It only takes five minutes with Rick Frankle to know that he is a mensch. And Frankle has spent the better part of three decades at Camp Airy, teaching boys and younger men to become menschen too. Frankle, 57, who has served as the camp’s director since 2002, will retire at the end of this summer, but colleagues say his influence will be felt long after he leaves the post.
Frankle’s relationship with Camp Airy began during the summer when he was 12. He and his older brother went to the camp with their mother, who had taken a position as the camp nurse. As the legend goes, early on, Frankle told his mother, Reva, a World War II-era camper at Camp Louise, Airy’s sister camp, that he would one day run Camp Airy.
While Frankle’s brother attended camp for that first summer, Frankle kept coming back.
“The love of camp is something my mother and I share,” he said recently.
After four years as a camper, Frankle became a counselor-in-training, spent three years as a counselor and was a unit leader for another year. Afterward, he served as director of the pool, a position he held for close to 20 years. In the days before his job at Camp Airy became a year-round position, Frankle taught middle school in the Howard County Public Schools, even getting a master’s degree in technology, the subject he taught for 14 years.
“There’s no better life than the life of a teacher,” he said of his former career.
In the mid-1980s, Frankle said he became assistant camp director while continuing to run the Camp Airy pool. In 1995, he and his wife, Pam, a former Louise camper who also worked as a camp nurse, and their children, Hilary and Seth, both Airy and Louise alums and staff members took several years off to do some traveling and focus on their family. At the end of the summer in 2001, former director Mike Schneider called.
“He said, ‘Don’t you want to come back?’” Frankle recalled. “I’ve been here ever since.”
Frankle has seen great changes in the world of Jewish camping since he was a boy and even in the past decade.
“Jewish camping has come so far,” he said. “There is such more of a focus on Jewish education. We have become more intentional in our Jewish teaching.”
For example, the camp has brought in more Israeli staff while also training American staff to be more fluent in Israeli culture, he pointed out. “We’ve become a camp that sings. Now there is lots of singing in the dining hall and on Friday nights, and many of the songs we sing have Jewish themes. It’s been a blessing to experience that transition.”
Frankle said Camp Airy’s program have also evolved in other ways.
“In my day as a camper, there was softball and basketball, and we played all day, and every once in a while we might wander into the art room. Now, the program is so much more sophisticated,” he explained. “We have taken camp to a whole new level.”
Today’s Camp Airy offers extreme sports such as mountain biking, remote go-cars, skate boarding and paint ball. Airy also has full outdoor adventure and arts programs. A culinary arts program known as “Culin-Airy” takes place in a professional kitchen, where kids learn from professional chefs. Frankle has been known to teach the boys cake decorating, one of his hobbies.
This summer, the camp purchased a “fixer-upper” car and started an activity called Nuts and Bolts.
“We hired local mechanics, and the kids have been learning to fix the car. Our goal is to get the car to inspection standards and then find a family who needs it. When we do mitzvah projects here, they have to be real,” said Frankle. “When the kids fix a car and donate it to a family they know, or when our CITs work with kids with special needs, the mitzvah is real for them.”
The desire to teach campers to perform mitzvot is one expression of the kindness that Frankle’s wife, Pam, has witnessed in her husband at camp and elsewhere for so many years.
“I think Rick’s kindness to kids and staff is one thing that has made him such a good director,” she said. “He is all about making sure people are happy.”
Last fall, the Frankles were honored with a Lifetime Passion Award from the camp’s Order of the Leaf fellowship. Sybil Modispacher, who now heads up Camp Airy’s swim program and was Frankle’s assistant beginning in the mid-1980s, said the award couldn’t have gone to a worthier couple.
“They have lived the three pillars of the Order of the Leaf: friendship, loyalty and service,” she said.
Modispacher said she is extremely sad about their departure.
“They have always been such good friends,” said Modispacher. “Rick has done so many incredible things here. He started so many traditions, and his creativity can be seen all over camp. He has taught me everything I know.
“I’m just hoping that everything he has done and all the people he has trained have created a really strong base,” she added. “Rick will never be gone as long as there are people here to carry on the ‘Rickisms’ and hold him in their hearts.”
As they prepare to leave Camp Airy, the Frankles are excited to begin a new part of their lives.
“Camp is life lessons in microcosm. It has given me the right balance,” said Frankle. “I’m sad and it’s a little scary, but then again, it’s just one part of my life. There are times when you keep reaching, trying to accomplish. And there are times when you scale back and look at your blessings. My greatest joy has been getting to know people — kids, families in good times and bad — being part of that. Camp has given me the chance to make this [the camp experience] happen for kids. It’s miraculous to see them grow up.
“It’s been a blessing that I’ve had the opportunity to do this for so long,” he added. “But I’ve accomplished what I’ve wanted to do. The organization is healthy, and there is joy in being able to begin a new chapter.”