At a small summer camp for boys, tucked into the woods of Northern Michigan, an extraordinary couple created a program to embed a success mindset in young boys. It became a powerful formula that continues to produce extraordinary results.

It’s now been over 60 years since the first 6-14 year olds spent a few weeks of summer running around a baseball field and swimming in a lake.

But those few short weeks made such a powerful impact on the boys that years later, as men looking back on their lives, they credited their success as husbands, fathers, teachers, businessmen and community leaders to those summer days.

To find out why, and how the formula was created, you have to travel to a small town on Florida’s west coast where a bus stops at 6 AM every Monday, Wednesday and Friday to pick up a lone passenger for a ten minute ride to a gym where she’ll spend an hour or two walking on the treadmill, working through a weight machine circuit and sitting and chatting with friends. Once a month, when it’s her turn to bring the Wednesday treats, she comes bearing platters of homemade biscotti and pizzelles.

Meet 92 year old Tess–who says she never knew she would have so much fun in her 90s as a dynamo in the gym and now a published author of Swim the Lake Before You Row the Boat, her new book that tells the story of the success formula she and husband, Alex, created and put to work.


She never imagined the impact she would have…For twenty-seven years Tess, and her husband Alex, owned and operated Camp Flying Eagle, providing a unique and rewarding summer camp experience that shaped the lives of thousands of young boys.

Flying Eagle received the highest rankings available from the American Camping Association and, more important, from the boys themselves who, as men, called the time spent there “the best years of my life.”

Guided by the belief that every child needs a chance to set goals and experience success, the Flying Eagle program was designed to embed the experience of success in the minds of its young campers. It gave a life-long reservoir of memories of success to call on in the future and instilled in them a belief that they were the type of person who succeeded. That belief not only brought them success in childhood, but it continued to attract success to them throughout their lives – bringing them rich and rewarding experiences as husbands, fathers, businessmen and community leaders. .

Those boys inspired the book.

A revelation changed everything…in their 56th year of marriage, Alex found himself battling prostate cancer… a battle he didn’t win…and Tess found herself suddenly alone. Who are you when you’ve always been part of a team? It took awhile to find out, but on her 80th birthday, a revelation dawned.

“I realized that when you are married and part of a team, you create a shared identity. You meet in the middle of your personalities,” she said. “But four years after Alex died I suddenly realized that I was holding myself back from trying new things or exploring new places because I was still in ‘team mode.’ In an instant a whole new world of opportunity seemed to open up.”

And with that, she threw herself a big birthday party and decided her birthday present to herself would be a promise to “say yes” to every new opportunity that came along.

“Why not?” she said. “I might find out I like it.”

And it was in that frame of mind that the idea of writing the book showed up.

It’s never too late to follow your dream…at 83 she began writing. That summer she sat at her desk overlooking Crooked Lake and pecked away at her computer–day after summer day, for nearly three months.

At the end of summer she returned home to Florida where everyday activities interrupted the flow of the book writing. But when the summer of 2011 arrived, she came back to Crooked Lake and kept writing.

Nine years later and the proof is in–it’s never too late to follow your dreams. Her labor of love has been called a “beautiful book,” a “masterclass,” and a “literary life compass.”

And it’s been called something else because…

Now more than ever…we need a new approach. Something is happening to our boys. And as much as we think we can protect the ones we love, the “something” is happening all around them. They live in it…and they have to learn to survive and thrive in it. The Flying Eagle Formula will help them. Now more than ever, it’s the answer we need.

Said one grandparent:

“I couldn’t help but think, as we watched the news about yet another school shooting, that if the Flying Eagle Formula were instituted in the schools it would make a world of real difference and save lives far beyond the other measures they want to take.”

And this from a parent:

“It’s a race for our son’s minds.”

And from a teacher:

“Every parent, teacher, or anyone who wants boys to grow up happy and successful should read and share this book. It brings a new perspective on what a boy really needs from the adults around him…”

Swim The Lake Before You Row The Boat explains how to embed a success mindset in young boys so they will become confident and courageous in their personal lives and become confident and successful husbands, nurturing fathers, and positive, contributing members of society.

But…before the book…

It was going to be another day of firsts…and it was going to be exciting. A chance to ring the bell to open trading at the New York Stock Exchange. Only a select few get to ring the bell and dozens of requests are rejected every week. It’s an honor given to heads of state, chief executive officers of companies listed on the NYSE, members when they retire, and dignitaries. Some people have called it a dream come true.

