Remembering Mary Portis, believed to be the BSA’s first female Scout executive

Photo courtesy of Randy Ritter

The task of the Connecticut-based Housatonic Council committee back in 1990 was simple: choose three candidates to interview for their open Scout executive position. As they pored over the list of applicants, discussing the pros and cons of each, they kept coming back to one name in particular.

“M. Portis.”

This much they knew: “M. Portis” was working as a district executive at neighboring Fairfield County Council (which, incidentally, would merge years later with the Quinnipiac Council to form the current Connecticut Yankee Council).

“M. Portis” was from Houston, where the candidate started their professional Scouting career 14 years earlier.

And “M. Portis” had every quality they were looking for in their next Scout executive.

As the discussion continued, they began to figure it out.

“M. Portis” was a woman.

Her first name was Mary, and she had used only her first initial to avoid any gender bias, even if it was unintentional.

The committee realized the significance of the moment. None of them knew of any other female Scout executives anywhere in the BSA.

Portis made the cut for in-person interviews, and when they got the chance to speak with her, it was all but over.

“It was clear: Mary was the most qualified person,” says John Rak, council president at the time. “She was the person we wanted to hire for our council.”

Photo courtesy of Randy Ritter

A true pioneer

On Dec. 13, 1990, Portis became what is believed to be the BSA’s first female Scout executive.

The significance of the milestone was not lost on her or the council. They gave their local newspaper the scoop, and the publication ran the story the next day with a photo of Portis.

Almost everyone knew who she was and what she had accomplished. But ultimately, it was her competence at the job that won people over.

“We knew we were breaking ground, but mostly we were very comfortable with the person we hired,” says Rak. “She was a great person. Very outgoing. Very friendly. And also, very knowledgeable. She knew what our needs were, and she addressed them in the interview. It was actually an easy hire.”

The Housatonic Council was in a strong position when Portis took over. Membership was good. Fundraising was solid.

Portis made it even better.

She became known for her tremendous rapport with volunteers, donors and members of the community. People liked her. She exuded positive vibes that reverberated through everyone with whom she came in contact.

She was proud of her African American heritage, writing a Black History Month article for the local paper. She spearheaded efforts to recruit youth from underserved neighborhoods.

The Black woman who had studied journalism in college had found her calling in an organization dedicated to serving her country’s youth.

A sad turn

Rak remembers the meeting when he first noticed something was wrong. Portis stood up and appeared wobbly for a bit before steadying herself.

Rak said he doesn’t remember a moment when Portis told everyone she had cancer. Everyone just kind of learned along the way.

There was the time she traveled to Boston for treatment for an extended period of time. Rak and her other friends visited her there.

Photo courtesy of the Housatonic Council

Then there was the time she was hospitalized in nearby New Haven, Conn. Again, all of her friends visited.

Eventually, Portis made the decision to move back to Houston. To be with her mother. To fight her disease as best she could.

“That was a sad time for all of us,” Rak says.

Portis died on Nov. 16, 1992, one day after her 39th birthday, 23 months after she had accepted the job as Scout executive.

The community was shaken. But her friends chose to remember Portis for all that she accomplished during her brief but bright tenure.

“She took the job on,” Rak says. “Everything Mary did was good. She made an indelible mark.”

Appropriately, Portis’ obituary detailed her career in Scouting, from 1976 through 1992. Another article about her noted that she felt a connection with the BSA because she herself had experience as a youth in similar youth-serving organizations.

But this quote from a childhood friend of hers tells us all we need to know: “She was at peace with God and herself, and a really dedicated Boy Scouter right to the end.”

Special thanks to current Housatonic Scout Executive John Zseller for his help with this story.

About Aaron Derr 22 Articles
Aaron Derr is the senior editor of Boys' Life and Scouting magazines, a former Cubmaster and current Scouts BSA volunteer.