Edyth DeBaun, a local philanthropist who touched the lives of thousands of children across the South Shore through Camp DeBaun — a summer camp she founded and co-owned with her husband, Joe — and whom the dozens of camp employees and children who passed through its doors over the decades affectionately referred to as “Aunt Edyth,” died on Aug. 16, according to friends and family.
DeBaun preferred not to reveal her age.
Camp DeBaun opened in 1949 on Atlantic Avenue in Oceanside as Wonderland Nursery, a nursery school. It became a summer camp the following year, and it wasn’t until the early 1950s that it became known as Camp DeBaun, a name it kept until its closing in 2008, according to former Associate Camp Director Jerry Miller. Children who had attended sent their children — and their grandchildren — to the camp, Miller said, giving three generations of camp-goers fond memories and lifelong friendships.
Miller, 72, a former professor of economics at Miami University in Ohio who returned to Oceanside each summer for decades to work at the camp — living in an apartment on the campgrounds — said that DeBaun was like a second mother to him after he grew up next door to the family in Woodmere.
“She thrived on interpersonal relationships,” Miller said. “She was warm, compassionate and caring.” He and other camp counselors and employees said that in addition to being an exceptionally kind and loving woman, DeBaun could also be a tough, no-nonsense leader.
Miller recounted an instance when a counselor burst into the office he shared with her to report that a camp toilet was clogged. Miller asked that camp maintenance be dispatched.
“No,” DeBaun replied, “they’re busy.” She reached into her desk, grabbed a pair of latex gloves and headed out to take care of the situation.
“The other side of her when she ran the camp was fastidious and meticulous, with high standards and an eye for quality,” Miller recalled. “She had this unique ability of making you do your best. When you worked for her, you wanted to do your best.”
“She was a stickler about things,” said former counselor Ali Rosenblum, 44, who, after being a camper herself, worked at the camp from 1988 until it closed. She and a number of colleagues who took to social media to express their condolences noted that DeBaun required all employees to have their shirts tucked into their navy blue shorts, “even though we were sweating our butts off,” she joked.
Camp DeBaun, Rosenblum said, was like a family, with DeBaun at the top. “There was nothing like camp,” she said, “and she held it all together.” Hundreds of lifelong friendships and even a handful of romances began at the camp, said Rosenblum, whose wedding DeBaun attended. “She built an empire. Our little empire.”
Counselors, managers’ and bus drivers’ relationship with DeBaun didn’t end when camp was over. Both Miller and Rosenblum said she sent cards to her staff to mark any occasion, good and bad, from birthdays, births and marriages to illnesses and deaths.
“If she knew you, and she knew your birthday, you’d have a card every year,” Miller said. “ … I have a collection.”
“I have many thank-you cards from Edyth DeBaun,” said Richard Woods, a retired Oceanside social studies teacher and historian who has written about the hamlet. “… When I wrote the history, she dropped off a planter and a card, left it there and just took off.”
Woods noted that DeBaun was known throughout Oceanside, involved in nearly every imaginable civic activity. “She had her hands in every pot in Oceanside,” he said. “She was involved in everything and attended everything.”
Born Edyth Oppenheimer, DeBaun was a native of Woodmere, and attended Woodmere High School. She was a cheerleader there, which was how she met her future husband, Joe DeBaun: He cheered for the rival Oceanside High School football team. Joe is widely recognized as coining OHS’s sports teams’ nickname, the Sailors, after he cheered at games wearing full sailor attire. He and Edyth married in August 1942, according to Miller, and had four children together. Joe died in 1991.
After founding Camp DeBaun, the couple was known to be charitable, and Edyth helped charter numerous local, nonprofit women’s organizations and clubs such as the Kiwanettes, the Oceanside High School Scholarship Committee, the Hewlett High School Alumni Association and the Long Island chapter of the American Business Women’s Association, according to Tony Iovino, assistant director of community relations at the Oceanside Public Library.
“That’s one of the great things about Edy,” Iovino said. “She was sort of like a living monument to women’s empowerment.” He added that she was also a charter member of Oceanside Community Service, and before Camp DeBaun closed, he said, she would offer its facilities to serve as a staging area for the charity’s various food drives.
DeBaun was also involved with the Interfaith Nutrition Network food bank in Hempstead, the American Red Cross and the 1 in 9 Long Island Breast Cancer Action Coalition, according to Miller.
She rarely took credit for her charity work. “She hated, hated her own recognition,” Woods said. “She didn’t want to be recognized for giving beyond herself.”
“She always did [things] very quietly, and did it without any fanfare.” Iovino said of DeBaun’s preference for remaining behind the scenes. “She never wanted any of that.”
Her generosity extended well beyond civic organizing to everyday acts of kindness. Melissa Fabel, 51, when asked in 2004 why she was no longer sending her three boys to Camp DeBaun, revealed that she had fallen on hard financial times, and DeBaun offered her a job there, where she served as a head boys’ counselor and bus driver until the camp closed.
Fabel said she was “eternally grateful” for the opportunities the camp provided both her and her children.
“She wasn’t just the matriarch of the family, she was the matriarch of Oceanside,” Woods said. “She was the mother to hundreds and hundreds of kids at Camp DeBaun. She was a fixture here. She’s irreplaceable.”
DeBaun was buried at the Greenfield Cemetery in Uniondale on Aug. 20. She is survived by her children, Bruce, Craig, Priscilla Meryman and Pamela Lucas; 11 grandchildren, 31 great-grandchildren and two great-great-grandchildren. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made in her name to the following organizations: The INN, 211 Fulton Ave., Hempstead, NY 11550; 1 in 9 Long Island Breast Cancer-Hewlett House, 86 E. Rockaway Road, Hewlett, N.Y. 11557; and the Kiwanettes of Oceanside, c.o. Dolores Buckley, 243 Perkins Ave., Oceanside, N.Y. 11572.