Passing of Sy Lebenger

It is with a great deal of sadness that I report the news of the passing of Sy Lebenger.  Sy was the Director of Timber Lake Camp since it was founded in 1962 through 1983.  Sy was my camp director.  He was 85.

Sy, along with his partner, Ralph Bannet, founded Timber Lake.  He was a force to be reckoned with.  In the early years, campers first set eyes on him as their bus to camp rounded the turn in the road at the bottom of the steep, then unpaved hill, that took them into camp.  Sy, in a worn Timber Lake T-shirt, covered by a open denim jacket and jeans, scraggly straw hat on his head and the permanent scowl he wore on his face would meet every bus as it pulled up.  Campers would transfer into open rack trucks for the last half mile into camp.

Meeting him at the bottom of the hill on opening day was one thing.  Meeting up with him at two in the morning if you went on a raid was quite another!  In those days you could still beat the campers.  Sy was as tough as nails.  He was built like a bull, ran several miles daily well into his fifties, could throw down a counselor half his age, if the need arose (and it apparently did, from time to time), and he could capture the attention of the camp with his presence and a shot from his piercing eyes.  His voice rang in the mountains.  As the saying goes: when Sy Lebenger spoke – everyone listened.

He was a great story-teller.  He drove around camp not in a golf cart, but in a battered green World War II vintage open jeep.  I was one of his “jeep kids” – a non- athlete, often unhappy and frequently wanting to go home.  Sy would drive us around for hours.  You never left his jeep without a smile and a better outlook on camp – and on life.

It was Sy that taught me that a great camp director understands that “camp is like a volcano.”  “Your job” he said, “is to keep it from erupting.”  “But,” he admonished, “don’t ever do it too much – don’t ever let the volcano go dormant – nobody visits a dormant volcano.”  Sy was a great teacher, philosopher, and a terrific camp director.  When he looked at you with that serious look and tossed an “OK, baby” you knew you were in.   And that, alone, took us for many miles.

Sy last visited Timber Lake four years ago when we dedicated the TLC Playhouse to him.  “You could have made a bigger sign” he told me, in typical Sy Lebenger fashion.  While it is sad that he won’t walk on these grounds again, it is perhaps fitting that he died during the summer – fitting he died on the day that Timber Lake was hosting “The Owner’s Cup” tournament.

Next year at our 50th Reunion we will remember him.  I’m getting a bigger sign.

– Jay

32 comments

  • Sy Lebenger was a force to be reckoned with. If it were not for him coming to my home 36 years ago, TLC would not have been part of my life, something I could not even imagine. He was tough, kind, caring man. It was such a pleasure getting to recognize his contributions to TLC at our previous reunions. Jay – truer words were never spoken, and as I read you post, I can actually hear you speaking these words in my head that I remember you telling the camp. Your words are a tribute to Sy’s accomplishments. Sy touch many people in his life time and that is quite a legacy.
    Jay – you are a man among men with such a gracious tribute to your’s and TLC’s history.
    May the many blessings in Sy’s life be a comfort to his family and friends. He will be missed by all that knew him.
    Sy is mellow – rest in peace.

  • Jay Jacobs…Seth Morrison…Stuie Finkelstein….where would be if Sy had not touched our lives. We still feel his influence even though we have not seen him in years.
    His place in all of our lives is immeasureable.

    Heartfelt condolences go out to Necia, Sylvia, Josh, Aaron, and Stacy.

    Someone please email Seth and let him know how to reach the family. Seth will tell me. (Or email me at stufink@aol.com.)

  • Jay-
    I just got an email from Stu Fink directing me to this sad piece of news about a man all TLC’ers knew and loved. I was crying up until the part about the “bigger sign!” THAT was Sy, and Sy was TLC. It says a lot about a man attempting to fill those shoes. Thanx for letting us all know.

  • He will be very missed. Jay, I can picture Sy so clearly when reading your passage. I was a half jeep kid, average athletic, had lots of friends, but sometimes just needed that extra attention and he knew it. He would notice just when I needed it and would summon me over to ride around with him and when he summoned, you went! I was at camp from 68-79 but was lucky enough to see Sy again in the late 90’s at a few visiting days through the years at a camp that I worked at and his grandchildren attended. I was glad my kids got to meet him too.

