Armando Toppi’s stories of Camp Stella Maris lore are legendary among campers and his fellow counselors alike.
One time, Toppi and other camp counselors scared themselves so much telling ghost stories that they didn’t want to fall asleep, said Deacon Tom Jewell, a former camp counselor and a campus minister at St. John Fisher College in Pittsford.
The counselors had been up late telling ghost stories in the arts-and-crafts lodge of the camp, which was deserted for the weekend. But rather than go back to their cabins to brave the night alone, Toppi recalled, a group of four or five counselors went in a tight clump to retrieve sleeping bags so they could all stay in the safety of the lodge.
But even that scary night hasn’t kept Toppi from returning to the Livonia camp year after year.
To mark Toppi’s 35th year as a counselor at Camp Stella Maris, Father Robert Schrader, pastor of Peace of Christ Parish in Rochester and a member of the camp’s new staff alumni association, blessed the new "Mondo" cabin, which was named in Toppi’s honor. The camp’s staff alumni association sponsored the dedication event, which also included open camp and a dinner honoring Toppi.
The cabin was one of two built in the off season this year. The other, "Nana," was funded by Scott and Courtney Marshall of Webster and named in memory of Josephine Regal, Courtney’s grandmother. Both cabins were funded by gifts of $25,000.
Also built this year was The Wegman House, which replaced the former "Big House.” The $1.2-million, 10,000-square-foot building sleeps 50 and was built using a $1 million donation from local philanthropists Peggy and the late Bob Wegman. Peggy Wegman was a camp counselor in 1947. The Wegman House opened June 21 and has room for staff training and housing during the summer and will be used for retreats and programming in the off season.
This year’s camp also sported the new Frank and Norma Riedman Family Courtyard, which was funded by a $75,000 gift from Frank and Norma Riedman of Rochester and Livonia.
Staff at the camp said it was a natural fit to name a cabin after Toppi, who has been a counselor at the camp every summer since 1976. He works in special education with the Corning School District, and also worked for 20 years as a YMCA director and has coached several teams in such sports as basketball.
His longevity at the camp has made him the camp’s unofficial historian, former counselors said.
“Armando has kept the traditions alive and has kept consistency through several generations with skits and songs and stories that come with camp,” said Mary Aman of Irondequoit, a camper from 1983 to 1985 and a counselor from 1986 to 1994.
His stories include that of John Beckerman, the waterfront counselor who is said to inhabit Conesus Lake and protects campers and counselors in the water. Then there’s the tale of the underground pool at the camp — campers are always looking for the entrance, he said. He also leads a cheer in honor of the camp’s former caretaker, Joe Morsch.
Fiona Willis, president of the camp’s alumni association and a counselor from 1988 to 1993, said Toppi also has shown generations of camp counselors how to keep camp traditions and games fresh, she said.
“Every kid was special, and it never got old (for him),” Willis said.
Jewell said Toppi, also nicknamed "Tiz," is both crazy and loves kids.
“He seems to have both qualities in extra amounts,” Jewell said. “He still thinks he’s probably 17 or 18 years old.”
And he has the shoes to prove it. Counselors joke about Toppi’s love for the latest sneakers.
“I’m the old one, but they treat me as a peer, and that’s what keeps me young,” said Toppi, 52. “It’s hard to be a cabin counselor when you are 17, let alone my age.”
His affiliation with the camp started when he was a teenager.
Toppi, who grew up in Rochester’s St. Stanislaus Parish and attended Rochester’s Franklin High School, said he had fallen in with the wrong crowd before meeting youth ministers Father Daniel Condon and Mike Ryan through the teen program Project Leadership, which was sponsored by St. John Fisher College and Becket Hall.
His first trip to Camp Stella Maris came not long after. When neighbors spontaneously offered to take him along for the ride as they went to pick up their son at Camp Stella Maris, he was surprised to find the youth ministers at the camp.
“I showed up here, and there was Mike and Dan,” Toppi said. “I said, ‘What are you doing here?’”
During that visit, the pair asked if Toppi wanted to return as a volunteer. When he said yes, they told him they’d pick him up at 9 a.m. After getting permission from the camp’s caretaker at the time, Joe Morsch, to continue volunteering on a regular basis, Toppi has become a camp fixture.
He said he loves the atmosphere at camp.
“It’s really the spiritual part of camp which I don’t get in the off season,” Toppi said.
He said he also enjoys campers’ and counselors’ imaginations. He cited the example of a previous week’s theme. The counselors turned the camp into Peter Pan’s Neverland, complete with Tinkerbell, a feast and a food fight — something kids might not otherwise get to experience.
“What is great about camp is that you can pretend to be whatever you want,” Toppi said.
Adam Insalaco, a teacher at Long Ridge Elementary School in Greece and a camp counselor, said that during the school year Toppi even agreed to come from Corning to tell ghost stories to one of his classes that had taken part in an overnight at the camp.
“Kids from that year still come back and visit and still talk about that day,” Toppi said.
Toppi’s brother, a social-studies teacher at Siena Catholic Academy in Brighton, said that his students have all given him positive reviews of his camp-counselor brother.
“The kids I teach all say he’s a great guy,” Edmondo Toppi said.
But he’s also a great ball player, said Mark Yost, who drove from Minneapolis, Minn., to visit his mother in Bath and attend the party in Toppi’s honor.
“Everything I know about basketball, I learned in a very humbling way on that court right there at the hands of Armando Toppi,” Yost said.
EDITOR’S NOTE: To join Camp Stella Maris’ staff alumni association, which was started about a year ago, call 585-346-2243, ext. 132, or e-mail email@example.com.