Each of us, as in the classic Japanese novel, Roshomon, had come away with our own perceptions of what Bowen Country Club meant to us. They came to us in a variety of shapes and forms.

Following are a handful of my BCC memories…and a glimpse of those who became my Gemmas:

The exhilaration of packing my suitcase (shopping bags were not an uncommon sight) in preparation for leaving the hot city streets that the lake breezes rarely managed to penetrated.Taylor Streetwas the only world any of us had ever known until our pilgrimages to BCC began.

The cinders blowing into the open windows of the Northwestern 400 as we sped along the tracks to our BCC destination.

A Hutchinsonboy (pre-pubescent obviously) asking Danny DeFalco, as Danny put on his athletic supporter in the shower, “Why do you wear that?” Equally memorable was Danny’s carefully crafted answer.

The first glimpse of a “blue”Lake Michiganon our initial hike to the beach. So blue, there were arguments over whether or not it was the same Lake Michigan whose waves washed over the sands of theTwelfthStreetBeachback home in Chicago.

“…and for a while there, we had a chance to be ourselves.

A banner hung in the BCC dining room to commemorate the 257 known alumni of Bowen Country Club who had gone off to fight in WWII. Those BCC family members, decades later, were recognized, and rightfully so, as the “greatest generation.”  One of them, Mike Garippo, one of my early Hutchinsoncounselors, gave his life in that war. (Mike was one of our home grown Taylor Streetbred counselors.)  Later, when his memory continued to emerge, I made a case for his immortality. It went something like this: If he had become a Gemma to us, and one of us, who had become something more than we would have been, had become a Gemma to at least one other person (and on and on), could one not make the case that he is still, and always will be, with us?

Ray DiJulio, blinded in WWII, often visited BCC. His presence removed any misconceptions about the realities of war. He was a constant reminder of what it took to be a member of that “greatest generation.”  Marrying his childhood sweetheart, Ray spent his honeymoon at BCC.

During that same time period, a resident artist ofTaylor Street’s Hull House, Willard Motley, had researched and written a best selling novel, “Knock on Any Door.”  The theme of that 1949 novel has been included in every enlightened treatise on the development of human behavior. That best seller served as a prophetic reminder that we had been imprinted by experiences long before our encounters at Bowen Country Club. For some of us, those early indelible experiences had inoculated us against what could have been our latter day Gemmas. The source of those profound failures is not so readily identifiable. At least, not to the naked eye.

We were made of the stuff of stars…starstuff!

Who can ever forget the celestial beauty of the almost touchable sky, with its shooting stars and, if you were lucky to be there at the right time of the year, the northern lights?  A billion stars in each of a billion galaxies, as we later learned. During those memorable BCC nights, looking up at the shores of that cosmic ocean, we somehow knew, long before astronomers had discovered, that we were made of the stuff of stars. We were “star stuff!”

Lady “Em,”(I believe I gave her that name during our first encounter) who along with the other North Shore debutantes to be, was/were important and necessary ingredients to this nursery from which emerged that phenomenon we know as the Bowen Country Club. I always felt that we were as much of a Gemma to those who came from theNorthShoreas they had been to us, theirTaylor Streetcounterparts.

…a subtle reminder of the depth of the gene pool that had been imported from the land of our ancestors

Vince Vitullo, Hutchinson counselor.  became a professor of law at Depaul.

Vince Vitullo, Hutchinson counselor. became a professor of law at Depaul.

Vince Vitullo, another home bred counselor (2nd generation Italian-American I later learned), but not your garden varietyTaylor Street resident with their “deez and doze.” (Yeah, we said “deez and doze” instead of “these and those.”)  Vince was a crucial part of the BCC mix. He was a subtle but constant reminder of the depth of the gene pool that had been imported from the land of our ancestors. He continues to serve with distinction as a professor of law atDePaulUniversity. How ironic it would have been had Vince Vitullo also been involved in the only trial in history in which the double jeopardy protection afforded by the constitution had been challenged. Both parties, sharing the same BCC cottage, would have met, nearly a half century later, in a history making trial.

Who could ever forget Tony Barbaro and Jasper in Hutchinson Cottage’s rendition of, I’m a Lonely Little Petunia in an Onion Patch?  “Jasper, if you don’t boo-hoo now, you will boo-hoo tonight.”  I choose to preserve that memory of Jasper and Tony Barbaro, along with some of my other BCC Gemmas. Their names are harbored among the bricks making up the recently dedicated memorial for Bob and Ada Hicks.

Had anyone ever taken the time to say, “Thank you” to Mrs. Caruso (and Kirby Caruso for that matter) for that Caruso smile?

We all remember that Caruso smile (Lu, Sis, et al.). Greeting us each day, it seemed to say, “We’re mighty glad you’re here.”  You just knew this was going to be a great day. I always wondered whether anyone had ever taken the time to say, “Thank you” to Mrs. Caruso (and Kirby Caruso for that matter) for that Caruso smile. As an aside, who can ever forget Kirby’s reaction when Lu Caruso announced that she was going toCaliforniato teach, “California(avenue)…that’s close. You won’t have to travel too far to get to work.”

On another note, how many of us still remember the botanist, brought into the mix, by whomever, to enhance and elevate our knowledge of nature?  As I recall, he, the botanist, managed to get only one tree correctly labeled. But we didn’t need to know the scientific names of the trees to become aware of our relationship with that ocean of green, which began at the steps of Rosenwald Cottage and reached out to and beyond the physical boundaries of our BCC world…and the cosmos that opened up to us on that first overnight hike to those isolated beaches. Yes, Luke Skywalker had Yoda but we had our Bowen Country Club.

There are a thousand memories that impacted upon us: Being greeted by the Hicks’ and the emerald blue swimming pool at the end of our long march from the train station…Becky and Goodfellow Hall… The ravines that wound around and through Hutchinson, Mary Smith, Lansing, and eventually beyond the boundaries that made up Camp French (“girls coming”)…Oscar’s first appearance in the dining hall (“Come in, come in…”)…Rose Ann and her gentian violet crusade…and on…and on…and on…and on. Treasured memories too numerous to list here.

Some of those memories we mutually shared with our fellow campers. Some of those memories were special to us alone and not mutually shared with others. And then there were some memories which we, only later, came to realized were not ours alone but were memories others had also carefully packed away and stored in their BCC treasure chests.

Away from the hot asphalt streets…away from sidewalks shielded from the lake breezes…and away from the matressed fire escapes, we were afforded the opportunity to grow beyond the restrictions of our isolated and secluded neighborhoods. Bowen Country Club, above all else, was a Nursery…a Gemma Nursery. While we sought and received sustenance from it, each of us, in turn, had contributed to and enriched the random orchestration of that cosmic fugue.

“…remember, when you’re away. For you all belong to Bowen and Bowen belongs to you.”

During our last evening at BCC, the entire camp gathered at the Bowen Field campsite. It was time to say goodbye…not just to the new faces and names we met there, but to the new friends that emerged from old acquaintances. As the flames gave way to the glowing embers, we, reluctantly, began our final trip back to our respective cottages. The words and the melody finally succumbed to the silence of that night. The memories, however, we carried with us…beyond our cottages…beyond those 72 acres…beyond that brief span of time.

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