By Joan Elliott
Missourian Feature Writer
Forty Legends, located just outside Washington in the hills of Missouri, was a magical place where children could awaken their spirit of adventure and find new ways of looking at life.
The backwoods retreat was a place where nothing was impossible and everything was fun. It was rustic. It was primitive. And for thousands of children from around the globe who spent part of their summer there . . . it was Camelot.
The man who breathed life into this sacred place, from 1970 to 1994, was Joe Soete, a man of vision, ideas and commitment, who empowered young people with a sense of self-worth that spilled over into every facet of their lives.
"If you can't see the invisible, you can't do the impossible," he frequently told the youngsters.
For 24 years, Soete (who used the camp name "Caesar") and his wife, Mary, ran Forty Legends on their 67 acres in rural Washington. All six of their children worked there as well.
"When we started, - with just 40 acres - my son, Joe, suggested that we have a 'legend' for each of the 40 acres," Soete said.
He liked the suggestion and the concept was born, with 40 legendary characters serving as the camp's "board of directors." They included Paul Bunyon, chairman of the board, Buck Rogers, Pecos Bill, Robin Hood, Florence Nightingale, Johnny Appleseed and more.
A Camp . . . Or Not?
While people typically referred to their facility as a "camp," the Soetes preferred to call it "a community of children and adults learning together, and from each other." Their goal was to teach life skills necessary for a peaceful and environmentally concerned transition into the 21st century.
Soete earned a bachelor's degree in social work from Washington University. He worked on his masters there before switching to classroom teaching in 1963.
"I consider myself an experiential educator," said Soete, "as opposed to just using books. (At Forty Legends) I gave these children an outdoor education, choosing homesteading activities as a basis."
Blacksmithing, spinning, weaving, horsemanship, canoeing, kayaking, mountain climbing, Native American crafts and culture and first aid were but a few of more than 50 classes offered during the three, three-week summer sessions, with 40 girls and 40 boys at each.
Even though many of the kids were from well-to-do, competitive families, at Forty Legends Soete offered no sports, competitions or awards.
"Because there was no competition, children from very different backgrounds became good friends," he said. "And in terms of activities, I wanted to expose the children to things they couldn't do anywhere else."
Children and parents alike were required to follow the rules. The children could not bring cell phones, radios or anything electronic. (It wouldn't have done them any good, anyway, since the cabins had no electricity.)
There was no contact between parents and children during the three-week sessions - no visits or phone calls.
"Sometimes children cried when they first arrived," Soete said. "I asked what their fears were and reassured them that they would not be scared or hurt here."
Some parents asked if Forty Legends had air conditioning, which, of course, it didn't, and were concerned about their children getting too hot.
"I told them their children could go swimming in the pool if they got too hot," Soete said. "People don't want their kids to struggle any more, the very thing that makes them strong. Here the kids got sweaty, took pride in what they were able to accomplish and, no matter how overindulged they had been at home, they loved it!"
If a child became homesick, they dealt with the situation, although going or calling home wasn't an option. "We were heavily staffed so we put a junior counselor with the child to provide individual attention," Soete said. "They did just fine."
Learning Concepts, Skills
A big part of the Forty Legends' philosophy was teaching democracy to American kids, according to Soete. "Each cabin group decided on a morning activity," he said. "Those in the minority had to participate but we made sure each child, no matter how big, small or athletically gifted, had opportunities to do what he or she chose to do."
In the afternoon, after a nap, each child could select two 75-minute classes. Many projects were interrelated so children could follow a concept from beginning to end.
For example, they sheared sheep, dyed the wool using natural dyes, spun the wool into yarn, built looms from plastic ice cream carton lids and wove something. Or they made paper, wrote haiku or other verse, set the type on Soete's small printing press and printed it.
They also made journals using the brown paper found inside a horse feed bag for pages. They covered their books with pieces of leather and stitched them together in the seams. They made their own ink, used feathers to make quills and then wrote down things they wanted to remember in their journals. In this way, according to Soete, they learned the relationship of one thing to the next.
"We did anything that harkened back to older times," Soete said, "and the period that made this country strong and its people independent. I never found a child who didn't take pride in his ability to carry something through to completion."
After supper, the whole group came together for an exciting and imaginative evening program.
"Many of our programs came from campers' ideas," Soete said, "such as performing on stage. The kids learned to look upon that other than as a time to be silly. It became a strong part of our evening program."
