Who’s That Girl Scout? Abbie Higgins

What is a girl to do upon graduation? What future awaits? Leave it to the Girl Scouts to provide an answer. Consider a future with the Girl Scouts. Follow the same career path as Abbie Higgins–Young Group Work Executive.

Abbie Higgins Cover cropped
Abbie Higgins Cover

Miss Higgins is the heroine of Abbie Higgins: Young Group Work Executive, a novel published by the Girl Scouts of the USA in 1950. I found a reprint online and enjoyed reading it, although the ending was rather predictable.

Abbie is an ordinary American co-ed trying to figure out her future. Her prospects look slim, possibly because she attended the lesser known State U. (Sounds suspicious to me, perhaps a new type of front for organized crime.)

During her sophomore year, Abbie takes a part-time job at Swift House, a settlement house near campus. The job comes with housing, and Abbie is soon drawn into the range of community activities that happen around her. One of her first tasks is starting a Girl Scout troop.

As graduation approaches, she takes a job in a successful clothing boutique, but finds she misses solving day-to-day community problem. She has an epiphany while working at a resident Girl Scout camp one summer. Abbie is going to become a professional Girl Scout.

Not Just Handbooks

The Abbie Higgins novel was part of a series of Girl Scout-themed fiction that first appeared in 1918. These books were very popular in the 1920s-1930s and followed the adventure series format of Nancy Drew and the Hardy boys. Like those two collections, one author might write five or six novels under their own name–then several more under one or more pen names. Mildred Wirt, for example, wrote many volumes of Girl Scout fiction and, under the pen name Carolyn Keene, 23 of the first Nancy Drew books.

Portrait of woman in Girl Scout hat and Mainbocher uniform
Constance Rittenhouse (Leader December 1950)

Abbie Higgins is different, aimed at an older audience. It was part of a national campaign to encourage young women to consider becoming professional Girl Scouts. The primary author, Constance Rittenhouse, was GSUSA Executive Director from 1935 to 1950. Coauthor Iris Vinton was already well-known for writing a series of juvenile historical fiction as well as several Nancy Drew volumes.

Girl Scout Careers

GSUSA also published several pamphlets about “Jobs with a Future” that described the ideal candidate and benefits of paid Girl Scout work.

The 1940s edition asks:

The pamphlets emphasized that Girl Scout careers were not just for unmarried women.

At the same time, GSUSA turned attention to another untapped labor market–experienced leaders whose troops had graduated. These new hires were already deeply familiar with the Girl Scout program and would onboard quickly. (Not that anyone used the term “onboard” in the 1950s.)

Jobs Aprl 1958
Leader Magazine April 1958

At the time, GSUSA encouraged the hiring of such “interrupted-career women,” and offered special training programs for them. Experience “wearing the green” was considered an asset.

But hiring good people is not the problem–retention is.

© 2023 Ann Robertson, writer, editor, Girl Scout historian

Frances Hesselbein, Girl Scout Legend

Former Girl Scout CEO Frances Hesselbein passed away over the weekend at age 107. She led the movement through the turbulent 1970s and 1980s, finding ways to reach more girls and to empower them to take on a rapidly changing world.

Frances Hesselbein was a kick-ass Girl Scout.
Hesselbein in the Halston Girl Scout uniform, 1978

After hearing her speak at the 2011 National Convention, I wanted her to adopt me. She spoke with passion, with vision, and with a firm focus on how to empower women.

She urged listeners to connect with others by expecting their best intentions. She emphasized the need for respect, such as between councils and the national organization, as a prerequisite for collaboration.

Workplace blogger Sylvia LaFair made this insightful comparison just three months ago:

Cause Before Self

We can all learn deeply from women like the late Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom and Frances Hesselbein, C.E.O. of The Leadership Forum. There is less focus less on celebrity and more on duty and legacy.

Sylvia Lafair, CEOptions

In 2017 I sent Mrs. Hesselbein a letter asking for an interview. A few weeks passed with no reply, then my phone rang. “This is Frances Hesselbein. I would be delighted to meet with you.”

Swoon.

This post was originally published in 2017, following that visit.

************

An Afternoon Meeting

I never met Juliette Gordon Low, of course, but last week I came pretty close. I had the privilege of spending part of the day with Frances Hesselbein at her office in Manhattan. Few individuals have had as great an impact on the Girl Scout movement as this gracious lady.

