A Century and a Half of Service
LEXINGTON, Va., Feb. 17, 2021—When it comes to a legacy of service to the VMI community, the Camper family is a member of the century-plus club. John Camper, who oversees house maintenance and waterproofing for Physical Plant, is the longest-serving Camper, with almost 42 years. His cousin, Larry Camper, was hired in 1987, so this year will be his 34th at the Institute. John’s significant other, Tracy Gordon, contributes 23 years, and John’s parents, the late James “Jimmy” Camper and Margie Camper, each had 30 years of service before their 1995 retirements.
Add up all of those, and you get an astounding total: 159 years. And that’s not even including the service of John and Larry’s grandfather, Russell Camper, who was working for a local contractor when houses were being built in what’s now the North Institute Hill parking lot in the early 1950s.
Another yardstick is superintendents. John Camper has worked under five of the Institute’s 14 superintendents, and with the possibility of a new superintendent to be hired this spring, he might work under a sixth. Then there was Gen. George R.E. Shell ’31, who had retired as superintendent before Camper came to work for the Institute. In the early 1980s, John drove Shell to football games at Foster Stadium.
If the Board of Visitors names a new superintendent in the spring, John will have achieved an incredible feat: knowing nearly half of the individuals who’ve held the Institute’s top leadership position. He’s also known an array of commandants, chiefs of staff, and other senior members of the Institute leadership team.
Quite often, it’s been more than just a nodding acquaintance, as John leads the team of Physical Plant employees responsible for maintaining Institute housing. The casual chats that come with repairing a leaky faucet, for example, have helped John get to know a wide swath of the VMI community.
He’s been fond of many families over the years, but he was especially impressed by Gen. J.H. Binford Peay III ’62, the Institute’s 14th superintendent, and his wife, Pamela Peay. “They’re both a very class act, just super nice,” he recalled.
For John Camper, who’s now 60, the path to VMI revealed itself almost before the ink was dry on his high school diploma from Rockbridge High School in Fairfield.
“I actually graduated from high school on a Friday, and Claude Hamrick was the superintendent of buildings and grounds, which is [Michelle Caruthers’] position now,” said Camper. “He was at my graduation party, and he told me and a friend to come to work on Monday and we’d have a job.”
The friend never showed up, but John did. It was June 6, 1979, and John has been a VMI employee ever since, working his way up from carpenter’s helper to his current position, in which he’s responsible not only for the maintenance of just under 30 Institute-owned houses but also several other Institute-owned properties, plus waterproofing all across post.
Tracy, meanwhile, is a relative newcomer to VMI by Camper standards. She was hired in 1998 as a part-time custodian, and by her own admission, her first few days on the job were just plain difficult. Arriving in the dark at 5 a.m., she had trouble finding Lejeune Hall, but the building was already unlocked, so she was able to get in and clean on the first day. The second day, the fellow custodian who’d unlocked the building the day before called in sick, and she couldn’t get her keys to work. A few days later she was chastised by the Post Police for improper parking.
“At that point, I was ready to leave VMI,” she related.
A chance encounter at Walmart changed her mind, though—and she remembers the conversation just like it happened yesterday. She ran into Barry McDonald, then the custodial manager, who was shopping with his son. McDonald turned to his son and said, “This is Tracy, who I work with.”
Tracy didn’t miss the fact that McDonald had put her on an equal footing. “He introduced me as ‘who I work with, not as my employee or someone who works for me,’” she commented. “Barry McDonald’s words are what changed [my mind]. I had so much respect for him after that.”
Nowadays, Tracy works as the administrative assistant in Hinty Hall, a position she’s held since 2007.
Larry Camper came to VMI as a carpenter, after several years of building houses. Over the years, his responsibilities have shifted quite a bit, and he’s now chief of maintenance and operations. As the title suggests, it’s far from a small job on a daily basis, and it balloons enormously when major events take place.
“Events are huge,” said John. Larry confirmed that assessment, saying, “Every year events grow, and the events we have spread out. COVID has changed that, too.”
Many Institute events, of course, are both annual and predictable: matriculation, Ring Figure, Breakout, and graduation top the list. Then there’s the special occasions when dignitaries come to post, and when distinguished visitors are from the highest levels of government, Physical Plant needs to liaison with organizations such as the Secret Service and FBI.
“They’re interesting to work with,” said Larry of those organizations. “Each group is different in terms of what they want and what they don’t want. We try to give them what they want, but also represent VMI well.”
Over the years, all three have prepared for the arrival of many national-level leaders, among them President George W. Bush in 2002 and Vice President Mike Pence in 2020. Former President Jimmy Carter came to post in 2001 to receive an award, and Tracy saw him at close range, as she was working in the old Lejeune Hall at the time. Both Campers saw Carter get off the helicopter that had brought him to post.
They’ve seen a lot of change, too. Cell phones? Not when either Camper started. John especially remembers the technologies that preceded them.
“We’ve seen the first two-way radios come on post, and the first pagers,” he observed.
At first, they didn’t even have battery-powered tools in the carpenter’s shop. No one remembers exactly when computers came in, but all three say that change likely came with the dawn of the 21st century.
Moving heavy and unusual objects has also been part of the Campers’ experience. The mounted hide of Little Sorrel, Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s war horse, has long been a part of the VMI Museum’s collection, and he’s been moved a handful of times over the past few decades.
Then there’s the statue of Matthew Fontaine Maury which is now in Maury-Brooke Hall. Many years ago, it stood behind the circulation desk in Preston Library, and when this enormous bronze sculpture was moved up a flight of stairs to the top of a landing, John was called to assist.
“We actually rolled that thing on pipes,” he recalled.
Thankfully, a contractor took on the job the next time the Maury statue needed to travel.
Sometimes, there’s even ground-up construction involved. “In the mid-‘80s, we built the observatory building over at McKethan [Park],” said John. “We get to do fun stuff different places.”
The Campers’ friendship has deepened over the years as well. Childhood visits were scarce, they explained, because their fathers worked such long hours. They also lived at opposite ends of the county: Larry Camper, now 61, grew up in the Natural Bridge area and graduated from Natural Bridge High School. As adults, in addition to working together, they’ve helped each other with building projects and taken the occasional fishing trip.
“We’ve had fun over the years,” said Larry. He added that over the past few years, he’s seen many of the people he’d worked with for decades retire, so his cousin’s steady presence is especially welcome. The two of them are among Physical Plant’s longest-serving employees, and their dedicated service hasn’t been overlooked. In 2001, John received the Institute’s Distinguished Service Award, and in 2016 Larry was recognized with the VMI Achievement Award.
As for a younger generation of Campers—it’s too soon to tell what Tracy and John’s 12-year-old daughter, Jessica, will do when she’s older, and Larry’s children, Taylor and Tyler, have already settled into their career paths. Taylor Camper interned at Physical Plant in the summer of 2014, while she was in college, and both she and her brother were extras in the 2015 film “Field of Lost Shoes,” portions of which were filmed on post.
Besides, the current generation is still going strong. While many individuals his age would be looking forward to retirement, John Camper just isn’t ready to say “goodbye” to VMI.
“I think it’s going to be a sad day when I have to retire,” he admitted. “It’s the social part.”
“John used to say that the first 30 years went by so fast that he decided to do 30 more,” said Tracy.
Larry Camper, meanwhile, is looking down the road with anticipation. There’s a time capsule on the Parade Ground that’s due to be opened in 2039, when the Institute observes the 200th anniversary of its founding, John, Larry, and a few other Physical Plant employees have carved their initials on the backside of the capsule.
“I’d like to be around when they open that up,” said Larry. “I’ll be 80-some.”
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