Marilyn Byer Stories

The Scouting Trip

In the early 1950’s the board of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship commissioned Mel Friesen (pictured with Helen in 1950) to find and establish a camp that could serve as the West Coast Training Center for InterVarsity. Mel made an initial visit to Santa Catalina Island and was shown a piece of property at Gallagher’s Cove. The site had originally been used during the summers by the Whittier State School for Boys, a rehabilitation facility for troubled teens. During World War Two, the Navy took control of the property to train recruits in primitive island survival. Buildings were painted battleship grey but then abandoned after the war. In the late 1940’s, party goers from Avalon followed the Navy and made the cove a weekend hangout for everything illegal.

In the winter of 1951 Mel invited a group of friends to inspect the property and help him discern whether the site would be suitable for an InterVarsity camp. Eight individuals, including Mel and Helen Friesen, Paul and Marilyn Byer, and InterVarsity Board member Walter Herbst, took a water taxi to Avalon. They rented a small dingy for the trip to Gallagher’s Cove.

First Impressions and the Forgotten Sleeping Bag

Marilyn Byer remembers stepping off the boat onto the beach of what was to become Campus by the Sea for the first time. She said, “The place was a total mess. The few buildings that existed were in a state of collapse and occupied by all kinds of icky spiders, ants, mice and rats. All the water pipes were broken. Rocks, limbs, and other debris littered the beach. A rather strange woman lived in the one room cabin that we now call Albacore and tended a small orchard up canyon. Herds of pigs and goats roamed the canyon freely and we later learned that rattle snakes were the ever-present hidden guest.”

The plan was to stay the night. Mel brought along two canvas buckets and these were used to fetch water at the spring up canyon. (In later years, the two buckets were used to collect mail.) Thanks to her Girl Scout training, Marilyn, along with Helen, managed to prepare an evening meal on the beach. When it came time for bed, no one wanted to sleep in the creepy cabins. So bed springs were dragged to the beach and sleeping bags were spread over the iron coils. But there was a problem.

Rookie staff member Barbara Boyd had just been appointed that fall to serve students in Southern California. (Barbara later went on to create Bible and Life, an influential discipleship training program used by InterVarsity staff for many years.) Barbara was from the East Coast and had never been to such a primitive place.  She forgot to bring a sleeping bag. Paul and Marilyn Byer had been married for about a month and had recently purchased two sleeping bags that zipped together. So the Byers gave Barbara one of their bags and the two of them slept in the remaining one—or as Marilyn put it, “Tried to sleep!” What she remembers sixty years later was a night of barking seals, a full moon, and lots of giggles and laughter throughout the night.

By the end of their visit, the group confirmed with Mel that Gallagher’s Cove has hidden potential and with a lot of work might become a training center for InterVarsity. They were impressed with the secluded coziness of the cove, the views from the beach, and the proximity to the mainland and the students they served.

The Barge

The spring of 1951 must have been hectic for the Friesen and Byer families. Once the decision to establish a camp on Santa Catalina Island was made, Mel went to work planning and purchasing supplies. Paul Byer, who like Mel was a World War Two veteran, was in his final year as an architecture student at USC. He was asked by Mel to design the sleeping cabins and order the lumber needed to construct them. Mel secured a stove, cooking pots, mattresses, tools, blackboards and all the other supplies needed to launch a camp. He also recruited students to help build. Marilyn remembers it as being a masterful and almost superhuman piece of work.

Over their spring break, students from USC helped clean up the existing structures and get the site ready for the arrival of the supplies. Students from UCLA came a week later during their spring break to help unload the barge. The vessel, which was pulled by a tug boat, left the mainland on a beautiful moonlit night in order to arrive at Gallagher’s Cove at dawn. Mel and Paul were its only passengers. Paul told Marilyn when he got home later that the voyage was like being in a dream.  They were surrounded by sea life with only the sound of the lapping waves breaking against the bow.

Upon arrival the tug captain took one look at the motley crew of eager students waiting on the shore, sized up the load on the barge and predicted, “You will never get this done by sundown.” But they did. Working as a team and by God’s power, every item made it to shore that day to everyone’s amazement.

Cabin Design and Construction

The initial intention was to use Campus by the Sea only during the warmer summer months. In order to provide plenty of fresh air, Paul Byer designed the sleeping cabins as a three sided shed with the fourth side open to the elements. Marilyn and Helen took one look at the plan and said, “In no way will we or any other women sleep in a three sided cabin without any privacy and exposed to an invasion by the island wild life.” So Paul added a fourth wall but then created a two foot air gap between the ceiling and wall to prevent the rooms from becoming stuffy. He also devised a unique arrangement for the bunks that the building inspector initially rejected. The inspector later relented after seeing the eagerness and zeal of the young builders.

The right side of camp was designated the boy’s area and cabins were given names of Catalina Island animals (Mountain Goat Manor, Buffalo Billet, Rattlesnake Roost, etc). Cabins on the girl’s side of camp were named after plants from the island. (Poison Ivy Penthouse, Manzanita Manor, etc) staff cabins and other building were named after fish. (The Croker, Garibaldi, Rock Cod, etc)

Campus by the Sea was for the most part built by non professional volunteers. Students, alumni, and InterVarsity staff members worked together to create a facility that was rustic but adequate for housing and training the next generation of Christian leaders for the world.

