When Casey Cook first began working McCallie's summer sports camps during his undergraduate days at Kenyon College, the 2007 McCallie grad had one overriding reason for taking the job.
"I initially did it as a way to make money for college," he said in early August. "I never, ever thought it would inspire me to become a teacher and coach."
But then he started working with the kids. He marveled at their energy and enthusiasm.
"Just the joy and excitement they had from accomplishing something they'd put their mind to," Mr. Cook recalled. "It wasn't just a job for me anymore. I loved it."
That love for McCallie during his time as both a student and summer camp counselor has brought Mr. Cook back to the Ridge as a full-time faculty member this fall, teaching both American History for juniors and African-American History as a senior elective.
It's also a version of a story Mike Wood has heard over and over again during the 25 years he was overseeing McCallie's summer sports camp between 1989 and 2014, and the last eight years he's run the overall summer camp program.
"A lot of our campers become our students," he said. "Our studies have shown that 88 percent of our day students have gone to camp here and 25 percent of our boarders. It's a fantastic program and it gets bigger and better every year."
Here's how big: This summer saw 2,000 boys register for 2,574 total camp spots, some boys signing up for more than one of the 21 camps offered in everything from tennis to golf to filmmaking to space and rocket engineering. It's all been enough for the school to now have 200 on the payroll each camp season, which ran from June 6 to Aug. 5 this summer.
"We also had two outside groups use our facilities this summer," said Mr. Wood. "We had the Bridge Scholars, which is an academic camp for 60 underserved middle school-age boys from the Chattanooga area. Then we had the U.S. Rowing Under 17 Olympic Development Camp, which brought 70 boys to our campus for three-and-a-half weeks. So it's been busy."
The overall camp program has become so popular that there's already a waiting list of 400 for next summer's camps.
"It's certainly a lot bigger than when I started," said the 67-year-old Mr. Wood.
McCallie began the sports camp in 1980. By 1989, when Mr. Wood took over, "We had two sessions and 120 kids total. But as much as the number of kids has changed, the change in the facilities is mind-boggling. When I started, we were still using the old gym and Killebrew Gym. Now everything's state of the art."
But it's still summer camp, a week or two away from home, even if it's just during the day.
Hunter Adams, McCallie class of 2019, has spent the last 13 summers of his young life at camp, the first five as a camper, the past eight as a counselor.
"As a camper, just being able to get outside, learn different sports was great," said Mr. Adams. "Also meeting kids outside my school friends group."
More than a decade later, he still vividly remembers a particular track meet from his camper days.
"I was nine years old," recalled Mr. Adams, whose father Tom Adams '90 teaches Middle School English. "I was the second leg of a 4x100 relay team and we were running on the Spears Stadium track. My leg of the race would be run right in front of the visitors stands, so my parents and grandparents sat over there. I remember running right in front of them. We won. What a great feeling."
About to begin his senior year at Samford University – where he is majoring in sports marketing and data analytics with the goal of one day working in digital marketing for a professional sports team – Mr. Adams said he strives to emulate the counselors who worked with him as a camper.
"They were such role models for me, such good guys," he said. "It's always nice to have a camper come back and tell you how much their experiences here meant to them. That's what you want to hear."
Carson Kaeser was one of those campers this summer. About to enter the sixth grade at McCallie, Carson says his favorite moment from his one week of camp "were probably playing Battle Ball in the gym."
And just what is Battle Ball?
"A very big game of Dodge Ball," said Carson.
That wasn't all he enjoyed. There were all the fellow campers he met. Swimming in the lake. Diving off the platform and sliding down the slide.
And will be come back next summer?
"Yes, sir," he said. "Yes, sir."
Which is always music to Mr. Wood's ear.
"If we can put a McCallie hat or T-shirt on them when they're five years old," he said with a smile, "we've got them for life."