I first met Pat Rode in the summer of 1980. I was a 15-year-old kid who’d just broken 100 pounds.
He was 51-year-old former Army captain. He was built like it, and acted like it: a tough, no-nonsense guy you didn’t want to disappoint.
I was a rookie at Camp Hayo-Went-Ha, 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. You discover the outdoors, but also how to trust your teammates, and yourself. You find your limits – and you surpass them, again and again. This is how Camp Hayo-Went-Ha changes lives.
“Physically,” Pat told me, “nothing could be harder than these trips and I’ve been through airborne training. When you finish, you can say, ‘Hey, I did that, and I can probably do a lot of other things, too.’”
Pat Rode designed those summers to give bored kids adventure, forgotten kids attention and just about everyone – campers and counselors alike – a sense of belonging.
Rode 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. After his mother contracted cancer, and was buried 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 largely on his own. It must have terribly lonely and difficult.
"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 Pat graduated from Aquinas College as the baseball team’s leading hitter, he turned down offers from the Chicago Cubs and the St. Louis Cardinals to play minor league baseball.
Pat signed up for the Army’s elite Special Operations unit – the predecessor of the Green Berets – and married Dody. Together they raised five children, now all successful adults.
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 money to pay for their rent, college tuition, plane tickets, and even bail. All but one has 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.” Pat’s was just as simple: Be helpful.
Early on, Pat decided if a camp like Hayo-Went-Ha is good for boys, it must be good for girls, too. After some dicey negotiations, Pat launched Hayo-Went-Ha for girls, then 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.
Last week, Pat passed away at age 90, surrounded by his friends and family.
A few 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 lived his life to help others – and in turn, thousands of his proteges are now doing the same.
I cannot imagine a better legacy than that.
Godspeed, Pat Rode.
John U. Bacon is the author of ten books, six of them national bestsellers. His latest, Best of Bacon: Select Cuts, is out now. His views are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management, or its license holder, the University of Michigan.