  • Very sorry to hear about Sy. I hope that his spirit (and name)
    will continue to live on in TLC for at least the next 50 years.
    Your tribute, Jay, really resonated for me.
    Also, I really enjoyed my visit with my son Zack last summer.
    It was interesting to see the improvements and additions to the
    facilities after more than two decades since I was last there.
    I hope to hear / read more about the pending 50 th anniversary
    plans.
    Mike Weinberg

  • A dear, dear friend as well as my mentor – he gave me a teaching job when he was asst. principal at I.S. 59 Queens — the news has hit me hard…He has — and was — always a big piece of my life.

    Yes — I loved him…my sympathies to the Lebenger family.
    Andy (Satch) Furman
    TLC Hall of Famer

  • A beautiful morning. More a celebration of life than a funeral. Stock full of humor and great memories. I’ll leave the memories to others, there are just too many for me to choose from. For me, the last 36 hours have been a whirlwind…between e-mail, social networking and the somewhat ancient home telephone, I’ve spoken to a ton of people who wanted – or needed – to talk about Sy and share memories. Folks of all types from different generations. It struck me that though we were saying it a million different ways, we all were saying the same exact thing: “I am sad today because Sy had the most profoundly positive effect on me.” Sy’s character, inner strength, sense of what was good and right, demeanor and just the way he lived his life made him the ultimate role model. Over the course of our lifetimes we each probably have only a handful of people that we idolize and consider true mentors. If I did not already know it (I did!), these last 36 hours have proved that Sy was that mentor, that idol, for what now must literally be thousands of people. We each knew the Sy of our world – in my case Timber Lake – but realize for all of the minions from our camp fraternity that feel the sadness today, there are other worlds – Hofstra, I.S. 59 and I am sure other places I do not know about – that are just as large and equally share our pain at the loss of our great icon. Sy was our torch – strong and burning bright, he was able – without diminishing himself – to light spark after spark in thousands of people, making his and their corners of the world a far better place. Each of us who were touched by that flame has been truly blessed.

    -Stoney

  • I was totally stunned today upon seeing Sy’s obituary in Newsday! Sy was one of a kind. From the very first time I met him as my Asst. Principal at IS 59 in 1967 I knew that he was someone very special. I first came to work for him at TLC during the summer of 1973, and came back for the next 4 years. His influence on my life was tremendous. Jay, your tribute was very touching and all so very true. Our world is a sadder place without his presence amoungst us.

    My deepest condolences to Sylvia, Aaron, Josh and Stacey. Let us all keep them in our thoughts and prayers. I know that we will all continue to keep Sy’s passion and drive alive as we move through the years ahead.

    Harvey Singer
    TLC Counselor 1973 – 1976

  • `My deepest condolences to the Lebenger family. I
    have fond memories of Timberlake. It is strange that just a few days ago I was thinking of Sy.

    If Stacey reads this message, my thoughts are with you and your family.

    Rona Weinreb and I spoke today, we are going out to the island to visit Larry Grabin.

    Suzy Casden
    1967-1971

  • On behalf of my entire family, thank you Jay, and all of you, for this wonderful tribute and your kind comments. We are humbled and grateful for your support. I like to think the world became a better place becaue of Sy’s presence, and hope his fearles and gentle spirit will live on through all he knew and touched. Taps has sounded. Be quiet, put away the flashlight and comic books,and go to sleep. Tomorrow we begin again. (Unless it is Lazy Day)

    Timber Lake Campingly yours,

    Aaron Lebenger

  • Even though it’s been many years since I last saw Sy, his words and actions continue to influence my life. That he was a great leader and mentor is the wonderful legacy he leaves all of us.

    My thoughts and best wishes to his immediate family, as well as to the Timber Lake family he he loved so much.

    Steve Weinberg
    Camper and Shop Counselor
    1970-1979

  • I was so sorry to hear this news-my camping experience would not have been the same without Sy.My thoughts and prayers go out to his family-RIP Sy

  • On the offchance Suzy Casden or Rona Weinreb read tihs again, would they or someone who knows them ask them to contact me at alebber@aol.com as I would also like to see Larry. Also, I am still in touch with many of Larry’s friends,and we have celebrated him annually for 40 years now. I would like to invite you to the next remembrance. (Best to Heshie and big sis.)

