Even by current coronavirus-era standards, it’s rare that a 100th birthday party is acknowledged with a drive-thru ceremony and a Zoom meeting, but the term “rare” certainly applies to Cy Battison.
Scores drove their cars past Battison’s home on July 19 and, later in the evening, visited his living room virtually to pay homage to a man who has positively affected the lives of thousands during his century on Earth. Hundreds more have responded to Battison on a Facebook page dedicated to “Growing Up in Glendale in the 40’s, 50’s, 60’s and 70’s.”
For it is that generation which is especially fond of Battison, who invested a remarkable 63 years in one capacity or another at the YMCA of Glendale and its idyllic camping facility on Catalina Island, Camp Fox, before stepping away a decade ago.
Battison, who long served as an educator, spent literally hundreds of weeks at Camp Fox, which teems with young people eager to get away from the city for a few days of hiking in the hills, splashing in the ocean and meeting new friends. The camp holds about 400 campers, counselors and fellow directors per session, and Battison was renowned for doing his best to meet each of them.
Karyn Messler has known Battison through a variety of roles for almost half of the centenarian’s existence. Like all who spoke about him, Messler lauded her mentor’s speaking prowess, but the experienced camp director also noticed subtle ways in which Battison forged connections with young people.
“During each meal at Camp Fox, Cy would greet the campers as they walked into the dining hall,” explained Messler, whose two sons have continued the family’s legacy as leaders. “Cy would have each camper show him their hands to see if they were clean. He told me later that he actually took this opportunity to make a personal connection with each and every camper. He would often greet each throughout the week by their name and with often well over 300 in attendance, that was quite a feat.”
Battison was also famous around the YMCA of Glendale for his commitment to the less fortunate. He initiated what is known as the organization’s campership program, where he matched needy young people with generous donors to facilitate a week at camp for free or at a reduced price.
“I traveled with Cy on several occasions to social services events, where he promoted camp to children who would not have the means to afford it,” Messler said. “He recognized the importance of the camp experience, and wanted to help as many young people as possible attain that goal. He helped hundreds of kids go to camp who otherwise would not have been able to get there. Cy has always been a role model for all of us to follow. His compassion and care for others is limitless.”
Pat Mulcahy’s association with Battison actually dates to 1960, when Mulcahy was a wide-eyed attendee of Boys’ Camp (the camp also typically offers girls-only and coed sessions during the summer). Mulcahy’s experience has run the gamut ― he served as a counselor-in-training, counselor and director before eventually running his own camps.
“Cy taught me so much about how to handle tough situations, emergencies, how to talk to distraught parents, and how to speak in front of large groups,” said Mulcahy. “I still use these techniques today at my business and in my life. He also gave me guidance in my personal life, which has helped during difficult times.”
Camp staffers often hold late-night meetings to consider strategy and team building, and it was there that Battison’s wisdom was often most apparent.
“We would be discussing the events of that day and preparing for the next day, and the directors would often get into lively debates about certain issues and how to handle them,” Mulcahy explained. “Cy would remain silent until there was a lull in the conversation, and then start to speak by always saying, ‘Listen …’ The room would fall silent. He would then begin to explain his position with eloquence and calm, always coming to the correct decision.” On that note, all could retire for the evening.
The skill for which Battison is perhaps most revered, however, is his ability to stand next to a crackling campfire on a desert island — or anywhere else, for that matter — and tell a compelling story, one that typically concluded with a moral.
“Cy was the consummate storyteller,” said Mike “J.C.” Hailey, who spent more than 45 years at the camp in various roles. “Cy’s stories had messages that the kids would remember and talk about all week. He taught the kids about respect, honor, kindness and love — and they loved him for it.”
Hailey appreciated Battison’s relentlessly positive attitude.
“He had an encouraging word for anyone and everyone he would meet,” Hailey recalled. “Cy was everyone’s grandfather. Times were certainly different then, kids were allowed to be kids and not rushed into adulthood with all the corresponding worries, temptations, dangers and disappointments. Cy is an important part of thousands of lives, and I thank the Lord for him being in the right place at the right time.”
Battison was born in San Francisco on July 20, 1920. One of his first jobs was as a welder, building Liberty ships in Sausalito. He later enlisted in the Army, serving in World War II. After the war, Battison moved to Los Angeles to work for the Sinclair Paint Co. While there, he served as youth director for the First United Presbyterian Church of West Los Angeles and, later, the YMCA.
After he found his niche in working with young people, Battison earned his teaching credential and bachelor’s degree at Cal State Northridge, then achieved a master’s in administration and supervision at that institution. He wrapped up his 30-year career in education as principal of Morningside Elementary School in San Fernando in 1982.
But retirement merely offered Battison more time for camp. He maintained his tireless commitment to the YMCA, doubling down on the campership program while still attending and running the camps at an age where most were looking for a good golf course or a comfortable chair. Over the decades, he led programs at Camp Bluff Lake, Camp Round Meadow and Camp Fox. He directed caravans to Yosemite and Yellowstone national parks; Ensenada, Mexico; and the High Sierra. He even hosted a jaunt to the 1962 World’s Fair in Seattle.
Battison was married to Marion for 58 years until her death in 2013. The couple had four children, six grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren, most of whom took part in the drive-thru birthday party and gathering on Zoom.
He remains an active member at St. James Presbyterian Church in Tarzana, where he has served as a Sunday school teacher, Bible study leader and church elder.
The passage of time has robbed Battison of much of his hearing — an ironic twist for a great listener — but other than that, he remains in good health. Longevity appears to run in the family: His older sister, Audrey, is 101. Battison didn’t offer an answer when asked how many camps he had attended during more than six decades with the YMCA, not because he couldn’t — he just doesn’t bother with such trivial matters.
“No report,” he said with a hearty laugh, in what surely must have been his principal’s voice.
But he remembers every camper who ever showed up at the boat with little family, no money and the week’s supplies stuffed in a paper bag.
“Getting them to Camp Fox was the goal,” said Battison, “and it was accomplished.”
In today’s world of instant gratification, he still feels the slower pace of the island, devoid of cellphones and social media, is valuable for young people.
“Sleepaway camp is a great experience,” Battison said. “To get a cabin full of kids with a good leader is the best. Kids sharing their experiences with one another and being able to find acceptance in their lives — that’s the greatest.”
And it’s a story we all love to hear.
Camp Leader’s Memorable Wake-Up Call
Each morning, Cy Battison would use Camp Fox’s public address system to wake up the camp with the same greeting. Over the years, it became part of the lexicon of the camping experience and was readily and accurately recited by the many who know Battison.
“Good morning, fellow campers. It’s another beautiful day on sunny Catalina Island. It is now time to open up those sleepy little eyes, get out of those warm little beds, wash those filthy hands and faces, comb that matted hair, and brush those teeth before they rot and fall out. KPs will be called in 20 minutes, inspection will be in 30 minutes.”