Throughout meals and other activities, the Soetes, the counselors and the children sang . . . and sang . . . and sang.
"I told the kids that Ben Franklin, for whom our county was named, said there was a county law that if three people gathered for a meal they had to sing a song," Soete said. "They knew it was just another of my 'legends' and wasn't true, but it was fun. We used guitars, piano, banjos and homemade instruments and learned a different song at every meal."
Soete said he'd had calls from former campers from across the country who wanted to teach their kids one of the songs learned at Forty Legends but couldn't remember the words. "So I'd sing it over the phone or send them copies," he said.
Back to Nature
Emphasis also was placed on listening to the sounds of nature - rain hitting the roof, birds chirping and wind rustling the leaves. For many of the campers, this was a new experience.
"Kids don't know what quiet is because they're constantly plugged into TV and the artificial sounds of pop culture and music," Soete said.
He also took a strong environmental stand with the kids, using the camp setting to share his ecological concerns and respect for the environment.
"Some kids' parents weren't concerned about recycling and the environment so I respected what Mom and Dad taught, then gave them some new information," Soete said. "A lot of kids went home and taught their parents what they'd learned."
Soete even invented an all-composting toilet and created eight of them that he used at Forty Legends. Many adults who saw them suggested that he get them patented, but he never did. They used no water or electricity. Instead, solar energy drove fans on the roof. The toilets carried up to 80 percent of the waste as carbon dioxide and water, had no odor and saved 160,000 gallons of water a year.
"The water wasn't saved for me or them, but for their grandkids," he said. "Anything we can put into the world bank of resources will pay off."
The youngsters lived in cabin groups of eight, with a counselor and counselor-in-training. There were five cabins for the boys and five more for the girls.
At Forty Legends there also was a dining hall - Paul's Hall - named after Paul Bunyon, the chairman of the board. Campers ate family style, with 11 tables, 10 at a table, and one serving table with wholesome food prepared by Mary and her staff.
The children did their own laundry, using a wringer washing machine. They hung their clothes on lines or lay them in the grass to dry.
An 8,000-square-foot indoor horse riding arena housed as many as 30 horses, and there was also a craft shop, infirmary and director's residence. The facility included one of the finest high ropes challenge courses in the country, a low ropes challenge course and a 40-foot climbing tower.
"When we built the horse arena we referred to it as the 'Remuda Inn,' Soete said, smiling at the remembrance. "Remuda is a Spanish word meaning a cowboy's string of horses."
The counselors were very carefully screened and selected - no one made the cut who smoked, drank or used drugs. Applicants had to convince Soete of their love for children and their ability to meet the challenges that the camp's philosophy presented. They also needed some musical ability or another talent or skill they were willing to share.
In January of each year, Soete headed to college campuses for their career day. He'd set up a table, bring information on salary ranges and hours and begin the selection process.
"The chosen counselors came in June for seven to 10 days of precamp training, then camp started on Father's Day," he said.
They worked three three-week sessions, which ended at the end of August. "Besides salary, we fed, housed and trained them," Soete said. "They had 24 hours off every week and we expected them to leave camp during that time. Those who lived out of the area usually went home with a counselor who lived nearby."
Each cabin group gave itself a name and created a wall plaque to commemorate that. "They presented their plaques to Mary and me the last night," Soete said.
At first most of the children were from St. Louis but that quickly expanded to include Cincinnati, Little Rock, Memphis and Chicago. "Often parents who sent their children called friends they knew from camp when they were children," Soete said. "Word spread quickly."
A Mexican family in St. Louis heard about Forty Legends through the Archdiocese. Their children went and were followed by hundreds of other Mexican children during the ensuing years.
Similarly, groups from Japan and throughout Europe headed to Washington (with an interpreter) to learn all they could from this extraordinary teacher who used the whole world as his classroom.
Some of the children at Forty Legends received scholarships to attend. That allowed for greater diversity and more opportunities for all the children.
Scholarship recipients included minorities . . . African-American, blind, deaf and terminally ill children. All were welcomed and accepted.
"With children from different neighborhoods and with differing levels of ability and disability we had good diversity," Soete said.
Soete is concerned about the way children are growing up today, primarily in four areas:
* Many children are allowed to eat poor diets;
* They are too readily being given drugs for conditions such as attention deficit disorder (ADD);
* They are being exposed to information that is way beyond them; and
* They have way too many purchased things, to the point where they appreciate very little.