The opening bell is rung at 9:30 AM and Tess was in New York waiting for a ride to take her the few short blocks from her hotel to the Exchange. The ride never came. That day was 9/11. Cell phones stopped working, dust filled the air and traffic was gridlocked. Concerned staff members ran through the chaos to find her at her hotel which was close to Ground Zero.

“All around me people were walking away – streaming by looking dazed,” she recalls. “I remember a woman without shoes and I remember the dust and the debris. And I will never forget the wonderful people who came to find me.”

Tess was in New York that day as the National President of AARP, an organization of 38 million members that is dedicated to improving the lives of Americans over the age of 50.

The honor of ringing the stock exchange bell didn’t happen, but plenty of others did.

“Oh my gosh! That person on TV with the President is my mom!!!”…

As daughter Debbie tells it, she was watching the news when she suddenly realized that the person standing next to the President of the United States looked very familiar! “I did a double-take,” she said. On another day she watched as Tess testified before Congress. It was just another chapter in a lifetime of service.

That service began in the 1970s when Tess decided to look for a job she could do during the winter months when Camp Flying Eagle was closed. As luck would have it, Michigan’s Area Agencies on Aging Association was looking for someone to lead a new legislative advocacy program.

“I don’t know why they chose me,” she says. “I had no experience, but they thought I could do it – and it turns out, I could!”

Before long she became the Executive Director of the Association and then spent eight years helping older persons learn how to advocate for themselves. The highlight of those years became “Senior Power Day” where over 6,000 seniors from all over the state descended upon the state capitol to share their opinions with legislators, department heads and the Governor.

In 1985, when she retired, the Michigan House and Senate passed a concurrent resolution noting that she had “played a major role in every significant piece of legislation affecting older persons during the past 10 years.”

After Tess and Alex moved to Florida to retire, she was approached by Florida’s Governor and asked to volunteer to lead an effort to create a new, Florida Department of Elder Affairs. Those efforts were successful and when the Department became a reality, she stayed on an additional five years to provide guidance as the Chair of its Citizen’s Advisory Committee.

It was about that time that she began her nearly three decades of volunteer service with the American Association of Retired Persons – now just known as AARP. She soon became the Florida State President–another volunteer position and was then elected to serve as a representative to the AARP national board.

Four years later she was elected Vice President of the Board and then served eight years as Vice President, President Elect, National President and Past President. As National President she represented AARP throughout the nation and abroad. As always, her goal was to find ways to empower others and expand opportunities.

Through it all, Alex was by her side as her biggest supporter. He proudly wore a button that read, “Mr. Tess Canja.”

“During all those years when I was working and we were building our vision and dream of Camp Flying Eagle, Tess supported me,” he said. “I’m happy to be able to support her.”

Unique insights and a proven track record… From the wide range of positions she has held – leader, volunteer, entrepreneur, mentor, boss, colleague, director, subordinate – Tess’s life experiences have given her a unique insight into the qualities that define success. Over the years she has learned that the most important ones come from within and that they can be nurtured by someone who cares.

“It has been one of the lasting joys of my life to know we made a positive impact on so many boys and young men. To hear them tell us that our efforts at Camp Flying Eagle gave them their foundation for success, and to see the outstanding men they have become, is so gratifying and brings me a feeling of satisfaction and peace. Even now, decades later, they feel like family to me.

My dream is to share the Flying Eagle Formula so that parents, teachers, coaches and anyone who works with young boys will know the joy I know when they hear how their efforts created happiness, joy and success.”

It’s never too late…to follow your dreams, to make a difference, to change a life, and to change your own. In fact, Tess has lived her life with the same success mindset she and Alex helped embed in so many young boys. It’s a mindset characterized by these beliefs:

“Yes I can”…
“I can try something new and succeed”…
“I can make a difference”…”
My life matters”…
I have a purpose!”

After leaving national service with AARP, Tess focused her attention on her local AARP Chapter 80 where she continues to write stories for the newsletter, organizes “Game Day” and participates in community initiatives.

She also served as Chair of a local committee with the mission of improving life for young and old by bringing the generations together. For several years the group sponsored a day where senior citizens brought their confusing electrical gadgets, including laptops, iPads, iPhones, tablets, and e-readers, to a local fifth grade class for hands-on help in learning how to operate them. It was wildly successful as seniors left with gadgets “that work” and fifth graders learned, in a powerful way, that they can make a significant difference in the lives of others.

And every summer Tess travels back to northern Michigan to once again spend summer days on Crooked Lake where the highlights of each year are the visits from former campers who, with their families, come back to share memories, the beauty of the lake, S’Mores around a campfire, and love that is shared.


She loved making beautiful stained glass windows with pictures of wildlife.
She hugs everyone!
Her chocolate biscotti is to die for!