Camp David chapel has local ties

WHAT do President Barack Obama, a relative of Johnny Cash and a descendant of an early Belmont County resident have in common?

Although they have diverse backgrounds, all three have ties to the Camp David Chapel, whose 20th anniversary will occur April 21.

It was on that date in 1991 that the nondenominational chapel, a “dream child” of Robert Plummer Sr. of Chambersburg, Pa., was dedicated. Plummer, now 87, is a direct descendant of Abraham Plummer, the first Quaker to settle in Belmont County’s Warren Township.

Obama is known for attending services at the chapel when he is at Camp David.

Chaplain at the chapel is Navy Lt. Carey Cash. Not only is he a great-nephew of country music legend Johnny Cash, but his older sister, Kellye, was Miss America in 1987.

Although the Camp David Chapel is only 20 years old, it might be considered to have its beginning when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. Plummer, a general contractor who worked on several projects at Camp David for more than 25 years, said, “The day he was shot, I really realized there was no place to go (to worship). I made up my mind to do something about it. I couldn’t do anything until I retired, because it might appear to be a conflict of interest.”

Plummer, in a telephone interview, also pointed out that representatives of other governments visit Camp David, and there had been no place to worship up there. He thought the chapel was needed as “a symbol of our relationship with God.”

In 1987, Plummer received permission from the Secretary of the Navy to build and donate a chapel facility at the presidential retreat. He then formed a nonprofit corporation, known as “The People of God,” later renamed the “Camp David Fund Inc.”

All major religious groups were invited to take part. Honorary directors included presidents, beginning with President and Mrs. Ronald Reagan, and the directors and ex-officio members represented various faiths.

Plummer said the board raising funds for the chapel wanted it to be “a gift from the people of God to one nation under God.” He added, “That was my philosophy to start with.”

A $1 million gift for building the chapel was turned down, because the board wanted donations to be from various religious groups and limitations were set. Plummer said no one individual could give more than $100,000 and a group’s contribution was limited to $300,000.

He added the first donation was a personal check from Nancy Reagan.

“The windows (in the chapel) are very special,” said Plummer who added Rudolph Sandon wanted to build and donate them. Sandon, he explained, was an Italian who came to the United States after World War II, and the reason that he wanted to donate the windows was “because America had been good to him.”

Not only had Sandon been involved with the French Underground during the war, but he had won a gold medal for skiing in the Olympics.The windows, donated by Sandon and his wife Helen, were made in a way “to reflect the sun’s light as it passes through the glass,” according to a chapel publication.

Plummer said when Sandon’s drawings were accepted by the board, “Everyone (on the board) saw something in the windows from their (religious) perspective.”

Groundbreaking for the chapel was July 2, 1988, during the Reagan administration. It was named the Evergreen Chapel to fit in with the names of various buildings at Camp David as each was named after a shrub or a tree. A chapel publication notes that evergreen also “represents the eternal nature of life – specifically as it is represented in the worship of God.”

The chapel, described by Plummer as “a national treasure,” was dedicated April 21, 1991, in an ecumenical service, attended by then-President George H.W. Bush and his wife, Barbara. Also on that day, Plummer was presented with a model of the chapel during a ceremony at which the Bushes were hosts.

Plummer also was a speaker at the rededication in 2001 when George W. Bush was president.

The Pennsylvania man along with his wife, June, and sons, Doug and Kenneth Jr., recently were in Barnesville and viewed the Plummer house, now owned by the Ohio Yearly Meeting. A restoration project involving some local Friends and others is under way at the house.

Although Plummer’s ancestors were Quakers, he is a member of the United Methodist Church and served on the board of directors for the Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church, New York, and has been involved in a number of Methodist projects.

On the recent visit to the Barnesville area, he presented information and photographs regarding the Plummers and the Evergreen Chapel at Camp David to the Olney Friends School.

Plummer said that he still is invited to Camp David on special occasions. As to the chapel, “his dream child,” he said, “It wasn’t just me. The Lord had a hand in it. I saw His work many times.”

Pokas can be reached at timesleader@timesleaderonline.com.