Dear Family and Friends:
Usually a trip up to Indianapolis from Bloomington is an extremely happy occasion. Usually those are family visits. Today’s visit was a sort of family visit in a completely different way, bittersweet. I went to attend Gert Cannon Beeler’s funeral.
You UCI old timers will remember Gert as the commander-in-chief (or should I say chef) of our kitchen. Gert ran camp’s food service for over thirty years. My family met her when we first came to camp in 1975. She and her uncle Earl Beeler had already worked for the camp for many years. We spent the next twenty or so years working together. I came to the camp to be its Director, but never really felt that Gert actually worked for me. I ran the camp and Gert directed her domain, the kitchen. She bought the food, hired the staff, cooked, etc. She’d call me in if someone needed to be fired. I could go on and on about her baking; rolls, breads, 7 layer cookies, Congo bars, chess pie, sweet potato pie. Friday night Gert’s fried chicken was the best of the best.
My experience today at the funeral was remarkable. I was asked to speak. I talked about all of the above but also told of Gert’s love of children. Over 800 Jewish kids each summer knew Gert and many gravitated to her. Those who worked in the kitchen became her children, especially if there was a teenager who was a bit lost, or unhappy. There was always room under her wing. She loved our boys Jeremy and Michael, always making special things for them. She married Harrison Beeler, Earl’s nephew. Harrison and I shared two things, our birthdays and our love of Count Basie. Earl was a legend in his own right. All of them taught me, their 29 year old Director, so many life lessons along with the practical things a camp director needs to know…how to run a commercial kitchen, how to mow 50 acres of grass, what kind of side-view mirrors are best on a pickup truck, how to run a swimming pool, and much, much more.
But during and after the funeral today it was impressed upon me over and over just how much the camp meant to the extended Beeler family. There’s an entire community of African-American folks in Indianapolis who have deeply warm feelings for Goldman Union Camp. Neecy (Gert’s niece whose name is Denice) even told the congregation that she spent so much time at the camp that she learned many of the Hebrew songs we sang, and a few Israeli dances. She said that her family referred to her as their Black Jew.
After the service ten or so older family members lined up to each give me a hug, thank me for coming, and tell me how much the camp meant to them. Some of them (Iyeva) worked at the camp, many of them, as did I, attended the yearly Beeler family reunions held on the athletic field, and all came often to Uncle Earl’s and Aunt Hazel’s home at the camp on Sundays to schmooze, play Tonk, and, of course, eat. I was blown away by their warmth. Even the woman who ran the nursing home where Gert lived her last nine years told everyone that she had grown up at UCI and was there during Gert’s time at camp, and that now her grandchildren attend GUCI.
Gert will always have a huge place in GUCI’s history. Today’s event was a celebration of Gert Beeler’s life and an expression of love between the Beeler family and our camp. It was indeed a family affair.