Louis Gyori was born on April 28, 1952, in Toronto. His parents, Louis Sr. and Emmilia, were immigrants from Hungary who established a lucrative sod farm in Keswick, Ont., called Royal Sod. Their only child helped out with the family business in the summers, and by the time he was 12, his parents sent him off to camp. Those early years outdoors made a great impression on the boy, and shaped the course of his life.
At De La Salle Camp on the shores of Lake Simcoe at Jackson’s Point, Ont., Louis was promoted to waterfront staff within a few summers. The round-faced kid—charismatic and always laughing—loved sports, and excelled at them. In particular, Louis enjoyed water-skiing, and co-founded the camp’s water-ski program with another camper. Together, they’d pull more than 100 skiers a day, and called their 16-foot boat “Ski-Lou.”
In 1973, when Louis graduated from St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, his dream for his future was cemented: all he wanted in life was to own his own camp with a lake at the centre where he could teach water-skiing. To make that a reality, for about six years he sold educational books door-to-door. “His objective with that job was to raise the equity to start a children’s camp,” says Craig Dickson, a lifelong friend. Louis became a leading salesman at the company, living frugally and saving money.
His heart, however, held him back a bit. He had a problem with high cholesterol, and at the age of 29 suffered his first massive heart attack—even though he was a champion water-skier in peak physical condition. To circumvent these troubles, Louis made lifestyle adjustments, and changed to a low-fat diet with lots of vegetables. But his cholesterol remained high.
By 1979, Louis had enough money to purchase a camp near Bancroft, Ont. There, he lived year-round in one of the cabins to save money while he set up his business. In 1981, he opened Camp Can-Ski, with eight campers. First, Louis focused on water-skiing, but eventually, with hundreds of boys and girls heading to the Haliburton Highlands to spend their summers, Louis broadened the scope of his operation, renaming it Camp Can-Aqua and adding sailing and canoeing, among other activities. Instilling “soft” skills—how to win gracefully and show respect—was just as important to Louis as athletic excellence. One long-time camper turned counsellor, Ben Liston, says, “The majority of staff training was about how to talk to the kids, and foster confidence in them.”
As his friends say, the camp was his life’s opus. The original three buildings on his 200 acres of land (with a lake in the middle, of course) turned into 30, all built by Louis. Campers came from all over the world, and one secret that emerged recently was that, each summer, Louis sponsored about five kids from underprivileged local families.
Despite his success, Louis enjoyed a simple lifestyle, living on the camp in a log cabin. Al King, a camp counsellor and facilities manager at Can-Aqua for the last 12 years, says, “In his home, he had antiques and things we had built together.” One surprising exception to his rustic lifestyle was a colourful collection of muscle cars. “The more brightly coloured the car was, the better,” says Al.
Since 1991, Louis also ran a maple syrup business. It evolved from a traditional operation of 30 tap buckets to more than 3,000 taps on a pipeline. “He was always looking for ways to improve the camp, expand his maple bush, or concoct an elaborate prank on a friend or a staff member,” says Ben. Louis would often say “Shoot the puck”—get it done. In fact, his current partner, Patricia De Villiers (he had married twice previously), says he never left anything unfinished.
Over the years, though, his health problems had persisted. By 2004, he had his second open-heart surgery. After that, there were multiple angioplasties. But he didn’t let a bad heart stop him: Louis would even bike the 100 km to his cardiologist in Peterborough.
On Sept. 5, days after camp had shut down for the summer, Louis was demonstrating his barefoot water-skiing abilities, instructing friends in his favourite sport. It was a cool, breezy day, so the group retreated to the sauna. When Louis stood up to leave, he collapsed. The staff, trained in first-aid response, could not resuscitate him. He was 58. His camp will continue to operate.