Transformation Occurring at Camp Leads Widower of Alumn to Inspiring Gift
In 1955, an Air Force flight turned tragic in a moment. Just after takeoff from an Iwo Jima airfield, while the C-124 cargo plane was only one hundred feet in the air, one of its four engines malfunctioned. The mechanical problem caused the C-124 to plunge into the ground, killing all ten of its crewmen.
One of the men was Navigator Vernon Watson, a 1947 graduate of Hillcrest Lutheran Academy.
Vern Watson, in his youth, received the Gospel at Ebenezer Lutheran Brethren Church in Minneapolis, and attended the Summer Bible Camp at Lake Geneva in Alexandria, Minnesota, where the Lutheran Brethren Church rented the camp facilities from the Assemblies of God.
Vern Watson joined the US Air Force in the spring of 1952, after having graduated from Hillcrest Academy in 1947.
He was married to Joan Swenson of Belmond, Iowa, in September of 1952, and the couple were sent overseas in the autumn of 1953. That year, Vern and Joan became the parents of a baby girl, whom they named Robin.
While stationed in Japan, Vern was a navigator for a C-124 plane crew. Early on, he loved all aspects of aviation, feeling that it was his calling in life.
In 1955, while attending a Deeper Life Christian conference, Lieutenant Watson had a heartfelt inspiration. He was particularly moved by one of the sessions, which was on the book of Hebrews—specifically, the following verse from chapter three: “Harden not your hearts.” Vern “surrendered to the Lord for full-time service,” not “as a pastor or missionary,” but in a path of God’s choosing. Watson then found fulfillment in teaching a Bible class at the Air Force base and “talking to his fellow servicemen about Jesus.”
But just when Vern had responded to his new calling and felt he was losing interest in aviation, then death came to him at the island of Iwo Jima in November of 1955. Vern Watson was only twenty-six years old when he died.
For Joan, his wife, the instantaneous crash had allowed her no chance for any parting words. She was engulfed in a time of mourning, for she was left alone in Japan with daughter, Robin, far from their families in Minnesota and Iowa.
Robin was only two years old at the time, but she was “quick to sense the loss of her Daddy,” for on the “second night after Vernon’s death, Robin woke up crying and calling for Daddy.”
Joan had to try to stay as calm as possible, for she was pregnant with her and Vern’s second child.
Joan was able to accept the “sudden and awful sorrow” and God’s sovereignty over her life. She mourned the loss of her husband, but was not “overcome by grief as were others who suffered like loss” in that accident. From her faith in time of tragedy, at least “one soul” was saved at the air base in Japan.
Joan and Robin returned to the United States ten days after the plane crash for the funeral and burial of Vernon Watson in December of 1955.
After the funeral had passed, with all its condolences and solemnity and forlorn black clothes, Joan Watson and her daughter and unborn child had to return to the cold realities of everyday life and the difficult question: “what is to be done next?”
Mrs. Watson returned to her hometown of Belmond, Iowa, and her son was born in 1956—she named him Marc.
On another front, at the same time that Joan Watson suffered the loss of her husband, the Lutheran Brethren Church leadership was looking for a lakeshore site as a location for a permanent summer Bible camp, so that they would no longer have to pay a premium to rent the Lake Geneva camp at Alexandria, Minnesota.
In July of 1958, the synod authorized its Camp Board to look for a suitable location for a Bible camp. Rollin Rogness, camp director for the Midwest area, assisted in visiting more than one hundred possibilities over the course of the next two years.
Mr. Rogness and the board searched exhaustively throughout Lakes Country in Minnesota, but found lakeshore property prices to be prohibitively high. At that time, a property of the size suitable for a Bible camp would cost from $42,000 to $45,000 for the land alone, not to mention the cost of cabins, docks, boats, and kitchen facilities.
In desperation, Rogness and his board placed an advertisement in the Fergus Falls Daily Journal in June of 1960, with a plea for a plot of land suitable for a summer camp.
Thirty-two property owners responded to the ad. Mr. Rogness began to look at the sites, one by one, but found none to be in an affordable price range.
Finally, on an “extremely hot, sultry day,” as Rogness recalled, when a summer storm warning had been broadcast on the radio, he was about ready to give up on the quest for a site.
As he read and re-read a letter from Mr. and Mrs. Cyril Barnack about a potential property located on Spitzer Lake, located twenty-one miles southeast of Fergus Falls, he thought he would try just one more location, despite the heat and storm warnings.
When he turned off the main road near the lake, Rogness beheld “a most beautiful spot of God’s wonderful creation” as he viewed a “cozy little farm” nestled along the shoreline of Spitzer Lake.
The twenty-three acres, located on a point of land, had 2,300 feet of lakeshore and prime hills wooded with oaks and maples. It even had a two-bedroom cabin located along the shore.
Mr. and Mrs. Barnack gave Rogness a warm welcome on a hot day and expressed their support for a summer Bible camp at the site. Mr. Rogness found the Barnacks to be “wonderful people” who were willing to provide a “wonderful bargain” for the land—the farm couple said that the synod could buy the land for a price of only six thousand dollars.
Rogness was in favor of the location, and the Camp Board quickly voted to approve the deal, making a $1,000 down payment and agreeing to make monthly payments at a below-market interest rate of 4%.
At a meeting convened in July of 1960, synod leaders discussed the means of raising the funds to complete the purchase of the camp property.
To the “complete surprise” of the Camp Board, a woman asked for permission to address the members of the board—that woman was Joan Watson. Mrs. Watson stood there and, “in tears, explained how she felt she wanted to do something the Lord” had “prompted her to do.”
After the death of her husband Vern, she had received a lump-sum payment from his life insurance policy and had used half of it to buy a house. Joan wanted to use the remainder of the money as a gift to some “endeavor for the cause of reaching young people for the Lord.” She had been thinking about a good use for the funds for quite a long time, and had become aware of the camp quest of the church. With great feeling, she said that “both she and her late husband had experienced such great blessings of the Lord” at Bible camps, and that she believed Vern would have wanted her to give the money to a cause like the camp property purchase. Thus, Joan offered to give five thousand dollars to buy the land on Spitzer Lake.
As Rollin Rogness wrote, he and the members of the board were “all amazed and baffled at how the Lord had arranged [it],” and they accepted Joan Watson’s offer, with gratitude. It seemed that Vern Watson’s calling to spread the Gospel had been fulfilled in a way that he never could have imagined when he was at the Deeper Life Bible conference in Japan just prior to his death. For out of mourning for his tragic loss in a plane crash, after time had passed, would come joy for thousands of young people at what became known as Inspiration Point Bible Camp.
Joan Watson’s life changed after that momentous meeting. She got a job at Hillcrest Academy as a dean in the women’s dormitory and had an association with the school for a number of years. Later, Joan became well-known in Minnesota as an “inspirational” speaker while she was a member of the “Speakers Bureau” for the American Bible Society.
It took more funding to build four dormitories at the camp and hours and hours of volunteer work on the main building, docks, and trails before Inspiration Point could open for its dedication ceremony in the summer of 1963. The theme on that July day was “God Answers Prayer,” and the prayers of those who wanted to provide an opportunity for a summer Bible camp were answered when Joan Watson fulfilled the calling of her husband to bring the Gospel to those who needed to hear the “Good News.”
Today, the beautiful Bible camp at sparkling Spitzer Lake hosts over 9,000 people each year for summer camps, retreats, workshops, and special events. Since the camp’s beginning, its counselors and directors have faithfully proclaimed the message of the redeeming love of Jesus Christ and inspired young people to love God and to love their neighbors.