Skipper teaching an adult workshop on the plants of Timbercrest - 1967
Esther S. ("Skipper") Keyser February 3, 1915 - March 29, 2005
Inducted onto the Wall of Fame on May 20, 2023. Tribute by Joanne E. "Jo" Nelson
Esther S. Keyser (SKIPPER) was the Executive Director of the Northern Chautauqua Girl Scout Council in 1959 when I first met her. I was 1 of 8 Senior Girl Scouts from the Jamestown Area Girl Scout Council selected to attend the 1959 Girl Scout Roundup in Colorado Springs, CO that summer and Skipper did a lot of our training. I was amazed at how versed she was in all camping skills, how she was so at home in the outdoors and at her absolute passion for everything nature! That summer, after the Roundup, Skipper asked me if I'd like to be a counselor at Camp Wood-e-lo-hi which she directed. She was my mentor and I knew from day one that Girl Scout camping was going to be a life-long passion for me.
Also, in 1959, my council, Skipper's council, and the Salamanca Area Girl Scout Council merged to form the Chautauqua Area Girl Scout Council (CAGS) with Skipper as the Executive Director and Ginny Tener as the President of the Board of Directors. At that time CAGS had 4 separate camps totaling 232 acres.
Camp Newatah on Chautauqua Lake - 42 acres
Camp Wood-e-lo-hi north of Cassadaga - 90 acres
Camp LaKota on upper Cassadaga Lake - 75 acres - used primarily for swimming and canoeing
Stone Chimney Camp near Salamanca - 25 acres - used primarily for troop camping / day trips
With Skipper as the driving force, the Board of Directors created a Search Committee in the early 1960s to locate an 800-1000 acre site for a camp as nearly central as possible but not over a 2-hour drive for anyone in our council. Her dream was to serve all of the girls in one camp and when the Randolph JayCees invited the Search Committee to a cook out near the gravel pit / day camp area) the Search Committee loved it and the current site was selected.
During that search, Skipper continued directing Wood-e-lo-hi and Camp Newatah until our last session in 1966 and then directed Camp Timbercrest in 1967 and 1968. She asked me to be her assistant and I'm quite sure she was grooming me to take her place because she knew that she'd be retiring in 1968. In her book, Paddling My Own Canoe, Skipper wrote, "I never thought I would enjoy working in an established organization. All my life I had been unhappy with anything that was too structured or too doctrinaire. However, I found Girl Scouts to be a place where I could live my values. And as the Executive Director, I was in a position to make a difference in the organization - to help it expand and improve. This was a very satisfying experience."
She also wrote, "It has been my privilege... to introduce a good many youngsters and adults to the joys of outdoor living: to teach them to listen to the liquid notes of a Wood Thrush song, to help them recognize some of the stars in a summer sky, to thrill at the discovery of a rare blossom and to find wonder and serenity in God's magnificent world."
I was one of the "youngsters" that she introduced to the outdoors and the many, many wonderful things a person can learn and do outside the home. Her patience while teaching, her willingness to share everything she knew and her energy and enthusiasm while search for a property that could serve the entire Chautauqua Are Girl Scout Council just cannot be overstated.
Her love for camping was shared by her whole family. Skipper loved canoeing and Algonquin Provincial Park, north of Toronto, Canada, and was the first female canoeing guide in the park. Her children enjoyed family canoe trips before they could walk. I was blessed to have Skipper's daughter, Beth, as a co-counselor on canoe trips to Algonquin with our Wood-e-lo-hi campers. Her love for canoe tripping and her expertise on those Algonquin adventures as what made me take many trips with friends and family and made me an avid canoer for 60+ years!
Skipper's sons, Joseph and John, lived at Wood-e-lo-hi while they were young and worked as handymen at both Wood-e-lo-hi and Timbercrest. Her husband Joe, aka Minawaska, was a wonderful story teller to the girls, was our "go to" person with home sick campers and a great camping skills teacher.
