I owe a lot to Peg Champney, who died November 5, at 87. But I did not know her that warm day in the late 1980s when I turned off Sandy Ridge Road in the small eastern Ohio town of Barnesville, onto the campus of the Olney Friends School, where she was.
The grassy, nearly flat crest of the ridge was covered with luxuriously green grass, lined with tall, venerable trees, weathered into sturdy magnificence by decades of hard Ohio winters.
Fortunately I was never there in winter; so my memories of Olney are of the green ridge, sloping to a soccer field on the west, and to a large manmade pond on the east. Turtles sunned there, small fish leaped to snap flies, and occasional anglers swung lines like sultry lassos to drop hooks in the dark water after them.
A wide wooden porch swing was perched on the ridge crest facing the pond. In later summers I spent many hours rocking slowly on it. I rose early to watch the sun climb through the mists slowly unfurling from the reflective pond surface; or as the day’s heat receded, bask in the steel purple dusk spreading over the red barn of the farm beyond it.
Behind me were Olney’s school buildings, the “new” girls’ dorm, the older Boys’ dorm, both satellites of the larger, even older main building between them. The place looked hand-built, and much of it likely was, in a style of plain frugality and self-reliance. It embodied the Conservative Quaker ethos that created and long sustained Olney. From this small outpost, the school and its sponsors doggedly resisted the encroachments of the 20th century decade by decade, ultimately yielding almost every time, not always with good grace. Olney has ghosts too, the ones I’ve encountered were mostly friendly.
A dark red sidewalk of bricks, laid in a herringbone pattern and sometimes almost covered by the grass, stretched from the school building north across the long green, flanked by a motley handful of staff houses, to the doors of the cavernous Stillwater Meetinghouse. Stillwater could (and for years did) hold up to 2000 plain-dressed Friends for the summer sessions of Ohio Conservative Yearly Meeting. How they coped with the heat in their stiff plain suits, or heavy dresses and bonnets, I can scarcely imagine.
Only a relative, mostly aging handful of them were left when I arrived in the late 1980s. And on the day I’m recalling, yearly meeting was still six weeks or more away.
It was a Thursday, and with me was my son Asa, who must have been seven. I wanted him to spend the weekend there with me, just soaking up the vibes of the place. Quaker education by atmospheric osmosis? Worth a try.
Barnesville is the main crossroads of Conservative, or Wilburite Quakerism. They split from the Orthodox branch in the 1850s when that group began imbibing a new message preached by elite Quaker ministers from the home country, England. They came bearing exports of their recently-acquired evangelical theology.
They and their alien gospel were denounced by John Wilbur, an obscure, non-elite Rhode Island Friend. (I’ve found no photo or silhouette of him; likely he would not have stood for such worldly foolishness.) He followed the Anglos around, arguing their message would wreck traditional Quakerism, and lead to rule by bishops and even popery.
Wilbur was disowned for his trouble. Yet while the insurgent reformers stopped short of Rome, Wilbur’s warning was prescient: they did bring drastic changes to most American Quaker meetings: “programmed” revivalist services, fundamentalist theology, paid preachers and pastors, rule by clerical cliques and superintendents who were bishops in all but name.
Olney’s founders repudiated all that, but they no liberals. They aimed to conserve the old plain ways, in unpastored worship, silence-based but with plenty of preaching, amid a plain, mostly rural life.
But the farm towns where their yearly meeting at first flourished were soon sucked dry of the younger generations, drawn to bigger towns & cities for school, work, and more fun than was allowed at home.
With them also went much of the student base for the Olney Friends School. Financial stress ultimately obliged school officials to do what a previous generation would have abhorred: turn to outsiders, even to the infidel Liberal Quakers, renting out school space in summer.
This is where Peg Champney came in. She was from three hours and a couple light years west, the village of Yellow Springs. It was a tiny island of progressive politics and culture in Ohio’s mostly conservative sea. Part of the very liberal Yellow Springs Friends Meeting, Peg and her friend Jean Putnam had a dream of starting a summer Friends Music Camp, and renting Olney as its base.
Of course, music was one of the diabolical innovations that had provoked the Conservative Quaker schisms. But all that was in another century. Olney needed money, and had no summer program. Peg was winsome, personally respectable, and if her head was stuffed with dangerously progressive notions, her pocketbook was stocked with 100% American cash. In 1980, Friends Music Camp opened.
Its session was underway when I arrived with Asa. I had no real agenda other than for the two of us to soak up the Conservative ambiance; and no place to stay. Frankly, short on cash, I hoped to cadge a couple of spare beds.
I was directed to Peg to negotiate this. She was friendly, but with ten years of herding frisky musical Quaker cats under her belt, she also had a quiet air of command.
I explained myself, and added that I had hoped to barter for our two nights’ lodging.
“What have you got to trade?” she asked.
This was the crucial moment. In today’s paranoid world, she would have had no truck with wandering strangers, especially males. Insurance regulations alone now demand criminal background checks on anyone coming within reach of children; then there’s the proliferating scars of fear on the collective psyche left by our mass murder culture.
But Peg had had her own pre-digital career as a communitarian and camper: she had sized up hundreds of people, as she sized me up that day, and her intuition (what Quakers prefer to call discernment) had been well-honed.
Plus I had, it turned out, an ace in the hole. Besides offering to do physical work, dishes, cleaning or suchlike, I also said I had some stories, original stories I had written and read to my children, which I could share with the campers, if way opened.