Mrs. Hesselbein was the GSUSA National Executive Director from 1976 to 1990. Her first day on the job, in fact, was July 4, 1976. Today she is the director of the Frances Hesselbein Leadership Institute.

I had asked to interview her about the decision to sell Rockwood National Center in 1978. But we soon moved on to the many highlights and happier memories from her time at GSUSA.

She presided over many milestones, some more popular than others, including implementing circular management principles, introducing the Worlds to Explore program, reconfiguring the Edith Macy Center into a year-round training facility, and the introduction of the contemporary (three faces) logo. Some of her favorite memories include:

Halston Adult Uniform

Autograph and book dedication from the niece of fashion designer Halston.
Halston Catalog
Two women model sage green Girl Scout uniform designed by Halston
Halston uniform

When we met, Mrs. H (“Frances” just seems too informal!) had just returned from visiting a Halston retrospective exhibition at the Nassau County (NY) Museum of Art. The famous fashion designer had created a stylish collection of adult uniforms in 1978, and Mrs. H vividly recalled participating in that process. She also let me borrow the gorgeous exhibit catalog.

Camping and Diversity

I had submitted my resume, Rockwood book outline and synopsis, and several other documents in advance, and Mrs. H immediately noted that we both had experience as camp staff, making us both survivors of that trial by fire. She shared with me several staff photos from her time directing Camp Blue Knob in western Pennsylvania and pointed out the unusual racial diversity of the group for the early 1950s. She also had a photo from the summer 2016 camp out on the White House Lawn.

Camp Blue Knob staff photo
The diverse staff of Camp Blue Knob, circa 1952 (Hesselbein Institute)

While her Girl Scout camp was integrated in the early 1950s, much of the “outside world” lagged behind. Mrs. Hesselbein recalled that she could not eat with her African-American staff members at any restaurant in any town near the camp.

With that camp experience in mind, one of her priorities as head of GSUSA was to reach out to all girls, especially girls in historically underserved communities.  When she began at GSUSA, the organization was 95% white; fourteen years later, minority ranks had tripled.

As part of that effort, she sought to have a greater range of images in Girl Scout handbooks and other publications. She wanted any girl–of any background–to be able to find herself in a handbook. New handbooks released under supervision depicted girls of all skin tones, all socioeconomic backgrounds, all physical abilities — in other words, all girls.

White House Honors

Frances Hesselbein and President Bill Clinton
Frances Hesselbein and President Bill Clinton (Hesselbein Institute)

While Mrs. H never camped on the White House lawn — that I know of — she has been a frequent visitor. But few visits can top one in 1998, when President Bill Clinton awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor. (Juliette Gordon Low was posthumously awarded the medal in 2012.) The beautiful medal and collar are prominently displayed in her office.

A Secret to Longevity?

Finally, as our conversation drew to a close, I brought up another topic: age. Mrs. Hesselbein is 101 — exactly twice my age.

Of course, many people remark on her extraordinary vigor. But my casual research in recent months has led me to a realization. We Greenbloods–long-term, deeply committed adult Girl Scouts–seem to be an exceptionally long-lived group of women.

That holds true for volunteers and long-time staff. I just recently learned of a former Rockwood director who has passed away in February — and wanted it known in her obituary that she lived to 99 years and seven months.  At Nation’s Capital, we lost two past council presidents in recent years — Marguerite Cyr (age 101) and Bobby Lerch (104).

Smiling woman in Coast Guard women's auxiliary uniform
Dorothy Stratton in her Coast Guard uniform

And the more I investigate, the more very senior Girl Scouts I find: Camping expert Kit Hammett (96); national board member Lillian Gilbreth (93). National presidents Henrietta Bates Brooke (89) and Grace MacNeil (92). But the record, so far, must be Executive Director Dorothy C. Stratton (1950-1960), who passed away at age 107!

I would love to see some data on the percentage of our membership over age 90 compared with the general population. That could be quite a retention incentive.

I asked Mrs. Hesselbein what she thought might be behind this possible trend. We came up with the same answer immediately — the girls.

The girls keep us young.

© 2023 Ann Robertson, writer, editor, Girl Scout historian

Who’s That Girl Scout? Samantha Smith

Girl Scout Samantha Smith made national headlines in November 1982, but not for selling cookies.

That month was one of the lowest points in Cold War history. Leonid Brezhnev, who had led the Soviet Union since 1964, died on November 10. US-USSR negotiations about nuclear weapons had stalled, partly because of Brezhnev’s physical and mental decline.

