Every summer, incoming Aggie freshmen report to Reed Arena for Fish Camp with stuffed luggage bags and vague expectations of the week ahead. By the time they find a parking spot in Lot 100, most of those expectations have already vanished. Up and down the sidewalk and throughout the lot, camp counselors clad head-to-toe in brightly colored t-shirts with dyed hair, tutus, piercings (some fake, some authentic) and Mardi Gras beads greet the gawking campers. The scene is surreal by design. During the week, the message becomes clear: Being “cool” is so high school. College is a place to be yourself.
Since its move to the Lakeview Methodist Conference Center in Palestine, Texas, in 1957, Fish Camp has become a quintessential part of the Texas A&M University experience. But for some freshmen from low-income families, the $250 registration fee renders the camp an unjustifiable luxury. Katherine ’88 ’00 and Dr. David Toback are determined to help make Fish Camp available to all who wish to participate, regardless of socioeconomic status.
Seeing the Need
The Tobacks are a unique Aggie couple. Katherine is the assistant director of the undergraduate programs office in the Artie McFerrin Department of Chemical Engineering. She earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Texas A&M in agricultural economics and ultimately found her passion mentoring students as an academic advisor for university athletics and the recreation, park and tourism sciences department. Her experience with underprivileged students inspired her to give back. “Grants and student aid only go so far,” she explained. “It broke my heart that some students couldn’t enjoy everything college had to offer just because of their backgrounds.”
David had no ties to Texas A&M before joining its faculty in 2000. A native Chicagoan with degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Chicago, he met Katherine while serving in his current role as a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy. Students across campus know him for his popular undergraduate course, “Big Bang and Black Holes,” which attempts to unravel the universe’s origins and other cosmic mysteries without advanced math. The course’s perspective-shifting curriculum, combined with David’s comedic teaching style, attracts hundreds of students across disciplines every semester.
Before Katherine arrived at Texas A&M as a freshman in fall 1984, she worried — as many freshmen do — about making friends with her fellow students. “I went to a large high school, but there were only four people I knew who also chose to attend Texas A&M, and we weren’t close,” she said. Fish Camp provided a powerful opportunity to meet and bond with her peers. “I knew when I got to campus, I would already have a group of friends.” The impact Fish Camp had stayed with her long after she left Lakeview.
A Week in the Woods
Fish Camp is divided into weeklong sessions, with each session hosting different color-coordinated camps named after former students, prominent campus leaders and Aggie role models. When Katherine and David were honorably announced as Fish Camp namesakes in 2013, the couple gave back through time and effort to ensure Camp Toback was a wild success. The Tobacks befriended counselors, interacted with campers and made a lasting impression on both. Online, these so-called “Tobackians” identified each other with the hashtag “#CampTobackNeverDies.” By the time the last buses back to Aggieland rode into the distance, Katherine and David knew they had found a program where they could make a difference.
With Katherine’s low-income students in mind, the Tobacks established a $25,000 endowed scholarship to annually cover Fish Camp fees for two incoming students, with preference for first-generation students with financial need. The couple also established an Aggie Ring scholarship through The Association of Former Students specifically for previous recipients of their Fish Camp scholarship who earn their required 90 credit hours. The unique offer was a logistical challenge to set up, but the reasoning behind it is simple: “It’s unacceptable for students to earn their Aggie Ring and not be able to get it,” David said. “If you earn it, we’ll buy it.”
Katherine still regularly volunteers to help operate Fish Camp during the summer. Even though the Fish Camp scholarship bears the couple’s name, she clarified its true namesake. “The ‘Toback’ in the Toback Fish Camp Scholarship is not for us; it’s for Camp Toback,” she insisted. Many of the counselors and fish in their camp went on to hold leadership positions in the organization, and some remain in touch with Katherine and David nearly a decade later. The scholarship carries on their legacy by helping recipients like Dora Sanchez ’25 and Vanessa Palacios ’25 attend camp free of charge.
Years after their namesake camp session, the Tobacks visited a community theater, and David was called up from the audience to participate in an improvised skit. While on stage, a performer asked him questions about growing up, school and what he did for a living. At some point, an anonymous voice shouted from somewhere in the room, “Camp Toback never dies!” Though they never did find out who said it, the Tobacks knew it was another life they had touched. And that was more than enough.
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Written by Bailey Payne ’19