To generations of children attending summer camp in the Santa Monica Mountains, Grant Gerson was the happy-go-lucky guy in the boots and cowboy hat who brought the West alive for them.
Gerson, who opened the Calamigos Star C Ranch in 1947, died Dec. 6 of natural causes at his home in rural Agoura, family members said. He was 92.
A Navy veteran who served as an aquatics instructor during World War II, Gerson began his career in outdoor education when he went to work as a YMCA camp counselor before opening his own covered wagon-themed camp in Beverly Hills.
He created the ranch after acquiring 15 1/2 acres atop the mountains at what is now the intersection of Kanan Dume Road and Mulholland Highway, halfway between Malibu and Agoura Hills. At the time, the remote site was only reachable by twisting Latigo Canyon Road.
The ranch was built to resemble a town in the Old West. Activities were planned to reflect Gerson's five points of fellowship: reverence, loyalty, honesty, self-reliance and sportsmanship.
Between 1947 and 1984, when encroaching residential development cut off nearby horseback riding trails and forced Gerson to replace overnight camping with a summertime day camp, more than 14,000 youngsters went through Calamigos' program.
Hoping to preserve the ranch's rustic atmosphere, Gerson and his family bought up adjoining land. These days Calamigos covers about 120 acres.
A 1978 brush fire that swept from the 101 Freeway to Pacific Coast Highway destroyed most of the ranch, including the home that Gerson shared with his wife and camp co-founder, Helen; the couple later divorced. The fire also demolished the home of his son Glen Gerson and daughter-in-law Mon-Li. The family rebuilt the homes and the ranch opened to campers seven months later.
Gerson frequently partnered with public school systems, conducting day trips to the ranch for children from South Los Angeles and organizing a pioneering weeklong outdoor education program for the Las Virgenes Unified School District.
He was also active with the American Camping Assn. and the Western Assn. of Independent Camps, even after his retirement from day-to-day management of Calamigos Ranch. Now used for weddings, conferences, corporate picnics and movie and TV shoots, it is operated by his grandsons, Garrett and Garner Gerson.
Greg Schneider, who runs a day camp in Rancho Palos Verdes, recalled first seeing Gerson leading his wagon train down Olympic Boulevard in the late 1940s, drawing cheers from children playing in Roxbury Park.
"Little did I realize that one day I would have the privilege of knowing the wagon master, a true pioneer, mentor, leader, colleague and good friend," Schneider wrote on the website of the Western Assn. of Independent Camps. "Grant's influence and spirit made an indelible mark on outdoor education and camping in Southern California and has had a profound influence throughout the country."
Gerson was born Nov. 30, 1920, in Los Angeles. His father, Sid, was an accountant, and his mother, Mell, was a founder of the Hollywood Bowl.
In addition to his son and grandsons, Gerson is survived by Ruth, his wife of 25 years; stepchildren Susan Morris, Steve Krohngold and Jon Krohngold; and four step-grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Jan. 26 at Calamigos Ranch.