Time magazine cover November 22 1982 with portraits of old Soviet leaders
Time Cover November 22 1982

The USSR political system did not have a line of succession, and observers were unsure who would lead the USSR now. Would he ease or inflame the Cold War? After two days, former KGB chief Yuri Andropov emerged victorious. A former spymaster seemed unlikely to pursue peace.

(End of the Soviet leadership lesson.)

In Maine, a fifth-grader named Samantha Smith saw newspaper and magazine headlines about Andropov and the arms race. Samantha, a Junior Girl Scout, decided to take action. She wrote a letter to the new Soviet leader.

Dear Mr. Andropov,

My name is Samantha Smith. I am 10 years old. Congratulations on your new job. I have been worrying about Russia and the United States getting into a nuclear war. Are you going to vote to have a war or not? If you aren’t please tell me how you are going to help to not have a war. This question you do not have to answer, but I would like it if you would. Why do you want to conquer the world or at least our country? God made the world for us to share and take care of. Not to fight over or have one group of people own it all. Please lets do what he wanted and have everybody be happy too.

Samantha Smith

The letter did arrive in Moscow. The leading Soviet newspaper, Pravda, published it, as part of an article on concerned citizens.

After five several months without a direct answer, Samantha wrote to the USSR Ambassador to the United States. Had Andropov received her letter?

A reply from the Kremlin arrived in April 1983.

Samantha with letter from Andropov
Samantha with letter from Andropov

Andropov’s Reply

He reassured Samantha that his country did not want war.

Yes, Samantha, we in the Soviet Union are trying to do everything so that there will not be war on Earth. This is what every Soviet man wants. This is what the great founder of our state, Vladimir Lenin, taught us. …

We want peace — there is something that we are occupied with: growing wheat, building and inventing, writing books and flying into space. We want peace for ourselves and for all peoples of the planet. For our children and for you, Samantha.

Andropov invited Samantha to visit the USSR.

You will find out about our country, meet with your contemporaries… and see for yourself: in the Soviet Union, everyone is for peace and friendship among peoples. 

www.mainememory.net

Samantha and her parents spent two weeks there in July 1983. They visited Lenin’s tomb, watched the Bolshoi Ballet, and she spent three days at Artek, a summer camp for children of her own age.

Two Weeks in the USSR

She did not, however, meet Andropov. Scholars now know that Andropov spent most of his 15-month term undergoing dialysis, slowly succumbing to kidney failure.

Samantha quickly became a media darling in both countries, although cynics said she was being used as a a propaganda tool.

After her trip, Samantha was interviewed by reporters, civic groups, even talk-show host Johnny Carson. Her poise before a camera led her to be cast as Robert Wagner’s daughter in “Lime Street,” a new US television series filming in London.

Tragedy and Legacy

Her father accompanied her on trips to London for the show. They were on their way home when their airplane crashed in August 1985. There were no survivors. Samantha was 13.

Jane Smith established the Samantha Smith Foundation to continue her daughter’s efforts to promote friendship between youth in the United States and Soviet Union. The foundation grew largely dormant after the collapse of the USSR in 1991.

Samantha Smith Soviet 
postage stamp
Samantha Smith Stamp

Jane was also the keynote speaker for Kennebec Girl Scout Council’s celebration of the 75th birthday of Girl Scouts. After her presentation, Jane unveiled a new USSR postage stamp created in her daughter’s honor.

While Samantha’s story has faded in the United States, she remains extraordinarily popular in Russia.

By the late 1980s, each child growing up in the Soviet Union would know her name and her charming smile. Indeed, to this day, Samantha Smith remains a name that is widely recognized by ordinary Russians born during the Soviet period and has not left the realm of politics.

Matthias Neumann, “Children Diplomacy During the Late Cold War.”

The Artek camp remains in use, with a monument and an annual Samantha Smith session.

Two girls hang a wooden sign outside a building
Girls hang a sign at Weston Lodge

Camp photos from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Soviet Art/USSR Culture

Lou Henry Hoover: The Foundation of Girl Scouts

Black and white portrait of Lou Henry Hoover in Girl Scout uniform
Lou Henry Hoover in uniform, ca. 1930s

Juliette Gordon Low was the founder of the Girl Scout movement, but it was Lou Henry Hoover who created the institutions that remain its foundation today.

