Camp Perry range engineer marks 30 years on jobWritten by Sarah Ottney | Managing Editor | firstname.lastname@example.org
PORT CLINTON — From smoothing a wrinkle in a target face to straightening a row of benches, no detail is too small for Camp Perry Range Engineer Joe DeCosta.
For 30 years, he has been responsible for overseeing range operations at the National Rifle and Pistol Matches, which draws more than 6,000 shooters from across the country to Northwest Ohio each summer.
“My job is to build the ranges,” said DeCosta, 81. “I definitely don’t want to disappoint shooters because that’s what we’re here for.”
Pride in a job well done is the main trait the 26-year Marine Corps veteran tries to instill in his summer work crew, mainly local teenagers, who know him as “Mr. D.”
“I always tell them, ‘If you do a job and can step back and say, ‘That’s the best job I ever did,’ then fine. But if you can’t say that then you need to do it over again,” DeCosta said.
This year’s matches started July 8 and run through Aug. 14. Each event requires a different range set-up, which could include numbered firing points, targets, benches, fences, water stations, trash cans, portable restrooms and more.
“To me the thrill is meeting obstacles and solving them,” said DeCosta, who splits the year between Florida and Ohio, but whose voice retains the distinctive clipped accent of his native Massachusetts. “I try to work on the front side of the curve. Preparation and prior planning is the name of the game. It keeps everything rolling.”
Ralph Reichman, assistant range engineer and president of Friends of Camp Perry, said DeCosta is a great boss.
“He’s an unbelievable person,” Reichman said. “He treats the kids well and they treat him well. He tries to treat everybody with respect and that’s what he wants in return.”
Of this summer’s 48 crew members, only three were new hires, said DeCosta, who often hires the siblings or even children of former workers.
“I try to be loyal as much as I can to the kids, because loyalty flows both ways,” he said. “Many start off at 14, 15 years old and they work for five or six years here. They’ll tell me, ‘We had a good time this summer’ — and they’ve worked seven days a week and long hours, out there in the rain and the mud. When they come back and tell me they learned a lot here, that’s special.”
DeCosta said he loves being “the boss,” but doesn’t want to make himself indispensible.
“I train the kids so that if I took sick and didn’t come in, everything would go,” DeCosta said. “I don’t want anything to stop because I’m not here. A good manager doesn’t do that.”
DeCosta and his wife, Jeanne, recently celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary. The couple has six children, 16 grandchildren and 25 great-grandchildren. His wife, all his children and two grandchildren also worked at Camp Perry and he’s proud to say he might have his first great-grandchild on the roster in a couple years.
In June, DeCosta walked into what he thought was a planning meeting but instead was a surprise party honoring him for 30 years as range engineer. The gesture moved him to tears.
“I walked in and then it hit me,” DeCosta said. “All my kids were there, except the youngest one. Kids who worked for me in the past. And then the kids working for me now. The whole thing just kind of collapsed on me. It was just too much.”
Camp Perry is a special place to many people, with annual traditions like the first-shot ceremony, shooting in a particular match, shopping on Commercial Row or staying in the huts on base.
“Those were prisoner of war huts,” DeCosta said with a chuckle. “To this day, there are shooters who come up here who really look forward to staying in those huts. Because that’s Camp Perry.”
As a member of the Marine Corps Shooting Team, DeCosta earned distinguished shooting badges — the military’s highest award for marksmanship — for both rifle and pistol.
“We shot in Texas, Tennessee, and all these different states and that was all building up to coming up to Camp Perry,” DeCosta said. “The others are just matches you want to win, but nothing like the allure Camp Perry has. There’s just something in the air, something about the goings on here.”
DeCosta took over as range engineer from Lloyd “Col. Bill” Williams in 1983, after declining health forced Williams to retire at age 75 after 25 years on the job.
However, DeCosta said he loves his job and has no immediate plans to retire.
“When I get here May 1 I’m excited. I just can’t wait to get up here,” DeCosta said, breaking into a grin. “After working seven days a week through August and then on the road visiting our kids, we get home in October and for a couple months I’m kind of laid back. But come January, man, I’m looking at the calendar, saying ‘How many months we have to go before I get up here?’
“I’m not stupid. I know there’s going to come a time when I’m going to have to say I’ve had enough, but it’s just really a great feeling working here,” DeCosta said. “I love the job.”
For more information, visit odcmp.com.