If there was an All-American Camp Cook Hall of Fame, Leon Shannon would be among the first batch of chefs to be enshrined.
A triple threat in the kitchen, where he serves breakfast at 7:15 a.m., lunch at 1 p.m. and supper at 6:30, the Lebanon native has earned his laurels as the Iron Man in the hallowed dining hall of Camp Nakanawa. This summer marks his 67th consecutive year at the girls’ camp near Crossville.
“I started here in 1953 when I was 13. Back then camp lasted eight weeks and three days,” said Shannon, 78, who was born in the Bairds Mill community, about six miles south of Lebanon.
“I never thought I’d be here this long. That first day I was ready to come home after washing all those pots and pans. I like being here, but this year is about it. I’m just about ready to let somebody young have it.”
This summer the camp held a two-week session in June that drew 260 campers, ages 8-14. The July session runs four weeks and boasts 400 girls between 8 and 17 years of age. As head cook in the senior camp, Shannon fed 70 girls in June and this month is serving 240. However, at a special weekend event, he and the junior camp cook prepared a feast for a 1,000 campers and guests.
A sign on the wall in the camp hot spot declares the room as LEON’S KITCHEN, personifying this is Shannon’s domain.
“I call him the Timex. He just keeps on ticking,” said Pepe Perron, who, with wife Anne, has owned and operated the camp since 1981, about Shannon.
“Leon is our longest camp employee. Leon is the perfect example of dedication and loyalty to Camp Nakanawa. He has been here for 67 years and in his quiet way has built a legacy that is unsurpassed,” Pepe Perron said.
A living legend at this place, Shannon is the only person working at camp to have a bobblehead doll created in his honor. He keeps one doll at home and another one stands in a plastic case on the kitchen wall.
“I got this job through C.L. Manier. C.L. was more like my father to me,” Shannon says about Manier, a World War I veteran and Lebanon’s first African-American police officer who was the nation’s oldest active policeman when he died in 1979 at 83.
“C.L. talked to Elisabeth Mitchell. She was owner of the camp. All the black people met at C.L.’s house. She would come here and select people and sign them up. We’d leave Lebanon in time for camp. They would bring a truck down and send a car. The boys liked to ride in back of the truck all the way from Lebanon.”
The kitchen job description
In his first two years at camp, Shannon rose at 4:30 a.m. to assist the head cook. His chores included washing pots and pans, scrubbing the floor, more washing pots and pans and taking out the trash.
“My third year I assisted the vegetable cook, and the next year I was head vegetable cook. There were 15 to 16 of us working in the kitchen. Everything was made from scratch. We peeled potatoes and snapped green beans. We didn’t have no deep freeze. We punched onion rings out on Friday nights to serve with the Saturday steaks. Everything was made from scratch, even the mayonnaise and Thousand Island dressing.
“We raised vegetables in the garden. Everything is in cans now. And you worked too. You were glad to get out of the kitchen and go to your cabin. The men slept on cots under the dining hall in the basement. Women had their own cabin.”
Around 1970 Shannon shifted to the junior camp where he became head cook. Two to three years later, he returned to the senior camp as head cook, the role he has commanded ever since.
“I always had a lot of fun. We laughed and joked in the kitchen. The most fun was breaking green beans and punching onion rings — crying time tonight. They said if you put a toothpick in your mouth you wouldn’t cry. I put two toothpicks in my mouth and still cried,” he said with a laugh.
But when it comes to making tasty meals, Shannon is all about pleasing hungry tummies.
Perron described the camp chef’s cooking as “simply Southern with the proper touch of ingredients and love. Our traditional Saturday evening meal is roast beef. He prepares it to perfection. During his history here, we believe he has prepared 50,000 pounds of roast beef for the campers and counselors of Camp Nakanawa.”
As for the camp Iron Man’s nature, Perron said, “Leon’s personality is quiet, strong, always listens. He leads by example, works hard and is proud of his many accomplishments.”
Remembering the 67 years
Shannon attended Wilson County Training School and then moved to Nashville where he went to Cameron High School before graduating at Haynes High School. He said, “I used to cook for Mr. G.H. (Green) Tucker at West Side Hotel and at City Café on the square. I left there to go to camp in the summer and came back in the fall. I also worked at the ice cream place, Perfection Dairy. I always cooked.
“Mr. Tucker gave me a room in the West Side Hotel on the second floor. I got room and board and made $20 a week. I worked breakfast as short-order cook. I’ve done it all. I was the first black to stay in West Side Hotel. There were no problems. We got along great,” said Shannon, a bachelor.
After serving the public, Shannon spent 15 to 20 years in the Lebanon High School cafeteria, but emphasized, “After school’s out, I go to camp. I never missed camp. I always came back to the same job.”
Asked about the biggest change he has seen at Camp Nakanawa since the early 1950s, Shannon said, “At the time they didn’t have black campers or counselors. Anne and Pepe got black campers and black counselors. I never thought I’d live to see my great-niece at junior camp.”
The veteran cook also noted that the Perrons have made the labor much less intensive.
“We work about an hour-and-a-half each meal now, about four-and-a-half hours a day. Work is not as hard as it used to be. I don’t have to make ice cream hand cranking it.”
As for leisure time between meals, he said, “When I’m not working, I go to the cabin and watch TV and go to sleep. I don’t sleep on a cot anymore. I got a king-size mattress on a bed and got a TV in my room. When I was younger, we played games and cards, pitched horseshoes, played marbles.
“Nowadays I do odd jobs, a little yard work and mostly lay around and piddle around. I go fishing when I take a notion. Get away from everybody,” he said.
Shannon is proud to show off the three numbers posted beside the door to his cabin and tell the story behind them.
“I fell and broke my shoulder. We had seven girls here from Russia, and they started calling me ‘James Bond 007’ because I had cabin seven. They did all the lifting for me in the kitchen, and I just told them what to do. After that, the girls put the numbers ‘007’ by my door.”
Wistfully looking back on yesteryear, the short-order cook, who is held in high esteem here, said, “I’m the only one from Lebanon left. All the other people I worked with have died. I’m the only man in the kitchen and there used to be four or five.
“I can’t believe I been here 60-something years. That’s why it’s time for me to retire,” said the Iron Man, ready to call it a day.