As first lady, Mrs. Hoover was the honorary president of the Girl Scouts. But she also served two terms as the elected president of Girl Scouts, one pre-White House and one post-White House.

She worked to streamline administration, professionalize staff, and better democratize relations between councils and the national headquarters. She launched the Little House program, encouraged day camping, and promoted commercial cookie sales.

I spoke on this topic for the Hoover Presidential Foundation’s “Third Thursday” talk for June 2022.

The Foundation taped the presentation, which may be accessed here or below. Enjoy!!

Two girls hang a wooden sign outside a building
Girls hang a sign at Weston Lodge

The Madeleine Albright Girl Scout Badge

Former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright inspired a new Girl Scout badge issued in 2000.

Many tributes to Dr. Albright, who passed away on March 23, 2022, have mentioned that she had been a Girl Scout in Czechoslovakia before coming to the United States after World War II. She stayed involved with the organization as an adult, especially while her daughters were school-aged.

Wait … Girl Scout or Girl Guide?

Girl Scout is correct, according to the official history of the movement in Czechoslovakia:

History of Girl Scouts in  Czechoslovakia
WAGGGS.org

A Sister to Every Girl Scout

Madeleine Albright consults atlas as Girl Scouts watch

In August 1999, Dr. Albright welcomed a group from the Girl Scout Council of the Nation’s Capital and the GSUSA headquarters to her office at the State Department to talk about ways that the Girl Scout program promotes international understanding.

In August 1999, Dr. Albright welcomed a group from the Girl Scout Council of the Nation’s Capital and the GSUSA headquarters to her office at the State Department to talk about ways that the Girl Scout program promotes international understanding.

The Winter 2000 issue of Leader magazine included an interview with Dr. Albright and an extensive article about the importance of context and cross-cultural understanding to build world citizens.

Fun Fact: All three female US Secretaries of State (Albright, Condoleezza Rice, and Hilary Clinton) are former Girl Scouts.

The article also announced a new badge for Junior Girl Scouts: Global Awareness. Developed by USA Girl Scouts Overseas, the requirements ask girls to learn about other countries and how they get along with each other.

Global Awareness Badge 2
Global Awareness Badge 2

Multicultural Awareness

The Global Awareness badge is also remarkable for its design. Take a look at the poster image of the badge above. See the skin tone of the arms? Not very multicultural.

Round badge with green border and background arms holding globe
Global Awareness Badges

The badge was recalled and reissued without using any skin tone in the design. The “white arms” version never appeared in the Girl Scout catalog. Now that’s being diplomatic.

Two girls hang a wooden sign outside a building
Girls hang a sign at Weston Lodge

Who’s That Girl Scout? Janet Tobitt

By guest blogger Bethan Clark

Known as “Toby” in Girl Scout circles, Janet Tobitt was born in Reading, England in 1898 and educated at St. Andrews (Scotland), King’s College (London) and the Sorbonne (Paris). She first travelled to the United States in 1929 to teach at the innovative Mary C. Wheeler School in Rhode Island. Two years later she joined the Girl Scouts and began spending her summers teaching folk music at Camp Edith Macy before joining the GSUSA Program Department in 1940. She became a US citizen in 1940

Skip to my Lou cover
Skip to my Lou cover

She became involved with Brownies and Guides whilst teaching at an English boarding school in the 1920s, where she discovered how well folk songs and dances were suited to young people. Tobitt was an inveterate traveller, and she gradually compiled an extensive collection of songs and dances from Europe (France, Italy, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Malta), Asia (Korea, Japan, Sri Lanka) and throughout North America.  

Although based in the United States, she retained connections with the UK’s Girl Guiding Association (GGA). In 1936 she returned to the United Kingdom for 18 months, partly for the coronation of King George VI, and partly to travel around England and Scotland leading campfire singing workshops for Girl Guides and leaders for GGA. She took a year’s sabbatical from Girl Scout work during this trip to carry out a survey of music-related activities in 200 towns and hamlets in the United Kingdom.

We certainly tried to get all we could out of “Toby” before she went home to England last fall. We practically have a “Five-Inch Janet E. Tobitt Music Shelf” now.

Marie Gaudette, Leader (January 1937)

From 1947 to 1948 she traveled through more than 100 American communities giving song and dance sessions for 16,000 people. The tour, she wrote, “proved to be not a mangling experience, but a rejuvenating one”. People referred to Toby as an “itinerant Scout executive,” perhaps unsurprising when her work took her to 40 states, some repeatedly, leading workshops for up to 1,000 people at a time.  

