102-year-old Eagle Scout, who traveled the entire Lincoln Highway in 1928, dies

Queneau-1Bernard Russell Queneau, a 102-year-old Eagle Scout who in 1928 represented the Boy Scouts on a cross-country trip on the Lincoln Highway, died Sunday — one day after receiving the BSA’s rare Distinguished Eagle Scout Award.

The Boy Scouts of America and National Eagle Scout Association don’t keep an official list of the nation’s oldest living Eagle Scouts, but at 102, Queneau was certainly one of the oldest Eagle Scouts at the time of his death.

He did a lot in those 102 years, including earning a Ph.D. in metallurgical engineering from the University of Minnesota, working as an assistant professor at Columbia University, serving as a commander in the U.S. Navy and working as general manager in charge of quality assurance at U.S. Steel in Pittsburgh.

Queneau retired in 1977, but he only got busier. He worked as an editor of Iron and Steel Society magazine. He volunteered in the Pittsburgh area with Meals on Wheels, St. Clair Hospital and Mt. Lebanon Public Library.

He was a special guest of NESA at the 2010 National Scout Jamboree, where he helped inspire Scouts to aim high.

But it was before all of that — in the summer of 1928 — that Queneau etched his place into Boy Scouts of America history.

Across the country on a wooden bench

Queneau-2Queneau, who turned 16 in the summer of 1928, was one of four Boy Scouts selected to represented the BSA on the Lincoln Highway Safety Tour.

By 1928, the Lincoln Highway, which was the first transcontinental highway for automobiles, had been around for 15 years. But many Americans were still skeptical about transcontinental car travel. Was it safe? Was it comfortable?

So the BSA stepped in to do a good turn. Queneau and three other Scouts joined three adult leaders in a 1928 REO Speedwagon modified to look like a covered wagon. Large lettering on the side told passersby about the Boy Scouts’ mission: “Lincoln Highway Safety Tour: New York to Golden Gate.”

The journey of 3,389 miles took 34 days. Two months later, the October 1928 issue of Boys’ Life explained the importance of what Queneau and his fellow Scouts had accomplished.

Using as their equipage a modern “covered wagon,” these Scouts set out to show the nation that it is possible to use the transcontinental highways with speed, comfort and safety. They stopped in cities along the highway, and instructed the people in highway safety, Scouting, first aid to the injured, life-saving, and other safety activities that have some part in the Scout program.

It was a wonderful trip. The “covered wagon” reached San Francisco without having even a flat tire en route. Each one of the four boys gained in weight and height on the journey. Thousands of people throughout the breadth of the United States had visited with the Scouts, had learned about safety and Scouting from them, and had in turn given to the boys a glimpse of their own viewpoint. It was a real education for the Scouts.

In the September 1928 issue of Scouting magazine, one of the boys’ leaders shared how the guys fared traveling more than 3,000 miles on a wooden bench.

“Their health, happiness and morale has been excellent. They are getting a lot of Real Things out of the trip besides fun. They are working hard and earnestly to please and function in the ways they should and when I say working, I mean just that, because it is work to travel over a hundred miles in a day, sometimes stopping in five different towns for meetings and demonstrations during a single day.”

Queneau later joked that the journey was something “only a 16-year-old” could handle. He was the last living member of that seven-person expedition.

The trip was hailed as a success, earning newspaper coverage across the country. Articles appeared in The New York Times, Salt Lake Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times and others.

The result was people across the country gaining an interest in safe highway travel and a new appreciation for Scouting.

It’s not an overstatement to say that the efforts of Queneau and his traveling companions saved countless lives and recruited countless boys into Scouting.

But the cross-country trip was just the beginning.

On Sept. 1, 1928, Scouts who lived in towns along the Lincoln Highway erected four-foot-tall concrete markers to indicate the Lincoln Highway’s route. Scouts placed nearly 4,000 markers that day alone, and many of those markers are still around today. (Learn more at the Lincoln Highway Association website.)

A much-deserved honor, just in time

Queneau-4The National Eagle Scout Association created the Distinguished Eagle Scout Award in 1969 to recognize Eagle Scouts who have distinguished themselves on a national level. The list includes astronaut Neil Armstrong, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer and director Stephen Spielberg.

Fewer than 2,200 Distinguished Eagle Scout Awards have been presented in the award’s 45-year existence — an average of about 50 a year.

Queneau never set out to earn this rare honor, but he told friends and family he had been “so pleased and proud” to receive the award.

Though the Lincoln Highway trip certainly helped his case, Queneau’s award primarily stemmed from his work in the Navy and at U.S. Steel. While in the Navy, Queneau improved oxygen tanks in planes so pilots could fly at higher altitudes. This earned him the Navy Commendation Medal.

He was also one of a handful of engineers selected to study Nazi industrial technology after World War II.

Queneau’s health had declined in recent months after a fall and internal bleeding.

He told friends how desperately he wanted to make it to Saturday’s DESA presentation. The day was doubly important for Queneau — it was also the 90th birthday of his wife, Esther.

He didn’t just attend the ceremony; as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports, he was in high spirits and his usual jovial self:

Calling the honor “unbelievable” and “unexpected,” Mr. Queneau urged the crowd to abide by Boy Scout principles such as being “obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave and clean.” He also told attendees repeatedly not to smoke, a request met with chuckles by the crowd.

Laurel Highlands Council Scout Executive Sharon Moulds was at the event and shared her memory of Queneau.

“It was truly a pleasure to be a part of Bernie’s Distinguished Eagle Scout Award presentation,” Moulds said. “What an amazing man he is. I think he lived five different lifetimes in his 102 years. It was an honor to meet him and hear his stories.”

See more photos on the Laurel Highlands Council Flickr page.

A peaceful end

The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review spoke with Esther Queneau on Sunday after her husband died:

“He just hung on,” Esther Queneau said. “He did it his way. That award meant so much to him. He’s in a better place.” Saturday was also her 90th birthday.

On Sunday morning, the couple spent time together at his Providence Point residence, reading through nomination letters for the award and reliving the memories of the special day, Esther Queneau said. He died Sunday afternoon.

A peaceful end to a remarkable life. Bernard Queneau will be missed.

Video: Bernard Queneau at the 2010 National Jamboree


Thanks to Michael R. Marks, assistant council commissioner with the BSA’s Laurel Highlands Council, for the tip.