Saluting Joseph Merton, Tuskegee Airmen pilot and barrier-breaking BSA professional

Joseph Merton with Boy Scouts
Joseph Merton (center) with Scouts Stephen Lombard (left) and Stephen's brother Kevin.

Joseph Merton simply had a knack for leadership.

As a Scout on the South Side of Chicago, his talent for rallying the guys in his troop came in handy at meetings and campouts.

As a member of the Tuskegee Airmen in World War II, he showed incredible cool while flying 28 combat missions.

And as a Boy Scouts of America professional in 1977, he became the first black leader of the BSA’s older youth division, then called Boy Scouts and now known as Scouts BSA.

In that role, he met with the king of Sweden, discussed Scouting with Presidents Gerald R. Ford and Jimmy Carter, and helped remind America that Scouting isn’t just for families in the suburbs.

“They think it has no appeal in the inner city,” he told Ebony magazine in 1982. “I personally proved that to be wrong.”

In honor of Black History Month, let’s remember Joe Merton, who died April 28, 1995, and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Fighting for America

Before joining the BSA as a professional, Merton flew a fighter plane with the 332nd Fighter Group, a squadron of African American pilots known as the Tuskegee Airmen.

He flew 28 missions over Germany without injury and earned several medals for his service.

Next, Merton attended Chicago City College to earn a degree in mathematics. While he was a student there, Merton also volunteered with local Scout troops.

Eventually, Merton’s passion for the volunteer role inspired him to make Scouting his full-time job.

He was hired in 1958 and worked his way through the professional BSA ranks in the Chicago area.

Making the move

In 1969, Merton snagged a dream assignment. He was asked to travel to Africa for six weeks to set up the continent’s first Scout training program.

Merton flew to Ghana and taught Scouting professionals from 20 different countries how to run a successful Scouting movement.

After nailing that assignment, Merton got the call from the BSA’s national headquarters — then located in New Brunswick, N.J. He landed a job as an administrative assistant to the Chief Scout Executive.

Three years later, in 1977, he was asked to lead the entire Boy Scouts division and its 1.5 million youth members.

“A professional Scouter is pretty much of a generalist,” Merton told Ebony. “A good deal of the work is to recruit volunteers and then motivate them to carry out responsibility. That’s very challenging.”

Joseph Merton reads Boys' Life magazine with J.L. Tarr, the BSA's seventh Chief Scout Executive.
Joseph Merton reads Boys’ Life magazine with J.L. Tarr, the BSA’s seventh Chief Scout Executive.

Getting things done

Merton became known as the man who could get things done within the BSA. But he did it without being pushy. Like any good leader, Merton made people want to follow him.

Still, the job required frequent travel and meant Merton didn’t have as much time as he’d like for home improvement projects, like a gazebo he was building in his back yard.

“I’m on the road so much, maybe 40% of the year,” he told Ebony. “There are just so many people to meet and learn from.”

In 1981, Merton received the Order of the Arrow’s Distinguished Service Award. He retired in the early 1990s.

Merton died in 1995 after complications from heart surgery. He was 71.

Thanks to Neil Lupton for telling me about Joe Merton’s story.

About Bryan Wendell 3281 Articles
Bryan Wendell, an Eagle Scout, is the founder of Bryan on Scouting and a contributing writer.