As a Scout in Indiana in the late 1940s, Don Riley remembers always looking forward to getting the next issue of Boys’ Life (now Scout Life) magazine.
But it wasn’t the jokes, the fiction, the stories about Scout outings or the true stories of Scouts in Action that Riley looked forward to the most. It was Whittlin’ Jim’s instructional stories about carving neckerchief slides out of wood.
“As a boy, I could hardly wait for the next issue of BL to arrive,” he says. “I started carving with the first issue I received. I tried to copy it exactly as it was shown.
“Been carving them ever since and have no plans to stop.”
What started as a hobby in his youth continued after he earned the rank of Eagle, into his young adulthood and into his years as Scoutmaster, and continues to this day. Don, now 85, still serves as a volunteer in the Hoosier Trails Council.
The slides that he doesn’t give away are stored in display cases — made by himself of course.
He also carves canes — some for members of his church, others with Scouting themes that are auctioned off in fundraisers — and walking sticks.
“I started with walking sticks when I saw a picture of a Scout holding a long pole with his patrol flag attached,” he says. “I was impressed by how the leaders made theirs.”
As a youth, Riley was a member of the Order of the Arrow and spent one summer on staff at Scout camp. He then served in the Indiana National Guard and the Marine Corps and married his high school sweetheart, Doris.
Later, as Scoutmaster, Riley carved slides one year for every boy that went to summer camp.
He remained active in Scouting as an adult volunteer until the mid-1970s, when his job requirements didn’t allow him to spend as much time volunteering as he would have liked.
But in 2008, one of his former Scouts reached out and asked him to help restore Camp Louis Ernst, where Riley had spent much time as a child. For a year or so, Riley helped out at the camp on his own, pitching in here and there when he could.
Soon, though, he organized a group of volunteers affectionately called The Geezer Patrol. As part of the Friends of Camp Louis Ernst, they now meet once a month to help oversee special projects on the property.
In 2018, a fund was established dedicated to maintaining the camp in honor of Riley and another longtime volunteer.
“I stay involved because the Boy Scouts of America is the greatest youth program there is,” Riley says.
Keeping it fun
In the late 1980s, a heart issue limited Riley to what he calls “light duty.” That only inspired him to carve more.
“Making slides, walking sticks and canes was the answer,” he says. “I have a very understanding wife who allows me to do carving in the house.”
One of Riley’s more difficult projects was a walking stick depicting their four grandchildren.
“I always try to make each stick different from the last,” he says.
His advice for any aspiring neckerchief carvers out there: Use basswood (it’s soft, and its straight grain makes it easy to carve) and focus on the fun.
“Stop carving if it becomes a chore,” he says. “Put it aside for a while and do something else. Start again when it’s fun.
“Just take it as you enjoy it.”
Want to try wood carving yourself? Click here to learn how to make your own walking stick.