As an educator, she believed that “any adult equipped with some basic recreational material, plus sound teaching principles, can go forth as a leader and have fun.” She encouraged groups to sing rounds, stating they “afford a painless, even joyful introduction to part singing.” Her 1937 “Notes for Song Leaders,” listed at the end of the Ditty Bag, are as valid today as they were nearly 90 years ago, and are highly recommended. 

Ditty Bag Cover
Ditty Bag Songbook

Tobitt achieved several “firsts” during her lifetime. In 1933, she became the first person to introduce the making and playing of shepherd’s pipes to the Girl Scouts. Soon after, she introduced the pipes to a nationwide audience, by playing them on a radio show broadcast from the newly opened Rockefeller Center. 

Tobitt contributed several articles to Girl Scout Leader magazine over the years, and held many Girl Scout job titles, including National Supervisor for Singing and Folk Dancing, where she was credited with creating “a strong musical culture for the organization. “As Music Director, she was considered principally responsible for the “national movement towards keener appreciation of music by Girl Scouts”; and, most notably, the first GSUSA staff member assigned to overseas duty in 1951. 

Her overseas assignment was as head of the North Atlantic Girl Scouts (NORAGS). This new division was based in “the American Zone” in Heidelberg, Germany. She trained 650 women, and organized activities for 3,000 girls in more than 100 troops at 17 US bases. As result of her efforts, the Army granted her the civilian equivalent of a Colonel’s rank. 

Tobitt organizes Girl Scouts in Japan
Tobitt Clipping

From 1953 to 1954 she directed the Far East American Girl Scout Association in Japan. “These wives and daughters of our security forces’ personnel, State Department officials, traders, and clergymen,” she explained, “have a unique opportunity as ambassadors of good will to effect understanding and to bring back to their homeland their broader knowledge of the world.” Her duties included introducing Japanese women to Girl Scouts. “Our objective was to give understanding, not to change Japanese women.”

She used her contacts in Japan to facilitate the 1955 “Hiroshima Maidens” airlift, which brought 25 severely disfigured young women to the United States for reconstructive surgery. When journalist and peace advocate Norman Cousins repeatedly failed to find financial backing for the venture, Tobitt suggested an appeal to the editor of the Nippon Times, which resulted in the U.S. Far East Command arranging air transportation for the women. 

Once the Maidens were in the United States, Tobitt, together with C. Frank Ortloff from  the Religious Society of Friends in New York City, was in charge of their outpatient care. The women stayed in private homes in New York City, as they prepared for and recuperated from multiple surgical procedures.

In addition to work and travel, Tobitt found time to edit and publish 34 books, including the highly popular Sing Together (1936), The Ditty Bag (1946) and the original Canciones De Nuestra Cabana (1963). She co-authored five books with another British-born naturalized American, Alice G. W. White, aka Alicen White.  

Tobitt continued to lead folk dance and singing workshops until she retired in 1963. She died in February 1984 age 86, in her adopted home of Manhattan.

Bethan Clark is a British woman who has lived in Hong Kong since 1999. She was a Brownie, Girl Guide, Ranger and Young Leader whilst living in the UK and has spent the majority of her career working with amateur singers, much like Janet Tobitt but on a smaller scale! She is currently a District Commissioner for Bauhinia Division, Hong Kong Girl Guides Association’s English-speaking Division, and is Guider In Charge of a Guide Company comprising 27 girls aged 11-17. Last year she created a YouTube channel ‘Songs for Girl Guides and Girl Scouts’ which, as far as she is aware, is the largest repository of Guide and Scout songs on the internet (500 and counting). It was through this project that she discovered Janet Tobitt and wanted to know more. Hence this article, and now a Wikipedia page too: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Janet_E_Tobitt  

Cheaper by the Dozen and the Girl Scouts

Disney studios released a new version of the movie Cheaper by the Dozen on March 18, 2022. Who knew that the story has an impressive Girl Scout connection?

The original movie, released in 1950, tells the story of Frank and Lillian Gilbreth and their 12 children. It was based on a book written by two of their children, Ernestine and Frank Jr.

Frank Gilbreth came from a blue-collar background and built a thriving construction business. Lillian was one of nine children herself and earned BA and MA degrees in literature from the University of California. She met Frank while pursuing her PhD and became fascinated with the time-saving techniques that he had developed to make his construction crews more efficient.

