Tim Wilson first went to sleepaway camp when he was only six years old, in the late 1940s. Back then, camp was a rite of summer mostly enjoyed by the kids of well-off white families — and still is today — although a handful of camps had started to sprout up for Black children. Wilson was born and raised in Pittsburgh, and he headed to one such camp in West Virginia, partaking in the usual songs, games, and outdoor adventuring and loving all of it. By the time he was 14, he was running a YMCA day camp in his home neighborhood.
In high school, Wilson was a multisport athlete, and he went on to play football at Slippery Rock University, an hour north of the city. That’s where, one day after practice, he met Joel Bloom. Bloom’s father had, in 1921, started Camp Powhatan, on Pleasant Lake, in the rural Maine town of Otisfield, primarily for Jewish boys. When Bloom — a former Powhatan camper himself — took over from his father, he brought with him a progressive notion of whom the camp should serve. He wanted to foster both racial and socioeconomic diversity by bringing in campers from all over and by setting up scholarships for those who came from families that couldn’t otherwise afford it. He wanted a diverse set of counselors too, and he’d stopped at Slippery Rock to do some recruiting. He and Wilson clicked right away, and that’s how, in the summer of 1960, Wilson found himself bumping down a dirt road in Otisfield to report for work. He’d do the same for the next two summers as well.
After graduating from college, Wilson spent two years in Thailand, with the Peace Corps, but soon returned to Maine, resuming his summers at Camp Powhatan, plus teaching and coaching football and wrestling the rest of the year at Dexter High School, two hours north of Otisfield — both of his teams at Dexter won state championships, and he was inducted into the Maine Sports Hall of Fame. Maine’s population, then as now, was overwhelmingly white. “Being in Dexter wasn’t so different from being in Thailand,” Wilson says. “My first wife and I lived in an area where it was nothing but Thais and us.” After a few years, Bloom tapped Wilson to run the camp, as chief counselor. “You’re talking 1968 still,” Wilson recalls. “It was a different time. Some parents took offense that Joel would do that. But I remember him basically saying to them, ‘I don’t care — I have a waitlist here.’”
Although Maine’s Black community was small, Wilson quickly found in it a pair of meaningful connections, befriending Gerald Talbot, the founding president of Maine’s NAACP chapter and the first Black person to serve in the state legislature, and Leonard Cummings, the Portland civil-rights activist who went on to run the NAACP chapter in the ’70s. “Those guys really became my Maine mentors,” Wilson says. He also fell in with another prominent Mainer, Ken Curtis, who began his first of two consecutive gubernatorial terms in 1967. Curtis appointed Wilson to the Maine Human Rights Commission, which triggered a pivot into government service for Wilson that lasted more than a decade. He served three governors in various roles, from state ombudsman to director of the Office of Emergency Preparedness.
In the early ’90s, Wilson was back in Pittsburgh to take care of his ailing mother when John Wallach, the father of a camper and a longtime diplomatic correspondent for Hearst newspapers, approached Bloom with a new idea, to turn Camp Powhatan into a place for kids from both sides of the Israeli–Arab divide. He called it Seeds of Peace, and he wanted Wilson to lead the camp.
The most important thing was getting all these kids to sit down and talk to each other.
That first summer of Seeds of Peace, in 1993, several dozen campers, from Israel, Palestine, and Egypt, arrived in Otisfield to participate in the experiment. Wilson didn’t deploy any secret formula for bridging the divide between would-be enemies. Instead, he relied on familiar camp rituals — swimming together, eating together, competing together. “The most important thing,” he says, “was getting these kids to sit down and talk to each other. You used all that other stuff in order to get them there.” That September, Wilson and his campers found themselves invited to the White House Rose Garden for the signing of the first Oslo Accord, a peace agreement between Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Yasser Arafat and Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. The two leaders, alongside U.S. president Bill Clinton, were photographed smiling and holding up camp T-shirts.
Since then, peace has hardly reigned, from the protracted violence of the Second Intifada to the recent fighting in Gaza. Camp was no cakewalk either, with Wilson confronting all sorts of culture clashes, from the relatively mundane (a contingent of Moroccan girls wearing bikinis at the lake, offending girls from more conservative backgrounds) to the divisive (campers wearing nationalist political insignias). Through it all, he pushed for tolerance. “The three big things are trust, communication, and respect,” he says. “I didn’t say ‘like.’ I didn’t say ‘love.’ You don’t have to like me, but you can respect me as a human being.”
Since those early days, Seeds of Peace has grown to include programs around the world, and Wilson spent many years traveling extensively, especially in the Middle East. The global pandemic, though, has forced the Otisfield camp to shift its gaze closer to home. It was closed in 2020, as a health precaution, and reopened this year, for the first time without hosting campers from abroad. One session was for kids from New York City and upstate New York, plus the Boston area, and another session was for kids from Maine. Wilson, at 80, is still a senior advisor to the Seeds of Peace organization and the director of its Maine program, which traces back to 2000, with Maine kids mixing into the international sessions. He sees a dedicated in-state focus as all the more necessary amid heightened factionalism these days, between northern and southern, rural and urban, Republican and Democrat.
The key thing, he says, is that “the same principles apply,” whether dealing with domestic or international rifts. The water-skiing lessons and softball games and all the other trappings of camp life exist for the sake of facilitating conversation and understanding. It recalls what Joel Bloom wrote in a Camp Powhatan brochure some 50 years ago: “At camp, our major concern is the camper. Whatever affects him is important to all of us. What happens to a growing child at camp not only influences him at the moment, but also may affect his future, and because children are our nation’s greatest asset, our country’s future.”
Next year, Wilson says, the hope is to run three sessions: a state program, an out-of-state program, and an international program. He has retired and unretired a time or two in the past, but the endless need and boundless possibility he sees keeps pulling him back. Seeds of Peace, after all, plays the long game. The very first cohort of Israeli and Arab campers are now only in their 40s, the first cohort of Mainers in their 30s. Their abilities to make an impact in education or business or government are still growing. And there’s much groundwork yet to lay — Wilson would, for instance, like to see programming for kindergarteners through 12th graders in Maine. He’s not sure how long that will take.
“I’m on the books to leave at the end of this year,” he says. “But I might not.”