Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Mr. Scoutmaster & Boy Scout Troop 55

When I was a very young boy I played clarinet in the Boy Scout Band. This was a band organized by the head of the local Army band, Lloyd Maddox. He teamed up with another well-known 1940's local bandleader, Deke Moffit who wrote arrangements of some of our songs. The pinacle of the year was to play at the Boy Scout Jamboree that was held each year at the Cincinnati Gardens.

We may have thought we were the stars of the show until Scout Troop 55 was called on. These fellas put on an exhibition of precision marching that was unmatched.

I had all but forgotten about the Boy Scout Jamboree until I read the online edition of today's Cincinnati Enquirer

This is the Cincinnati Enquirer article is by Chuck Martin and photos by Michael Keating

There may never be another group of Boy Scouts like those of Cincinnati's Troop 55. Maybe never another leader like the man they called "Scoutmaster."

Headquartered in the old Ninth Street YMCA in the West End, Troop 55 was a second home for many in the neighborhood during the first half of the last century. There, they learned to swim and operate amateur radios, to march tightly in step. On field trips out of the city, they hiked and camped, cooked and played.

It didn't matter that these scouts were all African-Americans, some so poor they couldn't afford uniforms. It didn't matter that in order to get to their black-only summer camp, they had to take a streetcar or bus as far east as it ran - to Madisonville - then march another 20 miles to Camp Symmes, near Milford.
Troop 55 was one of several area segregated Boy Scout troops. But that didn't diminish the members' goals or limit their accomplishments. Perhaps it emboldened them.

When Troop 55 formed in 1919, Ted Berry - Cincinnati's first African-American mayor -was a member. He would later serve as an assistant scoutmaster. The scouts of Troop 55 patrolled the streets and back alleys on bicycles, running errands for the elderly and shut-ins, asking for no pay or tips.

"We were like guardian angels," says Herman Turner, 79, an Eagle Scout, who would later fly an Air Force bomber in Korea and serve as a teacher and administrator in Cincinnati Public Schools.

In boats, the scouts helped search for survivors after the great Cincinnati flood of 1937. For air raid drills during World War II, they pedaled around their neighborhood turning off city lights.

At the Ninth Street Y between Mound and Cutter streets, then the center of the West End community, the scouts learned discipline, respect and hard work. The man who taught them these values, Leo J. Hopkins, is behind the legend of Troop 55.

"He was a man among men," says Bill Means, 77, a Troop 55 scout and former Golden Gloves boxing champion.

Most knew him only as "Scoutmaster," an African-American whom boys saluted - in or out of uniform - wherever they saw him. He was smaller than many of his scouts, standing no taller than 5-foot-3, weighing no more than 130 pounds.

Yet he earned their respect by example - teaching the boys to tie knots, use a knife and start a fire without matches. And in his weekly meetings, Hopkins demanded attention with his booming voice, the bang of a wooden gavel and sometimes, the toss of a drum stick across the room.

He lived at the Ninth Street Y and had no family except for the boys of Troop 55, who loved him like a father.

"His life was scouting, his life was the boys," says Lynwood Battle Jr., 64, another Troop 55 scout and former Procter & Gamble executive.

Hopkins taught the scouts to beat a drum, blow a horn and march proudly. Many still remember the adoring crowds that would follow Troop 55 in parades from the West End to Fountain Square during the 1930s, '40s and '50s. All the boys in the neighborhood wanted to join the troop.

William Mundon grew up across the street from the Y, hearing the drum and bugle corps practice every Friday "lighting up the neighborhood." He wanted to join so badly, he lied about his age.

"I went to join when I was two months away from my 12th birthday," says Mundon, 82, who served in the Navy during World War II. "But when Scoutmaster heard that, he banged his mallet on the desk and told me I had to be 12 to join."

The troop's bicycle brigade would shut down streets as the marching band of boys in starched green shirts approached. A drum major led the drum and bugle corps, followed by more scouts on foot and those on bicycles, their wheel spokes decorated for the occasion.

And somewhere on the street nearby, Hopkins rode his bike, watching to make sure everyone was in line and in step. Watching proudly.

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