TheGilbrethsCom Family in Foolish Carriage
The Gilbreth Family in their “Foolish Carriage,” via thegilbreths.com
Cover of first edition of Cheaper by the Dozen
First edition, published in 1948

She also became fascinated with Frank. Despite a 10-year age difference, the couple married in 1904. Lillian became a partner in Frank’s engineering firm and switched her studies to psychology at Brown University.

Their partnership combined psychology and business management to develop the new field of time-and-motion studies. Along the way, they had 12 children and she earned a doctoral degree in psychology.

Group portrait of the Gilbreth family, the real-life family in Cheaper by the Dozen
The Gilbreth family in 1924, shortly before Frank Bunker Gilbreth Sr’s death, with all eleven children who survived to adulthood. Standing are Fred, Dan and Jack. Seated are Frank Jr, Martha, Dr. Lillian Moller Gilbreth, Frank Sr, Ernestine and Anne. On laps are Jane and Bob. Seated in front are Bill and Lillian Jr. (Original image from Purdue University archives via http://www.thegilbreths.com)

With busy careers and a large household to manage, the Gilbreths applied their time-saving techniques to their family. According to daughter Ernestine, “They believed that what would work In the home would work In the factory, and what would work in the factory would work in the home.”

Like most of Dad’s and Mother’s ideas, the Family Council was basically sound and, although it verged sometimes on the hysterical, brought results. Family purchasing committees, duly elected, bought the food, clothes, furniture, and athletic equipment. A utilities commit­tee levied one-cent fines on wastes of water and electricity. A projects com­mittee saw that work was completed as scheduled. Allowances were de­cided by the Council, which also meted out rewards and punishments. Despite Dad’s forebodings, there were no pon­ies or roadsters.

“The Amazing Lillian Gilbreth,” Leader (summer 1984): 20-22.

Widowed at age 46, Lillian popularized her managerial psychology as a highly-sought-after lecturer.

First Lady Lou Henry Hoover, who twice served as GSUSA national president, asked Dr. Gilbreth in 1930 to be an unpaid consultant to the Girl Scouts. Lillian was reluctant, but few people could resist Mrs. Hoover.

I went over to national head­quarters and found that they felt perhaps the Personnel Department was just the one that would be of most in­terest to me and one that needed my help. That was where I began to work. I went into the Personnel Department as a member of the Personnel Committee and found the committee and Agnes Leahy, the director, so congenial to work with that I was very happy. I needn’t tell you that once a Girl Scout. you’re always a Girl Scout. I remember going to meetings even before I made my Promise.

“The Amazing Lillian Gilbreth,” Leader (summer 1984): 20-22.

Lillian Gilbreth in her Girl Scout uniform
Lillian Gilbreth in her Girl Scout uniform

Dr. Gilbreth set high standards for various Girl Scout role, both professional and volunteer. Former GSUSA President Marjorie Culmer (1956-1963) recalled:

Dr. Gilbreth felt very strongly that the only difference between volunteers and staff was that the staff got paid for their work. She drew no distinc­tion between the calibre of per­formance expected from volunteers and staff; she believed that the volunteers should get the same satisfaction from their work.

“The Amazing Lillian Gilbreth,” Leader (summer 1984): 20-22.

She also believed that professional staff and the national board should forge a strong partnership to achieve common goals.

Lillian soon dedicated herself to Girl Scouts, serving in a range of volunteer positions:

  • Per­sonnel Committee
  • Interna­tional Committee
  • Finance Committee
  • Con­stitution Revision Committee
  • Committee on National Personnel
  • National Board of Directors
  • Exec­utive Committee
  • Program Com­mittee
  • National Advisory Council

Gilbreth also deployed her well-earned respect and credibility when the Girl Scouts were (erroneously) accused of promoting communism in 1954.

According to daughter Ernestine,

She loved everything about this organization and all of its associates and opportunities for fur­ther new experience with young peo­ple. This tie-in became one of the key joys of her life. On her professional trips, she gave repeated lectures to Girl Scout groups and vice versa.

“The Amazing Lillian Gilbreth,” Leader (summer 1984): 20-22.

So grab a bucket of popcorn–even better, a box of Girl Scout cookies–and enjoy the latest version of Cheaper by the Dozen. Wouldn’t it be a great STEM tie-in for your troop?

