Meet Greg “Doc” Harrington, Milwaukee Boy Scout Leader for Over 50 Years

For 55 years, Greg “Doc” Harrington has led the Boy Scouts of Troop 61 on countless adventures, and he’s here to tell the tales.

By Eben Pindyck and Zach Brooke

Angels Landing bedevils. Anyone who makes the 24-hour drive from Milwaukee to Zion National Park quite likely has his or her mind set on taking this hike along a path abutting the Virgin River. But, as the trail arches away from the banks and starts to run back and forth in a zig-zag fashion across the ascending sandstone slabs, much of the romance invoked by the craggy moonscape dissolves into sober respect for the challenge ahead. When a hiker fell this past March, it marked the 15th death on the trail since it opened. This rugged and dangerous reality disheartens many would be adventurers, but not the older Boy Scouts of Milwaukee’s Troop 61. They’ve come to conquer.

Angels Landing. Photo courtesy of Troop 61

Resolutely, the troop inches up the earthen zipper to reach a saddle in the rock formation aptly named Scout Lookout. The great red clay bowl of Zion Canyon stretches out below, tinted with a rich green patina of scrubby vegetation. Those who possessed the endurance and determination to crest the previous series of switchbacks must call upon another virtue to get them tot he end of the hike bravery. The final half-mile of the trail extends onto an isthmus of rock measuring a scant four feet across. Glance to one side and see a sheer 1,200-foot drop. Looking the other way is a bit better, as the bottom is only a mere 800 down. Most hikers spend their time looking ahead, reaching out to grab the stretch of safety chain installed by park rangers. Single file, the Scouts of Troop 61 overcome one of the most intimidating obstacles in the country simply because it’s there.

Whether consciously or not, the Angels Landing hikers were engaged in a 100-year-old ritual: city boys making themselves immune to the effects of the city. The Boy Scouts of America was founded around the turn of the last century, when Americans were migrating from isolated farmsteads to burgeoning cities as factories were erected. In this era of social flux, cities were viewed as corrupting, replete with sin and conducive to sloth. There were pool halls, cigar rooms, movie theaters, dance halls, professional sports and amusement parks in American cities. “The threat of weakness was seen as going beyond any one institution to embrace the whole of modern urban life,” writes historian David I. Macleod in Building Character in the American Boy: The Boy Scouts, YMCA, and Their Forerunners 1870-1920. Scouting was an answer to this.

“A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent,” enumerates The Scout Law, which the boys of Troop 61 recite at the beginning of events and outings such as the trip to Angels Landing. If ever a Scout perfectly embodied these precepts, it would be Dr. Greg Harrington, the heart and soul of Troop 61, who first joined up in 1952.

Doc, as he’s affectionately called, has dedicated his life to his career as a neurologist, and to his troop. First appointed scoutmaster in 1968, Doc has maintained that post for all but three years, when he worked at a hospital outside Saigon. “We took care of the heroes,” he told us. Never married, Doc nonetheless has a family – Troop 61, many members of which gleefully made the trek out West with him.

“Their leader is one of the icons in Scouting. I mean, he’s been around forever. People kid about that he knew Baden-Powell, the guy who started Scouting,” Myron Thomsen, the long-time scoutmaster of another local troop, says of Doc. “He’s been an idol to some of the guys.”

Angels Landing was just the opening salvo of two weeks of arid Southwest adventures for the older boys of Troop 61. The following day brought views of Horseshoe Bend, a dramatic meander in the Colorado River in Arizona, and Needles District in Utah, towering layers of jagged rock at the southeast corner of Canyonlands National Park. Later, the troop toured the ancient cliff dwellings of the Ancestral Pueblo people at Mesa Verde, in Colorado, bathed in Colorado Hot Springs at Mount Princeton and whitewater rafted down the Arkansas River.