    Timber Lake Campingly yours,

    Aaron Lebenger

  • I, along with my younger sister, were the last members of our family to attend Timber Lake. This was in the 70’s. Our whole family knew Sy, how could you not. So today and purely by chance I happened upon the TLC site and migrated over to the blog only to see the sad news of a man that at least to me at the tender age of 11 appeared to be a giant and a man among men. I have so many memories of TLC and I cannot think about the camp without thinking of Sy. I remember one sad, lonely afternoon, wanting to go home feeling so homesick and Sy took me up to his cabin and gave me some bug juice and I have no clue what he said or did but I stayed the rest of the summer. The summer I was there, there was this new sneaker company that had just come out with these weird waffle soled running sneakers with a swoosh along the side. My mom sent me a pair after much begging and I put them on and went for a run and who do you think I was running with? So yes, Sy informed much of my summers at TimberLake and it is with great sadness that I read of his passing. I miss those runs, I’ll miss him.

  • Mr. Lebenger was the great influence of my life. Like a caring farmer, he planted the seeds of wisom, knowledge, and inspiration and continued to keep the crop growing with his encouragement and caring heart. Over the years of my life, those seeds have grown in a great way. Sy once said to me that all my trials and tribulations that I would go through in life were not to punish me, they were in fact lessons that would clearly help me to understand what others were experiencing in their lives. Sy continues to say, overall, one will never understand what others were going through unless one has gone through it his or herself. My hope and prayer would be that before my life ends on this earth, the day that God decides to take me home to glory that I have the ability to go back to Camp Timberlake where my life truly started in the understanding of who I really was and share my life experiences with the campers of Camp Timberlake. Sy will continue to live through the hearts that he has touched.

  • I am most saddened to learn of the passing of Sy Lebenger. However, beneath my tears are memories laced with the joy of knowing him.

    It was my father who first taught me to treat each person with dignity and respect. We are all in this life together, and what matters most is the relationships we foster and the caring we have for one another. It was Sy who modeled and encouraged these tenets so excellently for me.

    I first met Sy when I began as a camper in the mid 1960’s. I immediately became aware that Sy had the knack of making each camper feel accepted and important just for being themselves. Since I was so fortunate to love every aspect of camping life, I never had the occasion to ride in Sy’s jeep. For those that did, I knew that they were comforted, made to feel special and unique, and assimilated successfully into camp through Sy’s genuine compassion. Although not a riding companion of Sy, I remember vividly his recognizing, encouraging, and applauding all my athletic endeavors.

    As for those late night attempts at raiding the girls bunks, I can still visualize Sy storming into my bunk, exploding with the riot act. While my bunkmates trembled under their blankets with fear, I can remember smiling. You see, under his strong body and bullhorn voice, I was able to feel his gentle spirit. I always felt safe around him. That was the kind of man he was.

    As a counselor, group leader, and lieutenant in Color War during the summer of 1969, I remember Sy often asking for my input and suggestions on a variety of things. He would listen intently and always seem to value what I had to offer.

    I will forever be grateful to Sy. His essence will remain with me both personally and professionally until I die. The world today, however, is short of one of its’ truly great men.

    My sincere love and best to Sylvia, Aaron, Josh and Stacey.

    Bobby

  • I was saddened to read about Sy. To Sylvia and the the family my condolences he was in many ways the sprit of Timberlake.
    I have great memories of TLC the seasons that I worked there with Ralph, Sy, Sylvia, Seth, BJ. Birdie
    and one annoying shetland pony.
    if I remember Jay was a waiter during my time.
    Does anyone remember the year that the county was working on the hill past the gates and the road washed away just days before the campers were due to arrive.

  • Before I thoroughly enjoyed TLC in the Summers of 1968, 1969, 1970 and 1973 – I was a homesick camper in 1962. Sy tried to help me through that Summer – but I left. I came back in 1968 and loved TLC then – all the activities, friends, memories…………

    My sympathy goes out to Aaron, Stacy, Josh, Sylvia and the Lebenger Family.

    I still hike at Timber Lake Camp and think of Sy every time I set foot on the Catskill Shangra-La called Timber Lake Camp.

    Rest in Peace.