For more on Lillian Gilbreth see:

Two girls hang a wooden sign outside a building
Girls hang a sign at Weston Lodge

The Knickerbocker Disaster and the Girl Scout Connection

This weekend marks the centennial of Washington DC’s Knickerbocker Theater Disaster of January 28, 1922. Most Washingtonians know that it is connected with the city’s largest snowstorm. But there is also an important Girl Scout connection.

Epic Snow Storm

After a snowstorm dumped 28 inches of snow on the city, cabin fever led some residents to hike to the Knickerbocker Theatre at the intersection of 18th Street and Columbia Road NW. Not all staff had made it in to work that evening, but the show went on, with patrons ready to watch the silent movie Get Rich Quick, Wallingford!

Knickerbocker Theater before collapse
Knickerbocker Theatre
Knickerbocker theater after collapse
Aftermath of Collapse

Above their heads, snow had been accumulating on the building’s flat, steel-and-concrete roof for days. The combined weight was more than the roof could bear. Suddenly, the audience heard a hissing sound.  A faint cloud of white plaster dust beginning to swirl above the orchestra—or was it snow? It seemed to glimmer in the dark theater.

With a thunderous crack, the roof collapsed under the weight of the snow, falling in one giant slab. The roof had caught the front edge of the balcony and pulled it down on top of the orchestra and the patrons seated below. People sitting in the front rows of the balcony were catapulted from their seats into the rows below. The rear of the balcony remained attached to the wall, dangling ominously over the enormous pile of twisted iron and steel, concrete slabs, plaster dust, and audience. The downward force created a huge blast of air that blew open the auditorium doors and propelled some late arrivals into the lobby. The collapse lasted less than a minute.

It would take hours for rescuers to clear the debris, soldiers came from nearby bases to help. But they soon heard a clear voice calling out. It was a woman’s voice, it belonged to 26-year old Helen Hopkins, leader of Girl Scout Troop 8.

Help Arrives

Trapped under four steel girders, a stunned Helen could hear the agonized cries of the wounded and dying around her and realized that she, too was seriously injured.  Blinking in the darkness and struggling to breathe through the thick plaster dust caked on her face and trying to remain calm, Helen began to evaluate her injuries. One arm was pinned under the rubble and useless, and the other one badly swollen, but she reached out to her friend Freddie, and found his hand. She held Freddie’s hand until it grew cold as he succumbed to his injuries. The man who had been seated on her other side lay dead, as well. She saw other people lying around her, but all appeared motionless and silent. 

Helen tried to remember her first aid training. All of her girls had earned their First Aide proficiency badges. Their handbooks spelled out what to do in an emergency, starting with “Keep cool. The only way to do this effectually is to learn beforehand what to do and how to do it. Then you are not frightened and can do readily and with coolness whatever is necessary to be done.” Helen took the deepest breath should could and struggled to focus her thoughts. 

Helen believed she was in shock. She knew had to get her blood to circulate throughout her body, so she began pinching her body using her thumb and forefinger, although the two could hardly meet, her hand was so enlarged. If nothing else, the sheer pain that resulted gave her something to focus on and helped her to remain conscious. She could hardly move her head, as her long hair was caught on some piece of debris, but she was determined to live. 

Rescuers worked slowly, but Helen could hear them inside the dark theater. Gathering her remaining strength, using the loud, strong voice she’d honed on troop hikes and in the church choir, she called out to the rescuers. 

“Help!  Over here!  We need help over here!”

Helen Hopkins

But help did not arrive immediately, so Helen continued to shout. 

Finally someone answered Helen’s calls. Realizing that she had their attention, Helen began directing the rescuers to her location and that of people hidden under debris around her.  She also sang song after song, trying to cheer other survivors, urging them to hang on just a little bit longer. 

Finally, a patch of daylight shone onto Helen. After hours in the dark, she had been found. It took soldiers nearly four hours to dig her out of the rubble. Rescuers had to cut off some of her long blond hair that was tangled into the debris. 

Rescued!!

Helen was the first trapped victim to be removed from the theater alive. Soldiers carried her out of the theater on a stretcher and across the street to the Christian Science church. Weak and confused, she called out, “Mother, it was the everlasting arms that saved me!” She was loaded into an ambulance, which sped away, rocking from side to side over snow drifts, and taken to Garfield Hospital on Florida Avenue NW. Thanks to her clear instructions, ten other survivors were located and removed to safety. 

