It seems everyone has a story about Jerry Ringerman. The former director of Camp JCA Barton Flats and JCC San Francisco, who died on Jan. 6 at the age of 79, touched the lives of thousands of campers, staff and youth, and they, in turn, have touched the lives of thousands more. Born in Los Angeles in 1924 to labor movement activists, Ringerman earned a bachelor's degree in psychology and master's degrees in education and recreation. He played pro football for the Calgary Stampeders, served in World War II and worked for the California Youth Authority. But Ringerman's true legacy lies not in his degrees, resume or athletic achievements, but in his immeasurable sphere of influence. A mentor to many, Ringerman left his handprint on California's education, music, camping, environment and Jewish life.
Andy Lipkis first attended Camp JCA as a fifth-grader. In 1970, at age 15, he participated in JCA's Teenage Service Camp, a program that asked young leaders to give back to the camp they loved. That summer, the California Forest Service told the campers that the Los Angeles smog was literally killing the trees that surrounded their beloved campsite. So the youths spent the next two weeks creating a meadow on dead campground, planting smog-resistant trees that the next generation of campers could enjoy. Emotionally and spiritually taken by the project, Lipkis found himself crying on the last day of camp.
"I was bawling, waiting for the buses to bring us back to the city, when Jerry approached me," said Lipkis, who now lives in Venice. "Jerry said 'No need to cry, if this feels right to you, take camp, this experience, back to L.A., and make it real.'" It was the first time someone encouraged Lipkis to act on his emotions.
"Jerry inspired me. I believed I could do something in the city, and that was the year I started TreePeople," said Lipkis, whose L.A.-based environmental organization has been going strong for 30 years. The next summer, Ringerman allowed Lipkis to base TreePeople out of the Barton Flat campus, as he rescued 8,000 trees and replanted them on neighboring campsites. Today, TreePeople raises environmental awareness in students through education programs, restores fragile habitats through its forestry program, brings trees to the inner-city and urban settings and works to improve water and energy conservation, flood prevention and storm water pollution.
"Jerry's influence on me is passed down through all the children TreePeople educates and his spirit can be found in all our TreePeople projects," Lipkis said.
Lipkis' story is not unusual. Ringerman's unconditional warmth and support of his campers shaped many of their lives.
"I wouldn't be in music today if Jerry Ringerman hadn't put me in front of the flag pole when I was 18 and said 'you're now the music director,'" said Cindy Paley, an L.A.-based Jewish singer and educator. "He inspired all of us with his energy and his spirit, and had a profound influence on the way we looked at life in the '60s."
Ringerman had Paley teach dance, drama, music and tumbling at Barton Flats, and for two summers asked her to be the songleader on JCA's teen trips to Israel.
"My approach to education today is deeply influenced by Jerry's philosophies. The way I treat people, the way I treat others -- Jerry gave that to me," Paley said.
Mick Hurwitz worked at Camp JCA under Ringerman from 1964-72 and remained close friends with him until his passing.
"Jerry stayed young his whole life, always active and always laughing," said Hurwitz, who founded Sierra Canyon Day School and Camp in Chatsworth.
"When I walk the paths of Sierra, I feel Jerry's presence. He's the reason for my success," said Hurwitz, who modeled his approach to education after Ringerman's. "I so appreciated the way he approached kids, the way he engaged us to talk about world events at Friday Night Services, his goal to make people feel good about themselves," Hurwitz said.
Ringerman ran a group-centered camp, where a counselor, junior counselor, CIT and 12-14 campers spent all day together. Rather than sign up for individual activities, the campers would agree upon activities for the whole group at the beginning of each week. This educational philosophy taught campers to live in a community that was made up of people with different opinions and values.
"So that children can grow," Hurwitz said. "That's what he always said, and that's how I look at my students."
Larry Messenger will tell you that these stories of Ringerman's profound impact can be found over and over again.
"The skills I learned at camp enabled me to be a good educator and school administrator, and are skills I still call upon on a daily basis," said Messenger, who spent 10 years at Barton Flats as one of Andy Lipkis' counselor. "Give me a list of 100 campers and counselors, and I'll give you 100 stories. He was extremely bright, incredibly passionate and had a way about him that people loved."
A celebration of Jerry Ringerman's life will be held Sunday, Feb. 29, 2-5 p.m. at Valley Cities JCC, 13164 Burbank Blvd., Van Nuys. Campers, friends and family are invited to participate in the afternoon of songs, storytelling and memories. Donations in Ringerman's name can be sent to Camp JCA Shalom Institute.