Skipper was special and taught her family, me, and many, many other staff members how to live simply, enjoy and live comfortably in the outdoors, how our actions can make a difference and what all of us can do to help make this a better world. It was obvious that she loved being with campers and loved seeing their reactions to the many new things they were doing. I have fond memories of Skipper playing her accordion while sitting on the song wagon with young girls surrounding that wagon and singing camp songs. Or the looks on the faces of girls listening to Scout Reports that focused on what girls were seeing, touching, or hearing during the day. Or the special evening campfires/programs in Bellinger or outside the lodge or the day time hikes with concentrated lunches to different areas of camp. (Skipper was the first Algonquin guide to create a concentrated lunch and brought that invention to Wood-e-lo-hi, Newatah, and Camp Timbercrest!)
Yes, Camp Timbercrest is the end result of a dream that Skipper had, of a lot of time, effort, and energy to make it happen, and of a wish to ensure that all of our Girl Scouts, both young and old, have the opportunity to enjoy all that the outdoors has to offer. She really was the one who had the idea that what we needed was one centralized camp, rather than 4 small camps. She asked the Board of Directors to create a Search Committee, she worked with the board to prioritize exactly what we needed, and, once the land was purchased, she was there to help oversee the development of what we now all love as Camp Timbercrest.
Skipper and Jo on Skipper's dock at Smoke Lake - Algonquin Provincial Park - 1997
Another by Jack Berger at the Plants Workshop
Obituary from the Times Independent, April 5, 2005 Esther Sessions Keyser died peacefully in her sleep in the morning of March 29, 2005, at her son Joseph’s home in Colorado. She had recently turned 90 years old. Esther was born February 3, 1915, in Fredonia, New York, graduating from Fredonia High school and later attending the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia.
As a young girl, she was infatuated with the out-of-doors, frequently camping with her father, and learning as much as she could about the natural world. At age 12, she attended Northway Lodge, a girl’s summer camp, in Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario, Canada. This began her life-long love affair with the park. She eventually established her own wilderness guiding business in Algonquin, and built a simple cabin on Smoke Lake as her headquarters.
Esther married Joseph Keyser May 23, 1941, and they and their three children spent many happy times at the Smoke Lake cabin and enjoyed countless canoe trips together.
As a young woman, Esther was active with the local Girl Scout Council. Between 1952 and 1968, she managed three Girl Scout camps and served as the Executive Director of what is now the Girl Scouts of Southwestern New York.
When Joe retired from being the director of athletics at the State University of New York, Joe and Esther moved to Moab, Utah, and this gave Esther the time to pursue her lifelong interest in art. She began avidly painting, and produced over 500 paintings and participated in a number of shows and exhibitions of her works.
Esther and Joe continued to spend every summer at her beloved cabin on Smoke Lake. Through their example, and sharing their love and respect for nature, their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren have learned to cherish experiences in the outdoors as they did.
In 2003, Esther completed her autobiography, Paddling My Own Canoe, The Story of Algonquin Park’s First Female Guide. Her book has just gone into its third printing.
Esther is survived by her three children: Joseph (and Susan) Keyser of Buena Vista, Colorado; John (and Mari-lynne) Keyser of Terrebonne, Oregon, and Elizabeth (and Gary) Hertzog of Steamboat Springs, Colorado. She also leaves 11 grandchildren and 17 great-grandchildren. Esther’s husband Joe preceded her in death in 1992.
A celebration of Esther’s life will be held at the annual family reunion, 4th of July weekend, in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.
Memorial donations may be sent to The Friends of Algonquin Park, Box 248, Whitney, Ontario, Canada KOJ 2MO or to the Great Basin Nature Conservancy, P.O.Box 11486, Pioneer Station, Salt Lake City, UT 84147-0486.
This website is owned and operated by the Friends of Timbercrest (FOT). It is not an official website of GSUSA or GSWNY.
FOT works in partnership with GSWNY to preserve, enhance, and promote Girl Scout Camp Timbercrest so that it may always be a place where girls can connect with nature, try new things, and build confidence & self-reliance.