My Y Story: Remembering the late Goose Gray

Robert “Goose” Gray; Photo credit: Full Circle Studios

“Camp can be a life-altering experience. Just ask a handful of men who are embarking on a weeklong bicycle ride around a lake because of a quirky, kindly character they met some 50 years ago.”

This June, five friends and former counselors at YMCA Camp Kenan will embark on an impressive journey: a more than 500-mile bike ride around Lake Ontario. Ken Haak, Tom Donahue, Joe Sullivan, Rick Merritt, and Bill Neidlinger are making the trek to raise funds for the non-profit organization Friends of Camp Kenan, and to honor the late Robert “Goose” Gray.

Goose passed away in 2018, but his memory lives on in the greater Lockport community. Remembered by many as a living legend who never shared his real age, Goose claimed he was the “seventh son of the seventh son” and the son of Mother Goose. He was an avid traveler, reader, and storyteller and even won an international storytelling contest and has published CD’s of his work. He also enjoyed sharing stories at the public library and local schools. “As many people as you can talk to, you’ll find that many different Goose stories,” says Ken Haak. “He was a very unique individual.”

Former Lockport YMCA Executive Director Gil Mosher first brought Goose to the Y in the early 1960s to work as a youth program director and then program director at Camp Kenan. “From what I can tell from talking with others, Goose totally changed the way camp was run,” says Ken. In addition to his work at camp, Goose was very active in the community. He was a member of the Toastmasters, carried a key to the City of Lockport, and was chosen as an Olympic torch runner in 1996. He also loved canoeing, running, and biking, and even biked around Lake Ontario five times.

Above all else, Goose loved camp and working with children. “He would start camp every day with a morning thought and led innovative camp activities,” says PJ Haak. “He planted a seed of goodness and community, and everyone forgot their troubles when they went to Camp Kenan.” Goose also made a point to put others before himself. “He gave a lot of money to kids who needed bikes or clothes, and even helped pay to send some kids to camp,” says Ken.

Goose was one of the founding members of the non-profit organization “Friends of Camp Kenan”, which was established in 1996. “The original idea was to host reunions for alumni,” says Ken. “Once we got together, we realized that we could really make a difference – so we started holding fundraisers for camp.” The organization now hosts an annual event known as “Goosestock”, a special gathering for former camp staff to connect and raise funds for Camp Kenan.  Over the years, the organization has helped raise money for facility renovations, camp programs, and equipment.

It was during Goose’s memorial service that former camp counselor Tom Donahue came up with the idea to organize a bike ride around Lake Ontario to honor Goose’s memory and support Friends of Camp Kenan. “As soon as I heard that Goose used to ride around the lake, I said to myself, I have to do that,” says Tom. “It turns out Rick Merritt, sitting a couple of pews away at the memorial service, thought the exact same thing. Rick was already planning a solo ride around the lake when the idea of doing a group ride, and raising some money for camp, came about.”

Starting June 14, Ken, Tom, Joe, and Rick will bike around Lake Ontario while Bill drives a truck full of supplies for the journey. The group plans to ride 75 miles a day over seven to ten days, starting at Camp Kenan in Barker, New York. They then will head west into Canada, down to Niagara-on-the-Lake, around the Great Lakes Waterfront Trail, enter back into the U.S. at Cape Vincent, and ride along the lakeshore until they make it back to camp. The men plan to ride around 525 miles total.

A GoFundMe page has also been set up to help get the word out about the upcoming ride, which has already raised more than $5,000 of its $10,000 goal. “The money will be given to the Friends of Camp Kenan to help provide camperships,” says Ken. “I want to see more kids go to camp, and I think that’s what Goose would like to see, too. He would’ve liked to see more kids get involved, so that’s our goal. If we can get $10,000 that’s 20 kids who can go to camp.”

For many families, summers at Camp Kenan is a tradition that has continued for generations. “I sent my four children to camp, and I’m expecting my grandchildren to start going to camp soon,” says Bill Neidlinger. These five friends hope their upcoming ride will help provide more families that same opportunity. “Camp can make a positive difference in a kid’s life, it’s as simple as that,” says Ken.

The bikers have been spending the last few months training for the ride, and say they are grateful for the community’s support. “We feel it’s important to make sure that camp doesn’t fade away. So whatever little part we can play to keep it going, we’ll do. Camp is pretty unique. A lot of things have changed over the years, but the essence of Camp Kenan is still there,” says Ken.

“Camp can be a life-altering experience,” says Tom. “Just ask a handful of men who are embarking on a weeklong bicycle ride around a lake because of a quirky, kindly character they met some 50 years ago.”

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