ScoutingMay-June 2001

90 Years Old and Counting

By Robert Peterson

First Troop in Providence, R.I., looks back with pride and forward with hope.

Anywhere else, the unit would be referred to by its official BSA designation—Troop 1. In Rhode Island, however, it's First Providence Troop.

Rhode Islanders are notoriously independent-minded. In 1776 Rhode Island was the first colony to renounce allegiance to the king of England, and then, in 1790, the last state to ratify the new U.S. Constitution.

Building on that tradition, Rhode Islanders began organizing their own Scouting association in the summer of 1910, unaware that the Boy Scouts of America had been incorporated earlier in the year, on Feb. 8. And it was seven years before the Rhode Island Boy Scouts agreed to join the BSA.

Given that streak of independence, it is not surprising that Troop 1 is called the First Providence Troop.

Proud past, bright future

The troop was organized in the Washington Park section of Providence in the fall of 1910 and formally recognized by Scout headquarters in the city on Oct. 24. The Scoutmaster was Herbert R. Dean, a retired Army general who headed the troop for 10 years.

Sixty-four boys were listed on the troop's first charter. Meetings were held at the Broad Street School, not much more than a city block from the troop's present home, the Washington Park United Methodist Church, the unit's current chartered organization.

Last October, a hundred former troop members, along with leaders of the Narragansett Council and assorted well-wishers, joined the troop's Scouts and leaders at a 90th anniversary banquet.

Troop committee chairman Edward Dean (no relation to Herbert R. Dean) paid tribute to Al DeCristo, First Providence's "patron saint," who had died on Aug. 25.

"He was the cornerstone of the First Providence Troop for close to 40 years," Dean said. "He was a Scouter's Scouter, a friend to boys, and a tenacious worker. He would do everything he possibly could to get the job done and take care of the boys."

The main speaker, Narragansett Council Scout Executive David S. Anderson, predicted a bright future for First Providence and Scouting as a whole as long as the movement remains true to its ideals.

"Times change, technology advances, popular culture evolves, but while all this is happening, the Boy Scouts continue our commitment to the youth we serve," he said.

"Our commitment to this nation and the God we choose to worship does not change ... The secret of Scouting's longevity is that the character traits we teach and the boys learn are really timeless. We don't teach the fashionable or the trendy."

Anderson added: "Sometimes the things we teach are in style, sometimes not. But over time, the pendulum swings back, and people appreciate the fact that the Boy Scouts will always be about the same things—duty to God and country, responsibility for self and others."

Five special Eagle Scouts

Another highlight was a letter from Chief Scout Executive Roy L. Williams (who served as Narragansett Council Executive from 1990 to 1993), read by Scoutmaster Les J. Gimson Banks.

In his message, Williams noted that the troop's five most recent Eagle Scouts had been born in other countries.

"That is something to be very proud of," he wrote. "If the Boy Scouts of America is to continue to be a great youth movement, we must have troops in areas where immigrants and refugee boys live. Please accept my personal gratitude on behalf of your 6.2 million brothers and sisters in Scouting."

(Of First Providence's five newest Eagles, one was born in the Dominican Republic and two each in Portugal and Australia. The Australian-Americans are sons of Scoutmaster Les Banks, a native of Australia.)

At every table, between speeches, there was laughter as Boy Scouts from the long ago swapped stories.

One table had men who had been Scouts in the First Providence Troop from the late 1930s into the World War II era.

"We had 40 or 50 Scouts, and there was a waiting list to get in," recalled Charles Brailsford, who is currently a member of the troop committee.

"During the early war years, we collected aluminum pots and pans and had paper drives to help the war effort," he remembered. "At troop meetings, we had drills where we marched up and down and followed commands like 'About face!'" He and most of his troopmates were soon drilling in the armed services.

Ups and downs

Like any long-lived organization, the First Providence Troop has had its ups and downs. When it was born in 1910, Washington Park was mostly a white, middle-class neighborhood, which continued to be true into the 1960s.

"The troop was all white kids back then, and we had about 35 Scouts," said Richard Clarke, who served as Scoutmaster in 1962-63.

Troop committee chairman Ed Dean said the neighborhood population became more diverse in the late 1970s and 1980s. Immigrants began arriving from Portugal, and the African-American and Hispanic populations increased. Many of the newcomers were less prosperous than the families of the police officers and firefighters who had left the neighborhood, and First Providence Troop needed outside financial help.

Assistance came from the Prudential Foundation of Prudential Insurance Company of America and the Narragansett Council's Scoutreach program, which is designed to bolster units in urban and rural areas.

Council commissioner Roger Cardin, who was assistant commissioner for Scoutreach in the early 1990s, recalled that "the First Providence Troop fell on hard times, and we were able to assist them financially. We gave them Scoutreach camperships. We put some of their Scouts in our contingent for the national Scout jamboree in 1997 and assisted them with camperships at Philmont Scout Ranch [the BSA high adventure base in New Mexico]."

Troop membership at the time of the 90th anniversary totaled eight youth and a dozen adults, but Ed Dean and Scoutmaster Les Banks predicted that First Providence's future is positive.

"The troop is going to grow because Scouting is needed in an urban neighborhood like Washington Park," said Dean. "As our Scouts do more camping and other activities, they're going to start bringing their friends in, and that's the best way to get new members."

Les Banks added that Scouting spirit is high among today's Scouts, who are occasionally ridiculed as they walk to troop meetings in uniform—because some boys think Scouting is uncool. "But they keep on coming—that doesn't stop them."

Dedicated leadership

Leonard E. Johnson, the chartered organization representative, attributed First Providence's longevity to its dedicated leadership.

"Our leaders stay with us," he said, pointing to the four decades of service by Al DeCristo (who was never a Boy Scout during his boyhood in Portugal or, later, in America). "He was the guy who kept the candle from flickering out. He imbued us with the philosophy of what a Scout should be, and he also had the ability to bring in kids."

Kaetjens Nunez, a 15-year-old Life Scout and former senior patrol leader, said the troop's youth members are well aware of the 90-year legacy of First Providence, but that history does not weigh heavily on them.

"Sometimes, though," he added, "I think we have to set an example for other troops."

Contributing editor Robert Peterson lives in Ramsey, N.J.

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