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CAMP TUFFIT – The wooden sign has been posted here at Camp Tuffit, the rustic little fishing resort on Lake Mary Ronan, for most of the last century.

“Free cabins!” it proclaims, “to persons over 80 years old.”

Right below it, in parentheses, comes the fine print.

“If accompanied by parents,” the sign notes.

It’s emblematic of the sense of humor of Charlie Thomas, who founded Camp Tuffit in 1917.

“Time flies like the wind,” says another of his signs. “Fruit flies like bananas.”

Another promised free pop and candy at the camp’s little store “starting tomorrow,” and kids would eagerly line up the next morning, only to learn the hard way that “tomorrow” is always a day away.

The signs are a small part of the big charm of Camp Tuffit, now run by two of Charlie’s grandsons with lots of help from great-grandchildren and even great-great-grandchildren.

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On Thursday, however, the joke was on Charlie’s descendants.

Into Camp Tuffit, and right up near the “Free cabins!” sign, you see, rolled 80-year-old Shirley Gunter of Missoula.

And she brought her mother with her.

Helen Self is 102 years old, although it was Shirley turning 80 in May that actually qualified them for the free cabin, according to the meant-to-draw-a-chuckle terms outlined on the longstanding sign.

And technically, of course, Charlie Thomas still probably had the upper hand – it says “if accompanied by parents,” not “a parent.”

But the Thomas family wasn’t about to quibble. They were delighted anyone could take them up on the offer.

Shirley’s daughter and Helen’s granddaughter, Diane Gunter of Missoula, has been bringing her children to Camp Tuffit for years. When her mother turned 80, Diane – who’d often seen the sign – emailed the Thomas family wondering if it was just a joke, or policy.

“But all the subject line of the email said was, ‘Is it true?’ ” says Tracy Thomas, Charlie’s great-granddaughter. “I thought it seemed kind of sketchy, so I didn’t even open it.”

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She mentioned it to her uncle, Mark Thomas, who agreed an email with an unfamiliar address and “Is it true?” typed in the subject line looked questionable.

He moved the email, unopened, into the next-day recycle bin on the computer.

“But I got to thinking, ‘Maybe I should have opened that,’ ” Mark says. “As soon as I did, I told Tracy, ‘You’ve got to look at this.’ ”

“We couldn’t believe it,” Tracy says. “We printed it out and started showing everybody.”

And they emailed Diane back on the spot.

Would the Thomases honor the promise Charlie Thomas had jokingly made – and that no one in history had ever taken Camp Tuffit up on?

They’d be tickled to, they told her.

“We’ve been looking forward to this for a long time,” Mark told Helen and her family around the resort’s campfire Thursday evening. “Actually, for 95 years.”

It wasn’t the first trip Helen Self – who turns 103 years old on Aug. 17 – has made to Camp Tuffit.

Self says she first came to the Lake Mary Ronan resort in the 1930s, when she was in her 20s.

The biggest part of Camp Tuffit’s charm is that it remains largely unchanged from back then, save for the modern RVs and trailers that have mostly replaced tents in the campground area.

Most of the little log cabins are ones Charlie Thomas and his son Jerome built way back when.

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Self’s most recent visit to Camp Tuffit, prior to this week, came nearly a quarter of a century ago on another family vacation. She was 79 or 80 at the time.

Daughter Shirley was on that trip too, and chuckled at the “free cabins to persons 80 years and older” sign that hangs near the campfire.

“Little did I know back then I would be the 80-year-old who brought her mother,” Shirley says.

Helen arrived at Camp Tuffit this time with Shirley, son-in-law Bill and granddaughter Diane for a two-night stay. The Thomases put them up in one of Camp Tuffit’s few modern – i.e., equipped with running water – cabins.

“They said you had to go up four steps to get into it, though, and asked if that would be a problem,” Shirley says. “I said, ‘It might be for me and Bill, but not for Mother.’ ”

At 102, Helen not only still dances the night away at senior dances and plays cards regularly.