Peg’s eyes brightened. “We may be in luck,” she said. The next evening ‘s program had just fallen through. A slot was vacant; storytelling could fill the bill. The deal was made.
Long story short: it wasn’t storytelling, but story reading; My tales were composed, but not memorized. And full disclosure: I was greatly relieved to escape dishwashing or floor-scrubbing.
And the next night, the campers liked my stories. A lot, it seemed; they laughed, held their breath, and applauded. For ninety minutes, I was treated like a famous writer.
Asa and I headed home well-marinated in the heirloom broth of Wilburism. And even then I understood it was a spiritual tonic best savored in small, well-spaced doses. They didn’t like talking about it with outsiders, but one of the Wilburites’ main preoccupations was turning personal grievances into theological crises & mini-schisms, which was another reason there were so few left.
But never mind that. The memory of Friends Music Camp, or FMC, stayed warm and vivid, and the next summer I sent a note to Peg — written, I believe, by hand and sent in an envelope with a stamp — offering to do it again if way opened.
Way did open; Peg said yes. I again brought Asa, who had leaped headlong into the camp’s ethos as if it were the pond on the hottest day of the year. He railed against the systemic grownup oppression that kept him from being a full-fledged camper til he was ten.
And two years led to another. I was also familiar enough with liberal Quaker culture to know that an event repeated three times at their gatherings automatically becomes a tradition. Many of the campers came back to FMC yearly til they aged out, and my stories found a place in their young memories and camp talk.
And so it has been for thirty-plus summers. Asa finally became a real camper, returned for six summers, and Peg’s mild-mannered magic did him a world of good. (Word is it did worlds of good for many campers.) It was also a welcome spur to my imagination, because while there were tales the campers wanted to hear again, they also were eager for new material. Fiction is not my main medium as a writer; but I soon set a goal of bringing a new story each year, each grandly announced as a World Premiere. So far, I’ve managed to meet it.
Olney never lost its appeal for me. Whenever I could, I’d arrange to get there a day or two early. Then I’d spend as many hours as possible on the slow swing, facing the pond and the rolling hills beyond. The whole scene became my private retreat center, quiet except for the spasms of dissonant background music from the practice rooms, or the occasional thunderstorm’s fury. All that was welcome too. After Asa’s summers there, FMC gave me modest honoraria for the visits. But I would have paid to do it.
Thirty years is a long time, though, and time brings change.
Peg was not young when FMC began: she had already raised a family with husband Ken in Yellow Springs, and they were grown and flown. More grey appeared in her black hair as the summers progressed, as it did in mine. She understood the process, and did a good job of training counselors and junior staff. And when she retired, several years ago now, the transition seemed smooth enough.
For some years she came to visit the sessions, and was dubious about her status as Honored Founder. Maybe that’s why the visits became shorter. Also, Ken Champney died in 2011.
Then the new staff heard other voices of change: Olney Friends School still needed money, and proposed to raise the camp’s rent. And Earlham College came calling.
Earlham, Quaker-founded and an hour west of Yellow Springs just over the Indiana line, needed money also. One reason was that they were finishing a new, $22 million dollar arts building, with many practice rooms and an elegant compact concert hall. Summer rentals would help pay for it.
It’s easy enough to sense the appeal to the new FMC staff. I said that the Wilburite Quaker tonic was best in small doses. The senior FMC staff had had enough of them that the charm of Olney’s picturesque plainness had mostly worn off. For some veterans, the buildings were no longer venerable and quaint, just old. The food was Midwestern bland (“Groundhog gravy” was a staple, though I liked it). And as summers got hotter, the lack of air conditioning was more onerous.
The camp moved to Earlham in 2016. I was not the only one who wept over its departure, but loyally followed it west. At that point, my stories and I were more than tradition: they became a link to lost origins.
And I needed a memento. From the swing and at other spots, I had taken many photos, trying to capture Olney’s spirit — even hoping one frame might capture a glimpse of one of its ghosts. I put a few favorites on the cover of a collection of nineteen of my FMC stories, and published it as Posies for Peg. (There was never any comment on it from Peg; no surprise. Even her liberal Quakerism retained enough traces of Wilburite plainness that it didn’t hold much with such tributes.)
I still grieve about the move. I expect Peg was heartbroken too, if resigned. I don’t think she visited FMC in its new digs.
Earlham is, it seems, everything it promised: gleaming new dorms, all climate-controlled; veggie, vegan & gluten free options every meal. Its Quaker connection is an upscale one, albeit with a life-size sculpture of Mary Dyer, a Quaker martyr hanged in Boston in 1660, to brood over it all, mostly unnoticed, from an inconspicuous concrete bench. No ghosts wander its modern halls.
Yes, I understand. But you ask me, historic colleges are a dime a dozen. There’s only one Barnesville, and one Olney, even if they now exist mainly in my mind. And of course, change has come there too: the fracking boom has surrounded and invaded the town like a foreign army, cursed by some, welcomed by many. Olney has said no to the frackers’ money, but has been taking in affluent foreign students to keep its doors open. I’m not sure I want to know much more.
Now Peg is gone, and I owe so much to her. May her memory be for a blessing. My run at FMC will also no doubt be reaching its end before long. I’m looking for a successor storyteller to recommend. This fall, for health reasons, travel to places like Earlham abruptly became more problematic. But if it weren’t that, it would soon be something else; mortality is a shapeshifter, coming in many different guises, and on its own schedule; yet amid all the change, its arrival is still a certainty.