Washington’s oldest scout troop also its best connected
By Steve Hendrix,
When the Boy Scouts of Troop 52, the Washington area’s oldest scout group, were working on their aviation merit badges, one of the dads offered to help. That’s what troop parents do, and, hey, he did know the subject.
“It was a blast,” said Michael Huerta, head of the Federal Aviation Administration. After his day job running the nation’s airspace, Huerta ran a series of scouting sessions in the parish hall of All Saints Episcopal Church in Chevy Chase. “We were all sitting on the floor, talking about air safety.”
Huerta is part of a long tradition of plugged-in parents at the Chevy Chase-Bethesda-based troop, which on Saturday kicked off a year-long 100th birthday celebration. If a Boy Scout is trustworthy, thrifty, reverent and clean, at Troop 52 he is also very well connected.
The troop has been practicing an only-in-Washington brand of scouting since 1913, knotting their neckerchiefs for inaugural parades, protest marches and lots of inside-the-Beltway networking.
Over the years, Troop 52 scouts have been taught farming by a secretary of agriculture, citizenship by a member of Congress and automobile mechanics by a rear admiral.
That last was Joyce Johnson, who is also a medical doctor and was the first active-duty Coast Guard officer to reach flag rank.
“The kids didn’t care that she was an admiral,” said former scoutmaster Craig Iscoe, who was an associate deputy attorney general when he became scoutmaster and a D.C. Superior Court Judge by the time he left. “They were just really impressed with the way she could take apart a car.”
Former undersecretary of defense Douglas Feith taught the citizenship merit badge in his son’s day. David Will’s father, columnist George Will, was around. And although scouts Robert, Dan and Benjamin Woolsey’s dad hadn’t yet been appointed director of the CIA when he was an assistant scoutmaster, he was at least a former undersecretary of the Navy. So James Woolsey was able to arrange an awesome tour of a nuclear submarine in Norfolk.
“At the time, there wasn’t much going in the [strategic arms reduction] talks President Reagan had appointed me to,” Woolsey said. “The Russians were just sitting there. So I was able to schedule my trips to Geneva around scout trips and little league.”
The scouts themselves have always remained largely oblivious to the high-wattage of their parent volunteers, current Scoutmaster Don Beckham said.
“They just know these parents as parents,” Beckham said, “and sometimes as someone who can arrange cool visits to an airport tower.”
Evidence of Troop 52’s century in Washington was laid out Saturday at Camp Seneca, the troop’s 87-year-old wilderness retreat near Germantown. Dozens of troop alumni, some of them carrying uniforms they could no longer squeeze into, swapped stories around folding tables lined with troop memorabilia.
In one photograph, Scout Walter Beach was being introduced to Princess Elizabeth, then in her mid-20s, on a 1951 visit to Washington. A newspaper clipping details how overnighters were rescued from Camp Seneca after the Blizzard of 1958.
“We didn’t feel like we needed rescuing,” said Jim Boone, 66, a 1962 Eagle Scout who now has a long, white beard and ponytail to match. “We were fine out here.”
Boone’s boldface name is one from history ; he’s the great-great-great-great nephew of frontiersman Daniel Boone. He and other old-timers gathered with the current scouts to salute the flags.
“Getting a little hard with my arthritis,” said Tony Churchill, 74, a scoutmaster from the late 1990s who was struggling with the traditional three-fingered salute.
The troop, which was founded in the District just three years after scouting arrived in the United States, has been present for decades of Washington pomp and protest, according to troop historian Paul Fekete.
In 1916, the 52 patch was on the sleeve of scouts escorting suffrage marchers, Fekete said, when D.C. police declined to provide security for the upstart women. They marched in the inaugurations of Woodrow Wilson and Warren G. Harding. They were decorated planters of victory gardens and collectors of waste paper during World War II.
They maintained a long association with cereal socialite Marjorie Merriweather Post, serving as opera ushers and acting as a garden guides when she would open her Hillwood Estate to the public.
“We had to keep women in high heels off the putting greens,” said Fred Pierdon, 77, who shows up in a photo as a shirtless scout in 1947, reached Eagle status in 1950 and retired as scoutmaster in the 1980s. “And then she would serve us what I would call an A-number-one steak dinner.”
In more recent years, Troop 52 was among the area’s first to have African American and international members, drawing from local high schools and Washington’s diplomatic community. Scouts of color appear in the yearly group photos starting in 1966.
Troop leaders also appointed the region’s first female senior patrol leader, one chosen from the ranks of Venture Crew 52, an all-girl adjunct affiliated with the troop since 1997.
“Troop 52 has almost always been in the forefront,” said Peter Bielak, former chairman of the history committee of the National Capital Area Council, the body governing 687 scout troops between Frederick and Fredericksburg. “They were always ahead of the pack in including as many people as possible.”
Troop 52, which has produced more than 200 Eagle Scouts, will be one of the first troops in the nation eligible to fly the 100-year banner, Bielak said. Most troops fade in and out of active mode over the years, as leaders move on or sponsorships are lost. But Troop 52 has served continuously, boosted by a 93-year relationship with All Saints, affluent and engaged parents and a tradition of leaving troop leadership to the scouts themselves. “
“We really step back and let the scouts lead,” Beckham said. “That can be a hard thing for parents to do, especially in this neighborhood.”
To make sure the area’s famously Type A parents were not overly involved in the scouting experience, the troop instituted a rule that neither mother nor father could go on camping trips in a child’s first year.
“At my farewell party, a scout stood up and said I deserved more credit for being able to handle the ‘dreaded Chevy Chase parent,’ ” Iscoe said. “Sometimes you would have to drag them away from the campfire. ‘He doesn’t know how to make a fire.’ Well, he will learn.”
For a suburban institution, the troop has a record of hard-core wilderness experience. The scouts camp at Seneca every month, 11 months a year in all weathers (in February they take a ski trip).
But plenty of the recollections were about the troop’s indoor adventures, such as the visit to the highly restricted floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, courtesy of scout dad William Hudnut, a former Republican congressman from Indiana.
For Jerry Nachison, father of an Eagle Scout and onetime scoutmaster and assistant scoutmaster, the impromptu visit to the U.S.S. Los Angeles arranged by Woolsey still stands out.
“That’s a tour I will not forget for the rest of the my life,” Nachison said. “Particularly the torpedo room, which had not been unloaded yet. They were all marked ‘Danger Radiation.’ ”
At Seneca, as young scouts worked waste deep in the creek to construct a traditional “monkey bridge” rope span across the water, Elisabeth Bumiller helped other parents repair the deck of the historic bunk cabin and prepared for her own night in a tent.
“I’m a third-generation Girl Scout leader” she said, rubbing sawdust off her hands. “I love camping out here.”
The mother of a recently minted Eagle Scout, Bumiller was the volunteer writer of Troop 52’s weekly Internet bulletin. Also, she is a reporter for the New York Times.