By MARTHA SMITH
Special to the Standard
NORTH KINGSTOWN – Helen Beaven, who will celebrate her 95th birthday in June, readily admits that back in the day when she and her best friend of more than 60 years, Rita Perry, were raising their families, “We ran everything. Rita and I got things going.”
In fact, Rita – who died last year – and Helen had made such a success of guiding the PTA that they were summoned in the late 1940s by a descendant of the town’s founders and told to devote their talents to forming a Girl Scout troop.
“Caroline Rodman Brow invited us to tea,” Rita recalled in a 2009 interview. “We got in there, sat down and she [began] pushing us into starting a troop in the North End. From one troop we got four or five others” organized.
“It was ridiculous,” Helen declares. “Neither one of us had been a Girl Scout. It was crazy: We weren’t the type.”
Nonetheless, they threw themselves into it, becoming part of the Ninigret Council of the Girl Scouts; the state’s first troop had sprung up in Pawtucket in 1914. In three years, the girls’ scouting movement had spread to Providence, Tiverton, Woonsocket, Barrington, Westerly and Newport.
Two tenderfoot troops – the lowest rank for both Boy and Girl Scouts – were established in North Kingstown in 1925.
Helen and Rita immediately had local support for their new venture.
“In those days,” Helen explains, “it was a very close community. Everyone got in on it. We all thought alike on things.”
She recalls the first meeting attracted “quite a few – 25 or so” and the troops began growing by leaps and bounds. Girls went to day camp at Juniper Hill then graduated to the big time of Camp Hoffman, in South Kingstown.
Besides camping, they put on fundraising talent shows that included skits, piano solos, baton-twirling, Italian folk dancing and a high-kicking can-can. Before long, Rita was elected North Kingstown Girl Scout Commissioner for what seemed like a life term.
By 1955, the Girl Scouts were so popular that leaders of the Ninigret Council comprising North Kingstown, Pawtuxet Valley, Narragansett and East Greenwich issued a plea for 40 volunteers to work with the burgeoning numbers joining troops.
The Girl Scouts were founded 100 years ago this week by Juliette Gordon Low in Savannah, Ga. A wealthy woman who enjoyed striking out on paths where women weren’t supposed to go – for instance, she hand-forged a wrought iron gate for her estate – Low decided young girls needed to be prepared to face things in the world whether it was running a household, tying knots, making a fire or giving first aid to a sick goat.
Her ideology deeply affected generations of followers.
Among them was Carol Perry Mudge, one of Rita Perry’s four daughters.
“A group of us went to Savannah and visited Juliette Low’s house,” she says. “She was interested in painting and sculpture and had the money to pursue things she enjoyed.”
Another former Girl Scout with a keen interest in history is NK Rotary Club member and former president Roberta Humble. She was a member of Westerly Troop 28 in the 1950s and has kept her scarf with all the badges. They include colorful recognition of her expertise in pottery; outdoor cooking; identifying wildflowers, birds and sea-life; cycling; camping; sports; swimming; home health; reading, housekeeping; government knowledge; and good citizenship.
Perhaps most remarkable in her collection are the badges and other mementoes accrued from 1927 to 1938 by her mother, Claire Wordell Mudge, who is 96. After years as a Girl Scout and school teacher, Claire eventually took the logical step of becoming a Girl Scout leader herself. Among her personal artifacts are little membership cards for all the years she was a leader, from 1942 to 1965, and a minuscule coin purse – smaller than a nickel – inscribed with her name and containing a compass the size of a fingertip.
Claire’s scout badges from the ‘20s and ‘30s are for home nurse, rock finder, cook, laundress, homemaker, path finder, hostess, and for sewing and first aid.
Roberta, who says her own favorite badges are for reading and bird identification – she’s an author and fowl aficionado – remembers her mother’s enthusiasm for the scouting experience.
“She liked being a scout, but she absolutely loved being a scout leader.”
Helen Beaven agrees that the early, historic years of helping establish the Girl Scouts were personally rewarding.
“They were wonderful days,” she reflects. “Rita and I had all these memories together. We had good fun with the girls. I’ve been [active] for 70 years and I’ve liked every person I worked with.”
Martha Smith is an award-winning journalist and author. Retired, she is an independent contractor for SRIN.