By Julie Kendrick / Photo by Chad Bonk

Jeff Freedman ’87 grew up spending long, glorious summers at camp. His days were filled with hikes, spirited athletic competitions, and canoe trips and waterskiing on evergreen-rimmed lakes. In August, he’d return home feeling “campsick”—wistful and let-down as he returned to everyday life. But these days, that glow never fades. As a longtime summer camp director, he’s been able to savor the best parts of residential camping life for the past twenty-three years.

“Being a camp director is a labor of love,” Freedman says. His current work is a perfect fit for his outgoing, high-energy personality, and it’s a calling he pursued after following a more traditional career path.

Freedman, who grew up outside Philadelphia, has always been passionate about sports, and both of his careers have involved athletics. He played tennis and basketball for Macalester, achieving GTE and CoSida Academic All-American status in tennis, and was captain of both teams his senior year. On the first day of basketball practice, a teammate affectionately called him “Freedo”—a nickname that stuck.

After earning a law degree from the University of Denver, his first job out of law school was in the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s enforcement division, then headquartered in Kansas City, where he investigated major rules violations involving coaches, boosters, and current and prospective student-athletes in Division 1 football and basketball programs. “My enforcement job was extremely adversarial in nature,” he says. When the NCAA moved its headquarters from Kansas City to Indianapolis, Freedman decided to make a change. He did some soul searching, imagining jobs in which he could apply the values he’d embraced at Macalester, both in the classroom and on the athletics courts: keeping a global perspective, creating community, being a strong teammate, and giving back.

Thinking back to summers he’d enjoyed as a youth attending both Camp Winaukee, in New Hampshire, and Lake Owego Camp, in Pennsylvania, he realized that summer camp might be the right place for him. He became director of Camp Winaukee starting in 1999, then moved to Lake Owego Camp in 2014. “What are the odds of becoming the director of the two camps I’d attended as a young man?” Freedman wonders aloud. He feels blessed by the change of life direction. “I couldn’t have scripted a better, more rewarding job, and it was an amazing community to raise my three kids,” he says. “Each summer I get to forge lifelong memories and be impactful. I’m so fortunate.”

Fortunate, yes, but busy, too. During the fifty days of camp operation each summer, Freedman starts his workday at 7:15 a.m. with a staff meeting, and then gathers with more than three hundred campers by the flagpole at 8:10 a.m. “Our campers and staff come from all over the world, so I say good morning in ten languages,” he says.

The man whom campers and staff call by his Mac-bequeathed nickname, “Freedo,” seems to be everywhere at once. In addition to interacting with campers, he and his co-director are responsible for managing ninety counselors, three nurses, kitchen staff, and housekeeping and maintenance crews. Three days a week, he leads campers on an eighteen-mile mountain bike excursion in the Poconos and helps run daily tennis and basketball clinics. Before lights-out each night, he reads aloud to the younger boys, and enjoys s’mores with the entire camp every Friday night.

When the camp is quiet, he returns to his office to handle parent communications, send photos of happy campers, plan for the next day, and set up prospective camper tours. He usually gets to bed well after midnight. As jam-packed as his days are, the seven weeks of camp fly by. “I tell campers to ‘carpe diem’ and seize each of these days, since life doesn’t get any better than camp,” he says. “We are a 24/7 organized recess.”

Once the last camper leaves, Freedman and his co-director begin preparing for the next year: planning, traveling to recruit potential campers, and hiring staff. “With a big budget and population in the hundreds during the season, my job is very much like a mayor of a small village,” he says.

“The goal here is to foster diversity, acceptance, tolerance, and respect, which are all core values I saw embodied at Mac,” Freedman says. “Our camp is an oasis for young men to grow, cultivate independence and self-confidence, and be their authentic selves.” And he makes a strong link between what happens at camp and what he carries from Macalester: “My college years provided me with so many opportunities to meet people from other cultures and backgrounds, learn about myself, and be encouraged toward personal growth. That’s certainly our end goal at camp, too.”

Julie Kendrick is a journalist whose work appears in HuffPost, The Takeout, EatingWell, and the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Follow her on Twitter: @KendrickWorks.

July 18 2022

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