Boy Scouts of America Troop 342 raised three fingers in the air and recited the Scout Oath and Scout Law for possibly the last time at Statesboro Primitive Baptist Church during a farewell banquet in the church’s fellowship hall on Saturday.
After 54 years of consistently sponsoring Troop 342 since it was founded in 1963, Statesboro Primitive Baptist Church has dissolved that partnership after recognizing differing positions taken by the Boys Scouts of America national leadership and Primitive Baptist beliefs.
The fellowship hall was filled Saturday with scouts of all ages and generations as many who had taken part in the organization over the years returned to be part of the farewell banquet.
During the more than five decades of service, only five scoutmasters led the boys, which is somewhat of a rarity, with most of the scoutmasters serving lengthy volunteer positions.
Two of the scoutmasters have passed away, but representatives for each spoke during the program. Returning for the event were Ken Bennett, original scoutmaster who actually served at two different times during the 54 years; Donald Nessmith, who represented his father, Scoutmaster Ben R. Nessmith; Vilette Melton, representing her husband, Scoutmaster Emory Melton; John D. Russell, who came from his home in Asheville, North Carolina, for the event; and Lovett Bennett Jr., current scoutmaster.
Starting Troop 342
Ken Bennett was helping with a Boy Scout troop at another Baptist church in the community when someone in his church suggested that Statesboro Primitive Baptist Church should start its own troop, and he willingly accepted the scoutmaster position, leading some of the boys on hiking and camping trips that took them out of Bulloch County for the first time in their young lives.
Donald Nessmith, representing his dad, said that when he joined as an 11-year-old kid, his dad took on the role of scoutmaster.
“My dad had been a scout as a kid, and he enjoyed guiding young boys into men,” Nessmith said.
Nessmith recalled some of the many things he learned in scouting, listing “the importance of planning, how to work with others to accomplish a common goal, how to pitch a tent and dig a latrine, overcoming fears, learning to use a hatchet and first aid skills.
“I’d been deathly afraid of thunderstorms as a kid, but after a few storms while sleeping in a tent, I learned that sometimes you just have to face your fears to overcome them,” he said.
Current 342 Scoutmaster Lovett Bennett spoke fondly of Emory Melton, who was his scoutmaster as a young boy.
“My scouts thought I was as old as God, so when they found out Emory Melton had been my leader, they must’ve thought he was Methuselah,” he said.
Vilette Melton took the podium next.
“Fifty-one years ago, the Meltons were introduced into the wonderful world of scouting. When your 8-year-old son gets down on his knees and begs you to be a den mother, you become a den mother,” she said.
Melton remembered that the Cub Scouts met in the family’s apartment, and dues were 10 cents.
“I was a den mother to two sons and 25 more. And then we needed a scoutmaster,” she said.
That’s when her husband became scoutmaster, and he, too, took many boys on their first-ever trip to the mountains.
Villette Melton earned the distinction of Silver Fawn in the Boy Scout organization. Emory Melton earned the Silver Beaver title, and both of her boys, Emerson and Derrel, became Eagle Scouts.
John Russell first assisted Troop 342 as a committee member and attended camping trips. He was in scouting as a child and decided to take part when his family moved to Statesboro and his sons got involved in the program. While at a camp with the boys, Scoutmaster Ken Bennett suggested Russell take the helm as scoutmaster.
“I would take nothing for my 20 years of scouting,” Russell said. “This church has been the greatest sponsor that any Boy Scout organization could ask for. They’ve stood by us in thick and thin. My hat’s off to Statesboro Primitive Baptist Church.”
Lovett Bennett echoed those sentiments when he took the podium and said he was minding his own business when someone suggested that he become scoutmaster.
That was in 2004, and he has led the boys since that time.
“Little did I know what I was getting into,” he said. “It’s been my pleasure to have been here all this time.”
Bennett has taken the troop to High Adventure camps every year since 2006 except for one, and he said he’s smoked thousands of Boston butts to help with fundraising for the camps.
“Eight hundred sixty was the most butts we cooked at one time,” he recalled.
Bennett further bragged on the accomplishments of the troop over the years, noting that in the 54 years, more than 60 boys achieved the highest rank, that of Eagle Scout. Notable projects over recent years include collecting tattered flags for proper disposal, placing a flag receptacle outside the courthouse, refinishing furniture for the homeless shelter and cleaning up 11 cemeteries.
“In a little over 10 years, boys from our troop have saved five lives as a direct result of the training they received while in Boy Scouts,” Bennett said.
He noted that in a couple of the life-saving events, the Heimlich maneuver was performed.
“We’ve had a great relationship with this church and are proud of what this church has done for us, from the encouragement, from ladies baking cakes for our fundraisers, from the purchases of our Boston butts and much more,” Bennett said.
Church offers thanks
Brother Randy Waters, Statesboro Primitive Baptist Church pastor, gave a benediction and said the scouts and the program will be missed.
“As a pastor, it breaks your heart to lose a member in any way, and there’s a sadness about losing this troop,” Waters said. “You will be fondly remembered as a wonderful flavor of integrity and character. We bid you Godspeed wherever you go.
“I know that you’ll do well wherever you go. We appreciate all that you are and all that you do.”
Two of the most recent members of the troop to earn their Eagle rank, Cross Womack and Durden Gagel spoke fondly of their time in scouts.
“I became a Boy Scout to better myself as an individual and to help my country and my community,” Womack said.
He said reaching the Eagle Scout goal was important to him because only a small percentage of Boy Scouts achieve that goal.
In addition to the many opportunities to learn leadership and survival skills, Womack pointed out that the boys had many memories of fun times together.
“My best memory in scouting was when my troop took a trip to Patriots Point in Charleston, South Carolina,” he said. “The whole night, we played hide-and-seek on the entire boat, with the base in the middle. My friends and I had so much fun — we all lost probably 10 pounds from all the running.”
Gagel recognized that becoming an Eagle Scout is an honor that not many achieve.
“It is hard work, but well worth it,” he said. “I am able to be part of a special group of individuals that all share the same standard of the Eagle Scout.”
Gagel said the best part of scouting for him was the bond formed with other scouts.
“That bond will last a lifetime,” he said. “We grow to depend on each other, and that trust lasts forever.
“Mr. Bennett taught us how to become leaders in the troop, in school and in the community. He has been a great leader and a great example for all of the scouts.”
Gagel said he understands the reasoning for the troop’s departure, but added, “I’m sad because other young men will not have the opportunity to have the love and support that SPBC gave to our troop.”