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Obituary: Allen 'Moe' Sigoloff lived the spirit of Camp Thunderbird

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: November 19, 2008 - After an idyllic stay in pristine natural beauty, among critters and pine trees and dear friends, most people would think that returning to their everyday lives would mean a return to civilization.

Not Moe.

For Allen Sigoloff, 68, the longtime director and the heart of Camp Thunderbird who died Wednesday (Nov. 19, 2008) at his home in Creve Coeur, the world worked in just the opposite way. In camp, everyone had a nickname, everyone had a special place. And at the center was Sigoloff, known to all campers as Moe, whose love and caring and special means of inspiring everyone around him made it all work.

"In camp," he would say, "look at how we trust each other, how we communicate with each other, how we care about each other. When you go home, observe how people treat each other in the so-called civilization.

"When we come to camp, we come to civilization. When we go home, we go back to the wilderness."

Allen Sigoloff didn't start Camp Thunderbird; that distinction belongs to Gene H. "Speedy" and Margaret "Honey" Altman, who founded the camp for boys in 1946 on the shores of Lake Plantagenet near Bemidji, Minn., as a place where boys could bond, learn about teamwork and challenge themselves.

Sigoloff's first sight of the place where he would spend more than 50 years came in 1957, when he went to visit the Altmans' daughter Carol. The beauty of the woods, the smell of the pine needles and the majesty of the horseshoe-shaped lake captured him immediately. He returned to Camp Thunderbird the next year as a junior counselor, and in a very real sense, he never left.

It was a calling he began preparing for early. Even in seventh grade, Moe was sensitive to problems with the environment and began a campaign to save the Earth. (He would remain active in environmental causes throughout his life, both in Missouri and Minnesota.) He got a volunteer job in the park district and was a junior counselor in Clayton schools. Later, he studied outdoor education programming at the University of Illinois, but he always found himself looking forward to summer, where he could practice what he was learning in the classroom.

"If I hadn't found Thunderbird," he said, "I would have had to find another camp."

Luckily for him and for Thunderbird, they found each other. He married Carol Altman, and together they took over administration of the camp in 1971, the year after the camp for girls was started on the east bay of the lake.

From then on, his life's work was recruiting campers and staff, putting together programs and making sure that the facilities were in good shape. "It takes a lot of time and money to keep things looking the same," he would say.

But his most important job was nurturing the Thunderbird spirit, making sure that young people -- many of whom started as campers at age 8 and stuck around to become counselors -- could discover the young adults they were meant to be.

"I wanted to create an environment where everybody cares for each other, where they respect each other and where we can all work together," Moe said. "I want there to be only put-ups, not putdowns. I tried to build a sense of self-confidence, a sense of inner peace. It's like being a professional coach. You can put it all together, but until you get on the playing field and start performing, you never know whether it will work or not.

"A lot of boys tell me Thunderbird was the only place they could come where they could be who they wanted to be and were accepted for who they are, where they didn't have to play a role or meet anyone else's expectations."

He added proudly: "One parent came up to show his son the camp, and when he was ready to leave, said he was very impressed and added, 'You have quite a ministry here.'"

Sometimes, of course, his flock had to be brought back to the straight and narrow. Then, in addition to the carrot, Moe had to use a stick -- to help him think.

"When things aren't working, I would put the kids in a circle and have a stick in my hand," he said. "Unless I had a stick in my hand, I couldn't talk. We would go around the ring and say two things positive about everybody else, then say something that was not going well, without mentioning any names. They would figure out how to solve the problems.

"I'd just say: 'Here is the situation. Here's how we're going to solve this. If you can't work it out, someone is going to have to move out of the cabin and someone else is going to move in.' I may have had to just change the position of one of the kids or maybe everybody, but that method works well with all ages."

In a larger setting, the camp's huge council fires on the waterfront helped infuse all of Thunderbird with the proper frame of mind. The first one, at the beginning of the session, helped set goals. The second was a progress report, on how things were going so far. The final one asked the question: Were we successful?

"We talk about something called the Thunderbird spirit," he said. "It's an overall tone -- the environment, the people. We do everything that leads to good interpersonal relationships. That's what makes the camp work."

One more thing helps make the camp experience distinctive: the Thunderbird nicknames. Moe explained that Speedy Altman felt that in the camp environment, everybody should be everybody else's uncle, and the nicknames helped separate their special role at camp from their role in the rest of their lives.

So your own name wasn't your camp name for very long. If you were a staff member and got lost when you took your group out, you became Scout. A counselor who liked to paint the outside of buildings was soon dubbed Rembrandt - which was shortened to Brandt, the name he later gave to his son.

Many times, the nicknames were geographic - an Okie from Oklahoma, a Tex from Texas, and for a camp director from Missouri, the natural name was Moe. It's a nickname he has heard and responded to in spots far from Bemidji, like the bustling streets of New York City.

The nicknames, like the sweet memories of camp, have stuck with Thunderbird alumni for years after they last saw Lake Plantagenet. Camp reunions are frequent, in dozens of cities all over the country. It was just after one of those meetings that Moe was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, about the same time he was celebrating his 50th anniversary with Camp Thunderbird.

By then, daughter Shari -- nickname Tres, as the third daughter in the family -- and her husband, Michael, had bought the camps from Moe and Carol. She put out the sad word about Moe's illness and set up a site at CaringBridge.org where Thunderbird alumni could send messages of encouragement and hope and thanks to the man who had enriched their lives.

And send they did. Quickly the good wishes numbered in the hundreds. At the website, you can read what Marbles and Switch and Toby and Muffy and Volley and Jingle and Mambo, and Mingle and Flip and Sandman and Cagney and Finchy and Wicket and Rooster and everyone else had to say -- some of the legions who count their time at Camp Thunderbird as one of the best times of their lives.

Surviving along with Mr. Sigoloff's wife, Carol of Creve Coeur, are a brother, Jerry Sigoloff of St. Louis; three daughters, Julie Sigoloff of Charlotte, N.C.; Laura Sigoloff of Denver, Co., and Shari Sigoloff of Clayton and two grandchildren, Daniel and Paige Rawitscher, of Clayton. Mr. Sigoloff was preceded in death by his sister, Sandra Willenzik.

The memorial service for Allen "Moe" Sigoloff is Sun., Nov. 23, at 1 p.m., at Central Reform Congregation, 5020 Waterman Ave. (at Kingshighway) St. Louis, MO 63108.

Shiva (gathering with family) will be held from 4 to 8 p.m. Sunday and from noon to 8 p.m. Monday at the home of Shari and Michael Rawitscher, 101 Aberdeen Place, Clayton.

The family requests that in lieu of flowers donations be made to the Speedy and Honey Altman Memorial Camp Foundation, 2001 South Hanley Road, Suite 195 St. Louis, MO 63144 (Attn: Kathy Rauch) or the Wildlife Center of Missouri, 1128 New Ballwin Road, 63021.

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