In Memory of ’Bwana



GORDONVILLE – A sad truth is that role models are not the athletes and rock stars whose posters we hang on the wall or whose jerseys and shirts we wear.

And we often don’t realize who and what they were until it’s too late to sort it out in our psyches.

I am going to tell the story of one such person who I recently learned is no longer among us.

For one reason or the other, our paths always crossed. It was almost as if he was being sent on a secret mission to chart my progress.

It began back in the alternate universe – and Jewish-American rite of passage – known as overnight summer camp.

Though he was no more than 20 years old in the summer of 1977, he was already a leader among the counselors. He was a man, not a guy. He wouldn’t tease other campers, like some counselors, but was far from Mr. Serious.

He was all about fun, which what it was all about.

He seemed to understand the importance of making memories, and he helped make them.

That summer, as a camper, I was 12. I had crooked, buck teeth and a smart mouth. He wasn’t the counselor in my bunk, but he seemed to take an individual interest in each camper in the division (Siberia, as it was called, because of its distance from the mess hall).

And he was also my coach in Siberia’s basketball league, drafting me in the second round. I was excited because he was already a camp legend, and now he was going to be my coach.

For a sports-minded kid, he was a blast. He would announce starting lineups before each game, like a PA announcer, and give us each a school (I was from Boston College).

When we lost in the semi-finals, the reaction was normal. We were devastated, and we acted like 11- and 12-year-olds. We started blaming each other, blaming the refs and the other team for “playing dirty” and “being lucky” (our star missed the game). That’s when he huddled us up, told us how proud he was about the way we played and told us to go shake the other team’s hands and wish them luck in the championship.

In other words, he was telling us to act like men.

That same summer, when we were gathered around a small black-and-white television to watch the MLB All-Star game, he was about to leave for his days off but we talked him into staying for a bit.

The reason was that the experience would not have been the same without him.

When Phillies’ slugger Greg “The Bull” Luzinski came to bat, he shouted out that if he hit a “tater” (that was campese for home run), he would buy Goldenberg’s peanut chews for the whole division (about 50-60 kids).

With that, “The Bull” promptly homered to left field. We celebrated like they had won the World Series.

True to his word, he made sure each camper got their teeth-decaying peanut chews.

As the summers passed, my teeth straightened but my outward cockiness (covering a multitude of self-esteem issues born from male role models who thought it best to stress the negative) remained. It didn’t help that I had grown into my body a bit and went from an OK athlete to one of the better ones.

I put a lot of pressure on myself, particularly to uphold my reputation as the camp’s “Gordie Howe” – everyone called me “Gordie” there – and that often resulted in regrettable outbursts.

And there he was – usually as a referee, particularly to quell the tension when we played a rival camp – holding me back from taking on 20 teens by my lonesome.

Again, while he never approved of the behavior, he wasn’t one to judge or let it sway his overall opinion.

He saw the good, the potential, in all of us.

The man, known as ‘Bwana – a camp-only moniker hung on him by his peers for reasons unknown to those of my age group – was an icon there.

He would lead cheers at lunch after long chants of “’Bwana …’Bwana …’Bwana” to implore him to center stage.

During the baseball strike in 1981, he organized a trip to see the Reading Phillies. He was interviewed on national television, which had to be a trip for a guy who dreamed of being a sports broadcaster (I often recalled hearing him announcing camper games that he wasn’t coaching or officiating).

But he wasn’t just about sports.

At a dance – i.e. record hop, with a DJ from Purple Haze at the controls — he broke the prepubescent ice by organizing the counselors to do a Temptations dance while pretending to sing “My Girl” to girls’ counselors.

When I “grew up” and was going to Temple University, there he was as a returning adult student.

As fate would have it, we had several classes – mostly criminal justice — together.

And while I was content to get my usual C without studying, he was there to raise the bar. His goal was law school, so better grades were a must.

For lack of a better term, I was shamed into studying for a quiz or test and did better as a result. I didn’t want him to see me going through the motions.

Then, when I was working as a sports writer — my gig for 13 years — I would run into him often, as he was a correspondent for several different papers during that span.

We always had a nice time, walking and talking along the sidelines of football games – or sitting in the bleachers at basketball games — and reminiscing about Camp Arthur.

While we shared a lot of inside jokes – like ways to conspire to get names of kids with Jewish-sounding last names in the paper – there were lines you couldn’t cross with ‘Bwana.

Certain jokes – if mean-spirited – were not his thing, and you would get that old look – in lieu of admonishment – and a subject change.

He soon started talking about attending law school at night, and I remember him showing up at a game with business cards. He was hanging out a shingle in Glenside, and could not have been more proud.

After fitting like a hand in a glove in the camp culture, he had found his place in the world.

I didn’t see him as a much after that, but while my wife was running an errand in Glenside, I spotted him on the street.

I felt compelled to chase him down.

He seemed happy, content. We exchanged numbers and talked of catching a minor league baseball game, either in Trenton or Reading.

As I watched out of the corner of my eye, he strolled down the street as if starring in a one-man musical. He seemed in a collision course with a woman who wasn’t looking where she was walking, but he smiled as he stepped aside.

Like a gentleman, like a man.

I figured I would see him again, sooner or later, and took it for granted.

I shouldn’t have.

We should tell people the impact they have had on our own lives when we have the chance, because who knows when that chance will come again.

I learned of his recent passing (February of this year) while checking our camp’s Facebook page. I found an online obituary, telling that he was the last surviving member of his immediate family and that donations could be sent to the American Diabetes Association (hitting home, since I too am afflicted with Diabetes).

He was only 56, and his name was Marty Katz.

Even if you didn’t know him, I’m asking you to pause and think of someone who had a similar impact on your life and let them know.

Before it’s too late.

2 thoughts on “In Memory of ’Bwana

  1. theo

    Looking for ahead of time to reading extra by you in a while!? Im normally to running a blog and i truly respect your site content.

  2. matthew

    I’m all over this with this write-up, I must say i think this website needs considerably more consideration. Ill probably be again you just read much more, many thanks for that details.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s