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Confidence Learning Center founder dies

Dick Endres, founder of Confidence Learning Center, talks about the memories of 1 / 2
With daughters Debbie (left) and Kyung on his right, Dick Endres shares a humour2 / 2

Consistency, compassion and confidence, were the hallmarks of Dick Endres’ career, yet his long years of service to Confidence Learning Center weren’t always a certainty. Had the model for treating people with developmental disabilities not changed from when he entered the field he said last week he wouldn’t have stayed long.

The 84-year-old founder of Confidence Learning Center died early Monday at his home.

Reflecting on his life and career in an interview last Wednesday, Endres relaxed in an easy chair in his south Brainerd home and recalled how the term inmate wasn’t uncommon for people with developmental disabilities when he began his career at Faribault State Hospital in 1950. Faribault was the largest state hospital at the time with more than 2,000 patients, he said.

The patients’ caretakers were judged on how well they could keep the patients orderly and on their bench.

“Keep them fed and keep them quiet,” Endres said of the prevailing attitude. “It was frustrating.”

He credited Gov. Luther Youngdahl’s administration with encouraging new staff methods and soon Endres was leading his patients in songfests, games, marching and clapping. Keeping the patients active with recreational pursuits, particularly outdoors, seemed to please the patients, Endres said.

“There’s something about nature,” he said. “They just seemed more cheerful.”

When Endres began work at Brainerd State Hospital in 1960 he jumped at the chance to use Camp Vanasek on Baxter’s Whipple Lake as the site for recreational opportunities for patients. It wasn’t long before he envisioned a camp that would offer more than seven or eight weeks of recreation in the summer.

In 1967, Endres and a group of supporters formed a nonprofit corporation that bought 140 acres of land on Sylvan Lake. Brushing and clearing began in 1969 and tents were used as camp headquarters in the early years for what came to be called Camp Confidence and eventually Confidence Learning Center.

Even though he was a state employee Endres wanted Confidence Learning Center to be a private enterprise, operating without government aid or grants. He talked his bosses into allowing him to work full time as camp director. While he had an office at the state hospital, he said in a 2009 interview that he was rarely there — spending most of his time at the year-round camp.

“I didn’t want the state to own it,” he said.

By encouraging family members and visiting staff to participate with the campers and to bring their own food, Confidence Learning Center was able to operate without the expense of hiring counselors.

Camp activities included fishing, canoeing and beach activities in the summer. In the winter campers took part in cross-country skiing, tubing and ice skating.

Endres said his philosophy was to emphasize the campers’ abilities not their disabilities.

A major point in Confidence Learning Center’s success, Endres said, was that for its first 25 years it was the only year-round, free recreational camp for persons with developmental disabilities. He said a small fee is currently charged for campers.

In 1968, Endres returned to school, earning a master’s degree in therapeutic recreation at the University of Minnesota. In order to accomplish that objective he was forced to leave his wife, Jeanne, with a house-full of kids. The Endres family eventually grew to include eight children. A daughter, Anna, died at 20 months.

Endres said his wife of 58 years was his partner. She died July 22.

“She supported me in everything I did,” he said. “She was always in the background.”

Her passing and his desire to be “up there with her” led to Endres’ recent decision to end what has been five years of dialysis for his failing kidneys.

Starting Confidence Learning Center was one achievement. Keeping it financially healthy through citizen involvement and fundraisers was also part of Endres’ challenge. He took great pride in his reputation as “the great scrounger.”

When the late Bill Klein, the Brainerd trainmaster for Burlington Northern Railroad, told Endres he had some timbers he could donate to Camp Confidence, the revelation set a series of events into motion. A short time later, Terry McCollough, former publisher of the Brainerd Dispatch, who was in the Army Reserve at the time, recalled being in the Reserve office and having a colleague get off the phone, and say “That was Dick Endres. He wants a bridge.” Soon Army Reserve members were using the timbers to build a 66-foot bridge that spanned a gulley at the camp. The soldiers also built a road into the camp, a beach and a playground as part of their community service.

Endres received the Crow Wing County Human Rights Award in 2009 and was Brainerd’s Citizen of the Year in 1991.

One of Confidence Learning Center’s most popular fundraisers was the celebrity golf tournament that was the brainchild of Endres and the late Ev Lassig, who owned the Log Cabin in Brainerd. Lassig connected Endres with Joe Duffy, the owner of Duff’s in Minneapolis, who in turn connected Endres with many Twin Cities sports celebrities.

Among the many celebrities who took part in the tournament were Minnesota Twins pitcher Jim Perry, Minnesota Vikings Scott Studwell and Bill Brown, Minnesota Golden Gophers football great Bronco Nagurski and Minnesota hockey legend John Mariucci. Hubert Humphrey was the first honorary chair.

“Some people just came out of the blue,” he said.

In one of the early years basketball coach George Mikan had to step down as honorary chair and the replacement who filled his spot, Mariucci, became a mainstay at the annual fundraiser.

Mariucci volunteered to put on a fiesta with a variety of food to serve the hungry celebrities. Aided by Brainerd area volunteers, Mariucci devoted hours of preparation and garlic-flavored cooking for what became a highlight of the tournament activities.

“John was a fantastic chef,” Endres recalled.

Although his persona as a hockey player and coach was rough and tumble, Endres said Mariucci was selfless when it came to supporting Confidence Learning Center.

“He was a very gentle man down in his heart.” Endres said.

Countless Brainerd area businesses, individuals and service groups also threw their support behind the camp. A Camp Confidence “Coffee Day” was set up with proceeds going to the camp and later the Brainerd Jaycees’ Fishing Extravaganza became a substantial source of donations.

Early supporters of the camp included Lassig, Marv Campbell, Ray Madison, Stewart Mills Jr. and Dick Breen.

“We had so many good friends, I couldn’t begin to list them all,” he said.

On Aug. 6 Endres paid his last visit to the camp. In a wheelchair this time, he gave a tour to some of his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He said that as he looked back on the progress that was made at Confidence Learning Center he wasn’t really surprised at all.

“I always felt the camp could grow to this point,” he said.

MIKE O’ROURKE, associate editor, may be reached at 855-5860 or He may be followed at

Mike O'Rourke
Mike O'Rourke began his career at the Brainerd Dispatch in 1978 as a general assignment reporter. He was named city editor in 1981 and associate editor in 1999. He covers politics and writes features and editorials.
(218) 855-5860