Finding Love at Summer Camp
“I met my husband, Willie, when we were in third grade, at Camp Ch-Yo-Ca,” confesses one of America’s biggest supporters of summer camps. “His mom, Miss Kay, was the camp cook that summer and her boys attended the camp for free.”
Yes, Korie Robertson of Duck Dynasty fame has a special place in her heart for that life-changing, weeklong American tradition: church camp. Her grandparents helped found Louisiana’s Ch-Yo-Ca (short for Christian Youth Camp) in 1967, and her parents, John and Chrys Howard, met at the camp.
“They say we court young in the South,” Korie told Guideposts magazine. Eight-year-old “Willie had big dimples and the cutest sideways smile. I had a diary that I never used much, but that summer I wrote, ‘Met a boy at summer camp and he was so cute. He asked me on the Moonlight Hike and I said yes!'”
She admits carving “Korie Loves Jess” (that’s Willie’s middle name, which he used in third grade) on her camp bunk headboard. But don’t third grade girls usually think boys are disgusting? “Oh, yes,” she said. “I thought boys were icky, but not him.” The two actually attended the same church, but went to different schools — she to a private Christian academy, he to the local public elementary.
After camp, they didn’t see that much of each other. “Fifth grade was when I went down to his house for the first time,” she recalls. “He did not come to camp for the next couple of years, but in the fifth grade, my friend whose dad was the preacher got invited to Willie’s house for a big fish fry. So, I went and I saw him again, and I still thought he was the cutest thing ever.”
The Couple’s Early Years
Korie says she and Willie didn’t officially start dating until their senior year in high school. “We liked each other off and on, but we dated other people. When we started dating, I think our parents could see it was the real thing, because they started getting really nervous. They did not act very thrilled when we started talking about getting married. It took a little bit of convincing. They finally warmed up to it. When we got married, I was still 18.”
Together the happy couple went off to Harding University in nearby Arkansas.
But they soon returned to camp. “My family started Camp Ch-Yo-Ca,” Korie recalls, “so every summer, I spent a lot of time up at the camp. My mom was out there all day, every day, and so were us kids.
“I always wanted to be a part of it, so after Willie and I graduated from college, we came back. We lived on the site in a house that the camp provided for us. Willie built the tennis court. He built all sorts of things and repaired everything else. He worked outside a lot. Those really were fun years for us.”
Korie has fond memories of their early married years. “Whenever we look back on those days, I remember how much fun they were. Duck Commander was getting started and to make a little money, I was painting duck calls because I was an art major. And I would work at the camp, helping with retreats. I was the art teacher.”
Today, of course, Willie is the CEO of Duck Commander, the Robertson family-operated business that creates gear for duck hunters including duck calls, clothes, books and videos. Willie and Korie also own and operate Buck Commander, which caters to deer hunters. Willie took the family duck call company from a living-room operation to a multi-million-dollar corporation … not to mention one of America’s most popular reality TV shows.
CCCA Conferences Leave Their Mark
“When we were first married,” Korie tells us, “the Christian Camp and Conference Association annual conference was just such a big blessing, because we didn’t have a lot of money, and it was like our big event each year — getting to go.
“A lot of ideas that we tried and that worked well at camp,” Korie tells us, “were from going to the CCCA conferences each year.” In fact, Willie took the camp’s deficit from about $150,000 to $5,000 in a couple years. At the CCCA conferences, he got the idea of renting the camp’s facilities to churches and youth groups during the off-season. He started a weekend program for schools to bring students to the camp for nature hikes. He was very creative in finding ways to create new revenue for the camp.”
Camp is a Family Affair
“All our kids went to camp there — and still do. They almost grew up out there. But Sadie was born right in the middle of it,” remembers Korie, who went into labor right in the middle of a week of camp.
And it wasn’t long before the baby had her own first camp experience: “As soon as we got home from the hospital, even though I had this little bitty baby, I wanted to be down there with [Willie]. So Sadie was like three days old, and it is a miracle that she stayed healthy. I mean we were down there with the young campers who wanted to touch her little hands and kiss her and hold her. But she was always very healthy. I guess it helped her build immunities.
“One thing that we did that I treasure was we involved the whole family. Everybody was down there and in the middle of everything. There’s nothing like being out there at camp with nature. Life is so high-tech today, and our camp certainly is not. It doesn’t even have air-conditioned cabins. You turn in your cell phones when you get there. It’s just that special time. You’re able to grow in your relationships with the other kids you’re there with. Some of those relationships will last a lifetime. That time without all the distractions is so memorable. And of course, it’s a time to grow in your relationship with God.”
Everyone’s Welcome at Camp!
Recently, a boy “registered at another camp and somehow his family punched in the wrong thing on the GPS and they showed up at Camp Ch-Yo-Ca, the wrong camp! We had room, so we let him stay, and it was an incredible experience for him. He just fell in love with it. He ended up moving here and is working in the Duck Commander store and going to college.
“One of the favorite things that everybody who goes to Camp Ch-Yo-Ca will tell you is about the campfire each night,” says Korie. “At the end of the day, we go down to a little pit area where we build a big fire and just sing praises to God under the stars. It’s just a beautiful, beautiful time that, once you experience it, you won’t ever forget.
“I don’t think you can get that except being out there alone with nature, looking at what God gave us, the trees and the campfire …
“And the people who have become so important to you.”Recent photo of Willie and Korie courtesy of Steven Palowsky