The Passing of Ralph Bannett

There remain but a handful of us at Timber Lake who still remember Ralph Bannett, who passed away on Sunday at the age of 95.  Yet, all who have shared their summers at the foot of Saddle Mountain have felt the impact of the man who founded Timber Lake and created the property and program so many of us still enjoy and so many more will, in future years.

Ralph was the major owner of Timber Lake from 1962, when it was founded, through the summer of 1979 when he sold the camp to me.  Sy Lebenger, who passed away just two summers ago, was his partner.  Ralph was the businessman and the visionary.  He was the creative force.  Sy ran the show.  Where Sy had charisma and leadership, Ralph brought the financial sense and his programming and marketing genius to the team.  A businessman first, Ralph was an innovator and an inventor.  He created the concept and technology for the rolling credits on live TV shows that we now take for granted.

He started Merrick Woods Country Day Camp in East Meadow on Long Island and gave Sy Lebenger a leadership role there before taking him and both their spouses on a long search through the Catskills for a sleep-away camp.  He and his wife, Addie, were ready to send their children away to camp and Ralph, ever the perfectionist, couldn’t find a single camp that met his expectations.  So, believing that he could do it better, he searched out the perfect property and built the camp of his dreams.

During the summer of 1961 the search brought them to Camp Delmar, just off Route 28 in Allaben, NY.  What Ralph saw was a camp that had just one lake, dilapidated bunks, modest facilities and a lot of work needed.  What he also saw – what Ralph Bannett always saw – was potential.  He saw it in businesses, he saw it in ideas, in camps, and, I guess, he saw it in me.  That’s why, years later, he agreed to sell me the camp when I was just 23 years old.

I had heard from Sy, in the summer of ’79, that Ralph was interested in selling Timber Lake so I decided to approach him one evening as he stood alone right in front of the Canteen.  As you can imagine, my heart in my throat, I walked right up to him and said; “Ralph, can I ask you a question?”   Ever the perfectionist, he responded brusquely “you already did.”   Ralph was tough, smart and, as the saying goes, he “did not suffer fools gladly.”  But he was fair and he was honest.

I remember, later that summer, just sitting next to him on the rock wall by the “island” across from the old Fine Arts shack (now our cottage).  I asked him how he could ever want to sell Timber Lake with its beauty and majestic mountains.  He looked at me and he answered “Now, when I look around, I don’t see the mountains, I just see the problems.  When you can’t see the mountains anymore, it’s time to go.”

This past Sunday was Ralph’s time to go.  And, while Ralph is now gone, with every bus that crests the hill filled with children for a new first day of camp, Ralph’s legacy will live on.

– Jay Jacobs
October 2nd, 2012