Drawing of women trapped under rubble
Helen won $10 for her story in a 1939 Philadelphia Inquirer Contest

The soldiers “could not find words in which to praise her courage and when they attempted to tell her of their admiration, she said that she was a Girl Scout and could do no less.”

Praise for Helen

Helen’s story quickly spread throughout Washington, as newspaper readers were eager to have a happy ending to balance the sadness of the 98 lives lost and some 133 people injured. She became a celebrity, with newspapers across the country providing updates on her condition and mentioning that she was a Girl Scout leader.  First Lady Florence Harding sent Helen a large, autographed photograph of herself in her own Girl Scout uniform, with her dog Laddie Boy nearby. Mrs. Harding regularly sent bouquets to Helen while she recuperated at home. 

Girl Scouts of the USA awarded Helen the Bronze Cross, a recognitions reserved for persons displaying gallantry, resourcefulness, and personal peril while saving the lives of others.  She would be the first Girl Scout from Washington to receive the honor. 

Group photo of early Girl Scouts with khaki uniforms and hats
Helen Hopkins receives medal and flowers from Girl Scout President Lou Henry Hoover, as her troop watches.

Lou Henry Hoover, then national president of the Girl Scouts, hosted the medal ceremony at her home in Georgetown. Each local troop was allowed to send one member, and all of Helen’s troop was invited. Troop 8 assembled in the Hoover’s garden for the ceremony, dressed in freshly washed and ironed uniforms.  In addition to their leaders outstanding honor, the girls were allowed to hold their own Court of Awards ceremony at this time. Helen had recently married and was moving to Philadelphia, but the girls had a replacement– Mrs. Hoover.

Another Girl Scout Connection

Among the people following Helen’s story was her mother’s close friend, Carolyn Gangwer Caughey. Carolyn had amassed a considerable sum of money by buildings and managing apartment buildings. Impressed by the Girl Scout program, she decided to leave her entire estate to the Girl Scouts of the USA. The centerpiece of this gift was Carolyn’s country home–Rockwood.

Drawing of country house with trees
Rescue Rockwood Patch

But that’s another story, to be continued in the spring ….

For more about the Knickerbocker disaster, see the two books written by my pal, Kevin Ambrose.

Two girls hang a wooden sign outside a building
Girls hang a sign at Weston Lodge

Little House Welcomes Princess Martha

In 1940, four members of the Norwegian royal family escaped German occupation of their homeland. Crown Princess Martha and her children: Princess Astrid, Princess Ragnhild, and Prince Harald took refuge in the United States. The struggle to recapture Norway is chronicled in the current PBS miniseries Atlantic Crossing.

Only one year earlier, Martha and her husband, Crown Prince Olav, had toured the United States, by train, traveling from Boston to California and back to Washington DC. One stop in Washington was the Girl Scout Little House.

The royal couple captured many hearts across the country, as their public appearances provided a welcome diversion from the Great Depression. Atlantic Crossing began just as their tour wrapped up.

Entire towns turned out to see the Norwegian royals, especially marching bands, flags, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and flocks of little girls in Norwegian national dress.

President Roosevelt, his wife and mother greet Norwegian royals at Hyde Park.
Eleanor Roosevelt, Crown Prince Olav, Sara Roosevelt, Crown Princess Martha, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, PBS

Smitten with the lovely princess, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt invited the royals to his Hyde Park home as well as at the White House.

This remarkable friendship prompted FDR to have US forces spirit Princess Martha and her three children out of Scandinavia to safety in the United States. Upon arrival, the four Norwegians stayed in New York, but they soon relocated to Washington DC.

Two Girl Scout princesses

To help her daughters make new friends, Princess Martha enrolled them in Girl Scouts.

She had learned about the Girl Scouts during her 1939 tour. Like many visiting dignitaries, Martha visited the Girl Scout Little House, where she learned about the various programs offered to girls and adult volunteers.

two teenagers in Girl Scout dresses present woven towels to a royal woman in a floral dress and pearls
Princess Martha receives guest towels at Girl Scout Little House

As she prepared to depart from the Little House, she was given a pair of guest towels, hand-woven by members of Troop 22. Kari Galbe, daughter of a Norwegian diplomat, wore her Norwegian Girl Guide uniform for the occasion.

Two girls hang a wooden sign outside a building
Girls hang a sign at Weston Lodge