Dissolved after 54 years of service, Boy Scouts of America Troop 342 will reminisce with present and past Scouts, adult leaders, parents and other supporters during a farewell banquet in the Statesboro Primitive Baptist Church fellowship hall at 6 p.m. Saturday.
“We’ll try to have somebody from every decade that will say something or share photographs or memories, recollections about what the troop was like and what happened during their period with the troop,” said its final Scoutmaster, attorney Lovett Bennett Jr. of Statesboro.
RSVP’s from Troop 342 members and families of past generations have been coming in steadily, and organizers are trying to reach out to more. The troop has books filled with photographs from years gone by to share during the banquet.
“So it will just be a lot of fun to have a chance to reminisce and a chance for us to thank the church for supporting us all of these years,” Bennett said.
Statesboro Primitive Baptist Church sponsored Troop 342 throughout its more than five decades in existence. A banquet celebrating the troop’s golden anniversary was held at the church Feb. 1, 2014. But in the years since, church leaders noted a rift between positions taken by the Boy Scouts of America national leadership, such as a 2015 decision allowing gay adult scout leaders, and Primitive Baptist beliefs.
“The SPBC loves Boy Scout Troop 342 and they continue to be in our prayers,” was part of a Statesboro Primitive Baptist Church Board of Deacons’ statement in August acknowledging the decision to end the sponsorship effective Dec. 31, 2017.
With mutual appreciation expressed between the church and troop leaders, the sponsorship has drawn to an amicable close. The final troop meeting at the church-owned Boy Scout hut was held Dec. 4. There, past Scouts received as mementos small items, such as folding shovels, bowsaws and coffee pots, from the troop’s inventory.
“We had several of the old Scouts ask us to save them something with ‘Troop 342’ on it, so we’ve done that, and that was a lot of fun,” Bennett said.
Functional items such as tents, backpacks and sleeping bags were assigned to younger Scouts in need of equipment, he said.
Over the years, 60 or more young men have made Eagle Scout, the ultimate rank, through Troop 342. The most recent are Cross Womack and Durden Gagel, who will be receiving their Eagle awards March 10, Bennett said.
Regional leaders in scouting have referred to the troop as “an Eagle factory.” Bennett carried on the tradition the last 13 years as Scoutmaster. Himself a Boy Scout in Troop 342 in the late 1960s, he returned in 1999 as an assistant Scoutmaster and was there when his sons, William and Michael, became Eagle Scouts.
John D. Russell was Troop 342 Scoutmaster for roughly 20 years, from about 1984 to Dec. 31, 2004, after first volunteering with the troop in 1981. He and his wife, Baerbel Russell, plan to come back to Statesboro from their current home in Asheville, North Carolina, for Saturday’s farewell banquet.
Their sons both made Eagle Scout with the troop. The older, John H. Russell, 48, retired from the Air Force and now works with a company that does technical work with aircraft in Melbourne, Florida. His younger brother, Lt. Col. M. Mark Russell, 37, is serving in a leadership position at the U.S. Air Force Academy at Colorado Springs.
“Those were some of the most enjoyable years of my life, working with the scout program,” John D. Russell said.
When he was a Scout, his Scoutmasters had changed almost annually, he said. He always had fun but wasn’t able to advance very far, so he hoped that by providing a steady presence he was able to be a positive influence.
“I just think it’s a shame that the troop’s not going to be continuing with the church,” the Russell said. “They’re the greatest sponsors in the world. I mean, they were just terrific to us. You know, there are a lot of great people in that church, and they were fully behind the Boy Scouts until they started making all of these silly changes here in the last few years.”
He also commented that recent decisions of the BSA national leadership were clearly contrary to the church’s beliefs and that the church stuck with the troop “an unbelievably long time.”
Another of the surviving Scoutmasters is Ken Bennett, who held the leadership position before Russell and is not related to Lovett Bennett. The late Emory Melton and the late Ben R. Nessmith Sr. were Scoutmasters earlier in the troop’s history.
Marks of Eagles
Scouts from the troop have completed service projects that leave lasting evidence in the community. Each candidate for Eagle Scout rank must plan and oversee a major project. Over the past few years, several Eagles have directed cleanups of historic but long-neglected cemeteries in coordination with the Bulloch County Historical Society.
Other projects of the last decade included refurbishing and replacing benches around Courthouse Square, building bluebird boxes for Ogeechee Area Hospice, helping move the Statesboro Food Bank and placing flags on veterans’ graves during Memorial Day.
For its older boys, the troop provided opportunities to attend high adventure camps – such as Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico, Northern Tier in Minnesota and Florida Sea Base – most summers. Bennett shared photos of Troop 342 Scouts and leaders dwarfed by stunning Western scenery on the last of these trips, in and around Philmont in summer 2017.
Sad to see it go
Jamie Hotchkiss, now 47 and sales manager for Claude Howard Lumber in Statesboro, became an Eagle Scout in 1987. He fondly recalls trips he took to the Appalachian Mountains, Philmont Ranch and other places as a teenager with Troop 342.
He hopes to attend the banquet.
“It’s sad for the troop to go away. …,” Hotchkiss said. “I understand, you know, that everything changes and things are different now, but it did a lot of good for a lot of people, and that’s something that can never be measured. Hopefully something as good will take its place.”
People associated with the troop now or in the past are invited to the banquet. Those planning to attend are asked to RSVP to Bennett’s office number, (912) 764-3122.