She rode on the back of Harley-Davidson motorcycles to celebrate her 95th and 100th birthdays, and took a helicopter tour of Glacier National Park with her grandchildren for her 102nd birthday last year.

“I’m afraid somebody’s going to ask if she wants to bungee-jump,” Shirley says, “because I think she might say yes.”

Neither did the Gunters take Helen out of a rest home for the 100-mile jaunt to Lake Mary Ronan.

Self has lived with granddaughter Diane for years.

“I thought I’d be taking care of her, but she moved in and started doing all the cooking and laundry for me and five kids,” Diane says. “I tried to give her a day off one time, and she was crushed. ‘You don’t like my cooking,’ she told me.”

Diane learned a lesson Shirley had learned decades earlier.

“It was Mother’s Day, and I told her, ‘You go sit down and visit, I’ll wait on you today,’ ” Shirley says. “Pretty soon Grandpa comes in the kitchen looking for Mother. I found her in the bathroom, crying.”

“Any time I can’t be of use, I might as well die,” Helen told her daughter.

“Ever since then, we haven’t tried to stop her,” son-in-law Bill, who is also 80, says. “Vacuum, change diapers, you do what you want.”

One of the things he’s heard his mother-in-law repeat over the years, Bill says, is, “If you’re worried about something, just go scrub a floor. You’ll get over it.”

The only time he’s ever heard Helen complain, Bill says, is when someone’s tried to get her to slow down, even if only for a day.

“Well, I don’t have time to complain,” Helen says with a shrug. “I haven’t got all that much time left, and I have too much to do.”

Born in Hamilton in 1909, Helen was the youngest of nine children.

The oldest seven all died in their 60s and 70s, Helen says, but she and Joe, the brother closest to her in age and four years her senior, both passed the century mark.

Joe Chesnutt died in 2007 at the age of 101.

Helen, who has outlived three husbands and two grandchildren, says she doesn’t know the secret to longevity.

“I have a glass of red wine every night,” she offers.

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She’s also a cancer survivor, having had a mastectomy at age 94. But she opted for no further treatment following the surgery and, when none of the predicted pain came later, flushed the pills her doctor had given her for that down the toilet.

She’s been cancer-free since and is still, as she nears the age of 103, on no type of medication.

“When she goes to the doctor for her checkup,” Shirley says, “all he ever tells her is, ‘We’ll see you in another year, Helen.’ And that’s all she sees a doctor, is once a year.”

“I think what gets her through is her attitude,” Diane says.

“Don’t borrow trouble,” is one of Helen’s favorite pieces of advice.

At dances at the senior center and American Legion Hall, Helen will often dance 15 or 16 times a night and has more than one man wanting to get her on the dance floor.

One of them is 95.

“He goes home early,” Shirley says.

Then there’s Helen’s “secret pal” from Drummond. He’s 71, meaning Helen was 31 years old when he was born.

“He says he’s going to marry Mother when he grows up,” Shirley says

Thursday, Helen enjoyed a s’more Diane made for her over the campfire while tapping her toes to accordion music by another Tuffit guest, Topper Giono, a retired chief of police from Whitehall.

On Friday night – when Mark and Gary Thomas’ nephew Tim Long drove out from Polson to play the ancient piano that sits near the campfire – Helen was back in the center of camp, enjoying the music and the crowd of anglers and campers that gather there each evening.

“When they got ready to say their goodbyes, I leaned over and kissed Helen on the forehead,” Tracy says, “and you know what she said to me?”

“I’ll see you next year,” the 102-year-old announced.

“I didn’t even think of that,” Tracy says.

And so, after Helen and her family had retired for the night, Tracy Thomas penciled them in for the same cabin, at no charge, for the summer of 2013.

Reporter Vince Devlin covers Lake and Sanders counties for the Missoulian. He can be reached at 1-800-366-7186 or by email at vdevlin@missoulian.com.

Photographer Tom Bauer can be reached at (406) 523-5270 or by email at tbauer@missoulian.com.

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