    Bill Bogatz

  • Dear Sy,

    May you rest in peace. You helped me when I needed help. You forgave me when I needed forgiveness. You mentored me when I needed mentoring, and kicked me in the butt when I needed that too.
    Your in my heart and in my roots, I will never forget you Sy Lebenger.
    My condolences to the family.

    Love & Peace,

    Scott Lubow

  • thank you to everyone for your kind words and memories…
    -Raena Goodman (Stacy Lebenger-Goodman’s daughter, Sy’s granddaughter)

  • Sy Lebenger. His exceptional wisdom will inspire me, forever. Sy interviewed me, as a wayard young man, so confused from the untimely loss of my 41 year old father and the crazy family aftermath. Sy hired me as Timberlake’s baseball counselor in ’68 and social director, the following year. He also fired me for breaking the rules and dating one of his campers.

    My camp experience, faux pas and all, reaped rewards: It strengthened my integrity, led to a 14 year marriage to that camper and produced two wonderful, loving daughters and four amazing grandchildren, who make my heart smile, every day.

    So, Sy, to you I say “thank you”. I imagine you, now, sitting side by side with my dad, chuckling over you gift of instilling wisdom through your stone faces. What a joy to have known you!

  • My sister Enid and I were singing camp songs for the past two weekends.

    Our thoughts about Sy are forever imbedded in our memories.

    We had our own reunion and we toasted the Timberlake era and the people that

    meant the most to us…

    stacy and sylvia (amazing ladies)

    xoxo,

    leslye gilbert funk and enid gilbert katze(mother of josh and samantha katze)

  • Sy i remember chatting with you and jay on the boat decks with my good friend Adam Old (counselor)83/84

    i had enormous respect for what TLC meant to so many coming from a culture where we did not have camps

    seeing these tributes has moved me God bless you
    thankyou Jay for looking after him

  • I first met Sy when he came into a boatyard I worked for on Long Island in 1971. He told me he had purchased some ski boats for a camp in upstate NY. Sy said the boats could barely get a young skier out of the water.

    Sy asked if I would come up for a weekend before camp opened. Fixing the boats was easy, experiencing Sy’s love for TLC was reward enough ( although he paid me well ). I will never forget him shouting “yeah baby” as I hit the throttle and pulled Sy up on his ski’s.

    Sy asked me to stay on as water ski instructor. The best summer of my life! Even though Spanky and me broke his beloved jeep in half that summer, he invited me back.

    One day Sy asked me to help with a camper who was homesick and soon found the camper had no interest in riding on boats or a jeep.

    With Sy’s permission, we went down the hill and purchased a kite so the young camper could fly it from TLC . We wrote his name on the kite ( thanks to Necia) believing his parents could see his name and know he was having fun. [ even though his parents were on Long Island]

    Some day I hope to visit Camp Timberlake. I’ll bring a kite.

  • I was just talking to Debbie Gold Maron this am about camp, our friends , Jay and of course Sy he was camp. He used to ssh me all the time. Debbie and I started at TLC in bunk 2 and went there thru working there. Those were great years they taught us about friendship, how to get along with others, independence and to compete fairly. I thin k it stated at the top with Sy.
    Thanks for wonderful memories and a great childhood.
    Sydnee Otner Meth

  • I remember you Bobby. You were my Lieutenant in color war. You too were amazing. What wonderful times. I’m 50 years old and still remember the great lessons learned during those endless summers . God bless.

  • Fran Volow Auerbach.
    Today is December 28, 2015. I began thinking of Timber Lake Camp because of the passing today of Meadowlark Lemon of the Harlem Globetrotters. I was a camper and counselor at Camp Delmar and then at Timber Lake from approximately 1960 to 1965. Every summer the Globetrotters would perform in the gym for the entire camp. We loved the show which was a highlight of every summer. So I then decided to Goggle Timber Lake Camp and see what had happened to the camp in the past 40 years. Then I saw that Sy had died. A beautiful memorial was written by Jay, the current owner, about Sy, but Jay left out a memory I will never forget. Sy loved the classic movie “Shane,” and every Friday night, after dinner and services, there would be a showing of the movie. While it was not mandatory to attend since we all had seen it several times, for some reason, most campers were there every Friday. Perhaps out of respect to Sy or that we loved “Shane” as much as he did. Whatever the reason, Sy was a formidable man, one you could not forget easily.
    .He left with me the most wonderful summer memories that any child and teen could have.

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