It was the summer of 1925, and Douglas, 13, was participating in a Boy Scout service project at the time.
A store in downtown Greensboro, Meyer’s Department Store, was moving to a new building down the street. The proprietor, W.D. Meyer, had complained to Douglas’ father about the extreme cost of moving everything to a building a mere half-block away.
Douglas’ father had a proposal.
“Bill, let the Boy Scouts move your store,” he said. “We need $3,000 for enlarging the dam at Camp Greystone. You pay for the dam, and the Scouts will move your store.”
Meyer agreed, and now here was Douglas, his arms full of unmentionables. Until they weren’t.
“As we walked up the street carrying these things, I remember dropping mine and having to pick up these pieces of underwear,” Douglas said. “The laughs and catcalls from the onlookers did not help.”
Some 300 Boy Scouts were on hand that day to move Meyer’s store. The bigger, stronger Scouts were sent to the fourth floor for the heavy stuff. The “little squirts, like me,” Douglas said, stayed on the first floor for lighter boxes.
Many hands — their owners moving, Douglas said, like “an army of ants” — made quick work of it all. The entire store was moved in about seven hours. Douglas later wrote in his autobiography, The Best 90 Years of My Life, how he was in awe of the coordination required to pull off such a feat.
“It was an amazing sight,” he wrote. “One Scout carrying three overcoats, another with 15 ladies’ pocketbooks strung together, another with three boxes of bedsheets. Some little fellows could scarcely see over the top of their loads. Some would drop a box, to be restacked by a fellow Scout.”
As for Meyer, the store owner was “tickled to death” to have everything moved so quickly. And the Scouts were equally proud of their bigger, better dam.
That was 90 years ago.
The longest-serving living Eagle Scout
Robert Dick Douglas Jr. earned the Eagle Scout award on Dec. 8, 1925 — a few months after the department store service project. He has been an Eagle Scout longer than anyone else alive: 90 years this December.
Douglas is the great-grandson of Stephen A. Douglas, whose place in history was sealed in his 1858 debates with Abraham Lincoln. But Dick Douglas has written quite a history of his own. So impressive is Douglas’ Scouting career that his council awarded him the Distinguished Eagle Scout Award last month, as reported on Scouting Newsroom.
Douglas is the longest-serving recipient in that award’s history, according to National Eagle Scout Association records. He isn’t the oldest living Eagle Scout — Lamar Wallace of Atlanta is older — but Douglas, who earned Eagle at age 13, has been an Eagle Scout for longer than Wallace.
A trip to Africa in 1928 sealed Douglas’ fame in the Scouting community and beyond. He was one of three Boy Scouts who won an essay contest sponsored by Boys’ Life magazine. The grand prize: A safari in East Africa with famed photographers and adventurers Martin and Osa Johnson.
When the trio returned, the Scouts documented their journey in Three Boy Scouts in Africa. The book sold 125,000 copies in its first year of publication, according to Douglas’ autobiography.
The book led to speaking engagements for Douglas — troop meetings, school assemblies, Greensboro civic clubs. Eventually, Douglas, who had never been much for public speaking before the trip, “had no qualms or concerns” about making one.
The publisher of Three Boy Scouts in Africa was so impressed with Douglas that he sent him to Alaska to write another adventure book. A Boy Scout in the Grizzly Country was published in 1929.
Just getting started
There’s a lot more to the Dick Douglas story.
He graduated from law school at Georgetown and became a lawyer in his father’s practice. He spent some time as an FBI agent under J. Edgar Hoover. He was a lawyer for more than 70 years and was frequently listed as one of the “Best Lawyers in America.” He argued before the Supreme Court. He didn’t retire until age 96.
Douglas keeps young by working out 15 minutes a day — with an exercise bike and five-pound dumbbells — and writing on his yellow legal pads.
In order to keep his mind fresh, he’ll find something controversial on TV or in the newspaper and write down his opinion about it. Though I’d bet his arguments are still trial-ready, these aren’t to show anyone else.
“They’re just to focus my mind,” he told me in a phone conversation last week. “Keeps the mind active.”
At 103 years young, Douglas is thankful for the local attention. But, to hear him tell it, national fame is still a couple of years off.
“You become a local celebrity if you get to be 103 or 104,” he said with a laugh. “You become a national celebrity if you live to be 105 or 106.”
Dick Douglas sits down with Old North State Council
Photos by Randy Piland. Thanks to the Old North State Council’s Travis Rubelee for the tip.