Robert Dick Douglas Jr., who won a trip to Africa in a Boys’ Life contest, flew with Amelia Earhart and was the longest-serving Eagle Scout in the history of the award, died Dec. 23 in Greensboro, N.C. He was 103.
Dick Douglas earned the Eagle Scout award on Dec. 8, 1925, at age 13. He was an Eagle Scout for 90 years, making him the longest-tenured recipient in the 103-year history of the award, according to National Eagle Scout Association records.
In September, Douglas received the Distinguished Eagle Scout Award from the Old North State Council. It was an overdue recognition for a man who led an incredible life.
As his obituary in The New York Times recounts, Douglas “was charged by a rhinoceros in Tanganyika, went whaling off Kodiak Island, killed bears climbing into an active volcano in Alaska and flew with Amelia Earhart in an early helicopter. He became an F.B.I. agent, learned to water-ski at 40 and wrote four books.”
Douglas was born in Greensboro on July 23, 1912. Just 16 years later, he earned notoriety within the Scouting community when he represented the BSA on a trip to Africa. In 1928, he was one of three Boy Scouts who won an essay contest sponsored by Boys’ Life magazine with the winners receiving 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 Best 90 Years of My Life.
The Africa trip led to another trip, this time to Alaska’s Kodiak Island, an adventure that spawned the 1929 book A Boy Scout in the Grizzly Country, in which Douglas documented “the giant Alaskan brown bear, the land of the midnight sun, prospectors, Russians, volcanoes, sea lions, stormy seas and adventure.”
It was through his publisher George Palmer Putnam that Douglas met Earhart, the legendary aviator. Douglas and Earhart joined each other on book-signing tours. (Earhart’s book 20 Hrs., 40 Min. documented her experience as the first female passenger on a trans-Atlantic flight.)
In 1931, according to The New York Times, Douglas and Earhart flew from Washington to New York in an autogiro, a rotary-wing aircraft that somewhat resembles a helicopter.
To think he did all that before the age of 20. And it was Scouting that opened the door.
In 1936, Douglas was admitted to the Bar and practiced for more than 70 years. He was frequently listed as one of the “Best Lawyers in America” and argued before the U.S. Supreme Court.
I was lucky enough to speak to Dick Douglas on the phone in October, and he told me about the secret to living to be 103. He worked out 15 minutes a day — with an exercise bike and five-pound dumbbells — and wrote on his yellow legal pads. When he saw something controversial on TV or in the newspaper, he’d write down his opinion about it. These notes were for his eyes only.
“They’re just to focus my mind,” he said. “Keeps the mind active.”
Douglas had a great sense of humor — a fact evident even in our brief phone conversation two months back. This spirit is carried over into his obituary, where those who appreciated this remarkable man are given this instruction: “In lieu of flowers, enjoy a chocolate milkshake in his memory.”
I’ll leave you with Douglas’ 2012 quote about Scouting, as told to The News & Observer of Raleigh, N.C. I think you’ll find his opinion on the Scouting program to be profound: “The Boy Scout program is broad enough to meet the notions of any boy. And for me, if I was interested in athletics, I could focus on that. Then if I was interested in bird studies, I could do that. It filled my life with the right things.”
Photos by Randy Piland.