Camp Squanto, the Old Colony Council of the Boy Scouts of America camp in Plymouth, was founded in 1925. But it never had a painting of Squanto, the Native American who helped the Pilgrims in their first winter in the New World.
Robert Jerden Whittier of Kingston changed that. It was the least he could do, he felt, for the camp that had meant so much to him as a boy who went there for five summers in the 1930s.
He commissioned a California artist to create a portrait and this fall, the artwork was dedicated at the camp. A ceremony was held at the camp to unveil the portrait and honor Whittier on the occasion of his 90th birthday.
“His time at Camp Squanto changed his life,” said his daughter, Jenny Whittier of Portland, Ore. “He had a place to fit in.”
Robert Whittier was born in Norwell, and at 7, went deaf from an ear infection in the days before antibiotics. He was often ostracized by other children, his daughter said.
“His parents didn’t know what to do; they weren’t able to send him to public schools, there was no mainstreaming in those days, and they had very little money,” she said. “But they managed to send him to the Horace Mann School for the Deaf.”
He also attended Thayerlands School and Thayer Academy in Braintree. Still struggling to fit in, the boy’s parents thought Boy Scout camp could benefit him. They sent him to Camp Squanto in 1934, and at first, he hated it, Jenny Whittier said.
“He was badly picked on, bullied, and teased,” she said. “But a director there took him under his wing and encouraged him. He also worked with other campers to be more compassionate. By the end of his first two weeks, he loved the place.”
When he got home, his parents saw a transformation in the child, Jenny Whittier said. For the next four summers, he spent six weeks of his summer at Camp Squanto, “far more than most campers got to do,” she said.
Whittier went on to attend Parks Air College, an aviation technical school in Illinois, and began a life of boating and aviation writing, publishing several books and being named to the Experimental Aircraft Association Hall of Fame in 2010.
As a youngster at Camp Squanto, he began what was to be a lifelong devotion to the written word, keeping a detailed diary of his life at camp.
“A couple of years ago, he handed me his diary from 1937 and said, ‘Maybe it’s something you can look at,’” his daughter said. “I thought, ‘Wow, this is too precious to stick in a drawer.’ ”
She had a limited-edition book created from his writing, which was sold at Camp Squanto. It sold out. More were printed, and they sold out, with all proceeds going to the camp, she said; more will be printed for next summer’s camping season.
As an adult, Whittier devoted countless hours as a volunteer at the camp, working as a counselor, shingling roofs, doing anything the camp needed. Jenny Whittier and her siblings spent time at the camp with their dad, and said some of her proudest possessions are photos of them running around the camp as kids.
This spring, the family was talking to camp officials about the book, she said.
“They just built a new mess hall, and Dad said there was nothing there to tell the boys who Squanto was,” she said. “He thought they needed a portrait.”
At its dedication, Jenny Whittier spoke of what the camp meant to her father and those endless stories he told about it, including the time some campers doused the camp’s supply of hot dogs with Tabasco sauce, or strung thread through all the bread to be used for French toast, or floated a sleeping camper on a raft out in the middle of the pond.
“He always disclaimed any personal involvement in the escapades he told us about,” said Jenny Whittier, who spoke on behalf of her father at the September dedication. Robert Whittier, who lives in a Kingston retirement community, attended the ceremony but did not speak.
But Whittier had made his feelings clear in the introduction to his book, “Camp Squanto, Day by Day Season of 1937.” He wrote about how kids at modern-day Scout camps already know each other, but back in his day “it was the practice to send them as individuals. A Scout thus found himself bunking in a lean-to with three other boys, all of them strangers to one another, usually from different towns, varied family backgrounds, and different religions.
“What Scouts quickly learned about others at Squanto was that they were all normal and acceptable persons,” Whittier wrote. “Prejudices dissolved and many lifelong friendships resulted.”
Whatever successes in life her father had as a writer, boat builder, and pilot, Jenny Whittier said, “he credits to the time he spent at Camp Squanto.”