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Pioneer Camp founder has rough edges

Mr. Lynn eats bugs and bends steel. He's the toughest guy the kids at Pioneer Camp have ever seen. But Lynn Marshall is not as strong as he may seem.

By John Barry, Times Staff Writer
Published August 2, 2007


ST. PETERSBURG - "Mr. Lynn" is a 5-foot-7, 215-pound square of muscle with a graying ponytail that falls out of a feather-festooned leather cap. He has thick, gnarly hands from sawing, snapping and slicing wood and steel. A strip of flint for starting campfires hangs from his belt.

He runs Pioneer Camp for the city of St. Petersburg. He teaches kids as young as 7 how to build shelters, to make fire by rubbing sticks, to cook with a dutch oven. He even shows them how to blacksmith, how to make steel tools, and how to turn their soda cans into molten aluminum.

Every day Mr. Lynn sends them home, dirty, soaking wet and exhilarated. He is the most powerful, capable man most of the kids have ever seen.

Lynn Marshall had 17 arrests between 1972 and 2005. He has done jail time. He says he has been clean and sober for eight months.

Every time he starts believing he's the powerful Mr. Lynn, he finds out that he's the weakest one at Pioneer Camp.

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Lynn Marshall, 54, invented Pioneer Camp 10 years ago at Boyd Hill Nature Preserve, three years after serving two months in the Pinellas County Jail for possession of crack cocaine, a felony.

He had in mind more than a typical camp where children sing and play games. He wanted to create a camp of little self-sufficient societies, like those in early America.

He set up "scarecrow families" of about eight kids each. He had each family make a scarecrow as their symbol of solidarity, then build a shelter. He taught them how to keep their families alive by cooking on their own fires and dividing the work. They made their own tools.

He made it a real pioneer settlement. He built a camp foundry that pumps out "a half-million BTUs of heat" to melt aluminum cans into Pioneer Camp medallions.

He found a one-handed blacksmith, Jerry Jones, to operate a coal-fired crucible to heat steel rods red-hot before the kids twisted them into tools. Wide-eyed, the kids say Blacksmith Jerry's fingerless nub was "smooshed" at a factory.

Mr. Lynn brought critters from "Toad Town," his 8-acre animal refuge on Bullfrog Creek in Gibsonton: Sadie the Honky Donkey, Godiva the Chocolate Llama, and all the chickens and goats. Pioneer Camp permanently smelled "goaty."

Mr. Lynn taught kids how to catch a chicken. But Rule No. 1 proclaimed that no living thing would ever be hurt at Pioneer Camp, not even a fly. Anyone who killed a bug had to eat it. Every child repeated, "If you crunch it, you munch it."

He demonstrated by swallowing live beetle larvae. The kids shrieked as he told them, "I can feel it wiggle."

One of the kids in his camp was Dylan Crane, the boy who made a film documentary, My Cancer Miracle, of his battle with bone cancer before he died at age 13 in 2005.

This summer, Dylan's sister Samantha came to Pioneer Camp. Her scarecrow family used her brother's clothes to make their scarecrow.

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Marshall's trouble with the law began in 1972 with a burglary charge. He was 19 back then. More charges came over the next two decades: burglary with a knife, resisting arrest without violence, illegal possession of a firearm, driving under the influence, grand larceny of a boat, shoplifting, spouse abuse.

Among those offenses, his only conviction was for shoplifting. Most charges resulted in probation or pretrial diversion. The charge of spouse abuse was dismissed.

Then, in 1994, a judge convicted him of possession of crack cocaine. Marshall was sent to jail for 66 days.

Three years later, after no more arrests, he was hired by the city to create the summer Pioneer Camp.

Parks director Cliff Footlick, then parks operations manager, remembers his department's initial reaction when Marshall proposed Pioneer Camp:

"We said, 'Sorry, you can't work with children.' "

On his own, Marshall appealed to the state and to the FBI for a review of his status. He found that because he had been clean for three years, he was eligible for an exemption from a Florida statute that prohibited the hiring of felons to work with children.

"He jumped through all the hoops," Footlick said. "He proved he was able."

Marshall stayed clean until 2003, when he was arrested three times, charged with driving under the influence. He lost his license for 10 years. He was arrested a final time in 2005 when caught driving without a license.

Now his wife, Nancy, drives him to work.

Footlick said he knew Marshall couldn't drive but did not know the particulars of the DUI cases. He said Marshall is a contract employee, not a full-time city worker, and his driving record is not an issue in running the camp.

In 10 years, Footlick said, he has never heard a complaint from a parent.

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At the end of a long, blazing day, concluded by decorating cakes the kids had made in dutch ovens, Mr. Lynn noticed two older boys hanging back, looking upset. They were former campers who had come back as volunteer helpers. Dozens of kids do that when they get past eighth grade and are too old for camp.

Mr. Lynn separated himself from the frosting-covered mob and took the boys aside. He spoke intently, in a near whisper. "What's wrong?" A younger helper had called them lazy. They were dirty and sweaty from the day. They felt their integrity had been impugned.

Mr. Lynn leaned on a fence, his face just inches from theirs. He kept eye contact. Kids ran everywhere, but the boys had his absolute attention.

"You are valued," he said.

This was a pure Mr. Lynn moment, said Amber Palmer, observing. She's 25, has worked at the camp for three years. His words to her: "Don't walk away. Find out what kids need."

He gripped the boys' shoulders. They went back to work. Mr. Lynn then bellowed commencement of Squish Time. He climbed atop a picnic table with a wide iron plate fastened to the end of a wood pole. The kids gathered leftovers from their lunch bags: chocolate puddings, rotten apples, strawberry Jell-O and plenty of macaroni and cheese. The iron Squisher came down on each pile, and food flew like shrapnel.

Palmer opened a fire hydrant and blasted the kids with a firehose.

When parents arrived to collect their sons and daughters, they found everyone exhausted, covered with macaroni and cheese, soaking wet and deliriously happy.

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The kids have gone home. Mr. Lynn looks over a copy of his police record. He doesn't dispute any of it. He says all the arrests sprang from his addictions. A few of the parents know about his record, he says. None of the younger kids do.

Hypocrisy is the most terrible sin of all. He tells the kids that. "I have no shame in who I am. Everything I've done is the result of what happened in my life. I'd be ashamed only if I weren't doing anything about it."

The hardest thing has been to make himself understand that Mr. Lynn and Lynn Marshall are not one and the same.

"I present a lot of power at Pioneer Camp. I find myself believing in my power. I look at my addictions and I say, 'I can fix that.' My only chance is to surrender to the fact that I can't solve this myself. I have to stay surrendered. I work really hard at staying surrendered."

He attends addiction counseling meetings once a week. "I've been clean since Dec. 1 last year."

Mr. Lynn is sitting under a moose head. Behind him are boxes of fossilized animal bones. On the table is an aluminum cast of a hand, fingers spread out, made by the children for their handless blacksmith. On Mr. Lynn's desk are ceramic casts of feet.

They make another lesson for the children of Pioneer Camp.

"Feet of clay."

John Barry can be reached at (727) 892-2258 or jbarry@sptimes.com.