Diet is half the battle in rearing healthy children, according to Soete. "Kids need to understand the importance of eating good food, balanced with fruits and vegetables," he said.
He's concerned that so many young people eat a sweet roll and two cans of soda and, because they've filled their stomachs, they think they've eaten an OK breakfast.
"Then they develop obesity and other health problems and say it must be genetic," he added.
In many schools that have discussed removing vending machines with junk food, school officials say they need the money the vending machines generate to buy athletic uniforms. "So they sacrifice the kids' well-being for uniforms," he said.
Soete had referrals over the years from child psychiatrists who wanted a young patient to attend Forty Legends. They then proceeded to tell Soete what ADD medications the child was on. His answer was simple - the child could come if the medicine was left at home.
"Here kids ate well, exercised daily to use up their energy, participated with others their age and learned new things," Soete said. He told parents or doctors that he knew their kids would behave . . . as busy and motivated kids always do.
"A fair number didn't ever get back on the medication once they got home," he said.
Soete is saddened at hearing that young children watch such shows as "Friends," the NBC series that centered on a group of six young adults living in New York City.
"These shows are devastating to kids," said Soete, who didn't have a TV in his home until he was 68 years old, and then only because his kids gave him one during an illness.
"These shows are causing kids to know too much too soon, to grow up too fast and to think that if they see it on TV it's OK. They think sex is OK and it's not."
Purchased gifts often mean very little to kids, Soete feels, as is evidenced by the fact that they're often more interested in the containers the gifts came in.
"There were no stores at Forty Legends so they couldn't buy anything," Soete said. "But the things they made themselves were real treasures for them."
Soete the Teacher
Joe Soete began his career as a social worker in a settlement house in North St. Louis. He switched to teaching in 1963 so he would have his summers free to be involved with camping. He has taught for a total of 10 years, primarily at St. Ignatius and St. Gertrude Catholic Schools.
Also, between 1973 and 1996 he had more than 100 school classes come to Forty Legends for a day or a week of outdoor environmental education.
Nine years ago he was asked to participate in the Leadership Academy, run by the State of Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
He works on a team, developing leadership among area school principals who sign up for the yearlong program. For his part, Soete does an outdoor adventure program at the Lake of the Ozarks and, among other things, teaches the principals to create a handmade book with leather cover.
After Soete "retired" from running Forty Legends in 1994 he returned to teaching, always using experiential exercises to give his students a different point of view.
"Often children are taught that if they can give the right answer, they are smart," said a mournful Soete.
"If kids aren't too jaded, they realize that they want to be wise, not smart, with just an accumulation of answers. My formula is: 'Information combined with understanding the process produces knowledge, which, when combined with experience, leads to wisdom.' "
As he approaches his 70th birthday, this giant of a man knows he has to kick back a bit.
His body - still slim and trim - isn't as robust as it once was. And a bout with cancer two years ago weakened his legs, making it more difficult for him to keep up with his former self.
He was diagnosed with multiple myeloma that caused holes to form in his bones. He had a rod inserted in his femur and had to take more than a month off from school. He returned in a wheelchair, then completed another school year. In June 2004 he retired.
"If I couldn't go every day and be 100 percent, then I knew it was time to retire," he said.
Once he gets his meds under control and his legs get stronger with walking and daily exercise on his recumbent bicycle, Soete hopes to do some traveling with his wife. He also is working on writing a book that will deal with his philosophy of education and serve as a guide as to how to implement his ideas.
"I have an outline and have written two or three chapters, using my electric typewriter," he said.
It's also very important to Soete that all his 10 grandchildren learn to ride horseback. He assists his children with that when he's able and is also making "artifacts" for them - such things as hand woven baskets, beaded belts and handmade puzzles.
After Soete was diagnosed with cancer he heard from dozens of his former students and campers, wishing him a speedy recovery. "Some kids I taught 38 years ago sent cards, came by or called," he said.
Even before his illness, however, he received countless letters and phone calls from those whose lives he had impacted. He got calls from parents who said he had sent back a different child from camp - one who was more open to learning and was doing so much better in school.
Some youngsters didn't write until they were adults and could really appreciate all they'd learned from him.
But perhaps the consummate message of appreciation came at a wedding reception when a former student brought her husband and children to Soete's table to meet him, announcing, "This is the man who taught me everything I know . . . that matters!"
SLT soete 09/01/04