“The Pirate” Boat  Adventure

In the late spring of 1951 Mel realized that the camp was going to need a motor boat to transport supplies back and forth from Gallagher’s Cove to Avalon. He found a used vessel called ‘The Pirate’ for sale on the mainland and purchased it. He then invited Paul and Marilyn and three other student leaders from USC to join Helen and him for a maiden voyage to camp. The crew set out one bright morning and made the pleasant crossing by midday. What they didn’t know because the boat lacked a radio was a storm approaching later that afternoon. After an enjoyable time in camp, the group of seven prepared to disembark. But the motor would not start. The men struggled for hours to get the engine going again. By the time they left the island, it was getting late.

Halfway across the channel they hit heavy seas. The men all became violently seasick. That left Marilyn and Helen to pilot the boat home. Marilyn remembers the compass spinning like a top and the only way to see the mainland was when the ship was at the top of a surging swell. The two of them were terrified but took turns at the helm steering towards the safety of the Los Angeles harbor while praying every inch of the way.

The harbor patrol met them as they finally passed the breakwater. The officials were shocked that anyone could be so foolish as to attempt a crossing under such conditions and even more astonished that they made it. Marilyn said, “When I look back, I now realize that Satan could have easily ended the dream of Campus by the Sea that afternoon. We were naive young people trying to serve the Lord but we were often over-our-heads doing things for which we had little experience. But the Lord protected us that afternoon and he continued to do so in the years that followed.”

Pigs, Ants and Mice and Snakes, O My

By August 1951, the camp was almost ready for the first student group to arrive. As the water taxi pulled into the cove, Paul Byer’s father was busy constructing the last of the tables for the Main Deck. (From 1951 to 1981, that building served as the dining room, kitchen, snack shop and only indoor meeting area.) The women’s latrine area needed some finishing touches so the camp staff intentionally extended the first session so that Paul’s father could finish up the outhouse.

During the first year, each student was instructed to bring from home a bowl, cup, plate, and utensils and then leave them at camp for others to use in the future.

Marilyn remembers the constant struggle to outsmart the local wildlife. One evening Marilyn and Helen made a batch of Jello and left it to cool in a pan in the kitchen. After the evening session, they returned to the kitchen to discover an army of ants covering the Jello. They knew they couldn’t afford to waste food so they scraped off the top layer, stuck it in the refrigerator, and quietly served it up the next day.

Mice loved Kleenex and children’s socks because they were soft and made excellent nesting material. Rattlesnakes were a frequent site and students learned to identify them and yell “snake” when they saw one. (For more information about the snakes click here.)

The pigs served as the camp garbage disposal system, eating all the kitchen waste. Paul once threw out a bag of moldy flour. The pigs later appeared coughing and sneezing with their snouts covered in white. Non-edible waste was tossed into the ocean. The beaches were then covered in scum and washed-up debris. Beach trash was the worst after a weekend of visits by party boats from the mainland. State laws were eventually changed and the Catalina waterfront became noticeably cleaner.

In the early years, Pembe the Holy Goat became the camp pet. She followed students everywhere and ate holes in laundry hanging on the line to dry. One winter she broke into a vacant staff cabin and managed to destroy a newly laid floor. Her days were numbered as a result.

Water was always in short supply. Dishes were cleaned on the back porch of the main deck. (The Snack Shop currently occupies that space). After they were done, water from the final rinse was then taken to the Maytag wringer washer and used to wash the clothes. The washer was in a small shed near the Main Deck. An outboard motor attached to the outside of the building was jerry-rigged to provide power for the washer.

The Case of the Missing Student

It was a camp director’s worst nightmare. On the last day of a weeklong camp in the early 1960’s, a young student from Oregon had disappeared. Some of his friends had sensed he might be mentally unstable. Most of his classmates had to return to campus but a few stayed to help InterVarsity staff and the sheriff  search the island. A human chain was formed and searchers scoured under trees and bushes looking for any signs of life. Day one turned into day two and day three. Hope was sinking fast. The sheriff’s department was ready to call off the investigation. The boy’s parents had been called and they flew to Avalon expecting the worst. Paul Byer and Bob Mannes asked the sheriff to make one last drive with them along the road at the top of the ridge. As they drove along, Paul, using binoculars, spotted some movement deep in the canyon below.  He hiked down and to his grateful surprise discovered the frightened and confused young man sitting by a small spring. He was scratched and covered in dirt but he was alive. He had been a boy scout and survived by eating cactus and drinking from the spring. Paul was able to convince him to walk with him back up the hill. A short time later he was reunited with his parents and taken to the hospital.

The young man was silently struggling before he ever got to camp. A week in an unfamiliar place wore him down further. Then while on a hike by himself early one morning he saw something unusual. Between 1951 and 1962, the US Atomic Energy Commission tested 126 atomic weapons at Yucca Flats, Nevada. Investigators surmised that the young man may have seen a mushroom cloud at dawn and believed it was the end of the world. In the days that followed, a steady stream of boats from the mainland steamed to Santa Catalina Island. The boy may have thought they were fleeing destruction when in fact they were coming for a holiday weekend.

God answered the prayers of hundreds of students and alumni who were praying and spared the boy’s life. The camp staff also learned from the experience. After that each guest was asked to complete a health record before they came to Campus by the Sea. Marilyn said in the years since then, whenever the hymn Unto the Hills Do I Lift Up My Longing Eyes is sung, she remembers the lost student. Part of verse one reads:

From God the Lord doth come my certain aid, From God the Lord, who heav'n and earth hath made.

He will not suffer that thy foot be moved: Safe shalt thou be.

Read the next set of stories