Rafting on the Arkansas River. Photo courtesy of Troop 61

Not every outing was successful. A planned trip to Druid Arch in Utah turned sour, after the Scouting group learned it had taken a wrong turn 13 miles back. Tension dominated the mood on the march back to camp.

The hardest challenge came last: a grueling daylong hike to the summit of Mount Massive, second highest in the Rockies at 14,428 feet. Only seven of the 20 Scouts would reach the top, the rest having turned back with all the chaperones as the unrelenting ascent became too much. Jake Wills was nearly among the ones who turned back.

“This was the most difficult hike I’ve ever been on. Right before the final ascension, a hail storm came. We got caught in that right as the altitude is getting to you. You can’t breathe and you’ve been hiking for two or three hours. I wanted to turn back but two guys talked me out of it.” His reward was breathtaking views of the snow-covered mountain range below.

After a slightly less dramatic excursion last winter in Oconomowoc,
Troop 61 convened at its headquarters in a small building on the grounds of Mother of Good Counsel Parish, near the intersection of Lisbon and Burleigh on Milwaukee’s West Side. The Scout House, erected in the 1950s, is easily identifiable by the totem pole near the front door. Fashioned by moving two of the parish’s bus garages, the Scout House has expanded over time to include ample storage, a workshop, an office and, by necessity, an area designated for adults. A (partial) inventory of its contents would include: an old garbage can filled with hockey sticks, several bins of hockey skates, a closetful of nylon tents, a pile of wooden tent poles, shelves crammed with relevant reading material such as the book detailing the various criteria for each merit badge, including Dentistry. (“Name at least five instruments and five pieces of equipment a dentist uses,” reads 4 (a). “With the help of a dentist, prepare a dental stone cast using a vibrator, a mixing bowl, a water measure, a plastic measure, model stone and a spatula,” reads another.) In the nature den, there are a pair of taxidermied eagles from the 1940s, a tortoise shell, a marlin, chicken embryos in different stages of development floating in embalming fluid, a cock pheasant, a Canada goose and one fat yellow perch. In the main room, there is a plaque with the name of every Eagle Scout in the troop, including Gregory Harrington, who earned the honor in 1957.

“It’s a second home for me,” said 17-year-old Sam Hantzsch, then a senior at Wauwatosa East. “It’s been such a wonderful experience to have all this.” Matt Doberstein, then a junior at Tosa East, concurred with his friend Hantzsch: “The one thing that drew me to this troop was having its own Scout House,” said Doberstein.

Other troops are forced to meet in church basements and the like, packing up their gear before they leave. In the Scout House, on the other hand, supplies are retrieved from the dizzying array on site. Fridays are often reserved for self-directed work, when Scouts hone the skills that can earn badges like Leatherwork, Insect Study and Photography, but, on this particular Friday, Mary Spadafora of Little House of Ceramics in West Allis teaches pottery. The troop’s educational motto is “I hear, I know/I see, I remember/I do, I understand.”

“There’s always a constant flow of new things to do,” says Dick Hagan, whose youngest son, C.J., is a member of the troop. “The program is just well run.”

“It’s alive,” says Kim Stahn, who has two sons in the troop.

Besides Friday nights, the annual summer camp, a week-long affair on the shore of Jag Lake in the North Woods, is a highlight for many Scouts. “When you go to summer camp, it’s kind of like a university,” says attorney Jascha Walter, who volunteers to help Scouts earn badges in Cooking and Citizenship in the Community. Not a cook, Walter’s son, Alex, then a freshman at Marquette University High School, is partial to shooting trap, which he first learned to do at Jag Lake. “Summer Camp is awesome,” says Alex, who last school year was a member of Marquette’s trap team.

Totem pole at Scout House on Milwaukee’s West Side

Another highlight for many Troop 61 Scouts is the High Adventure Trip, which takes place each summer (the trip described above). Destinations for the two-week camping trip have included national parks like Yellowstone, Rocky Mountain, and Glacier; and Banff and Jasper national parks in Canada. “It was probably one of the best times in my life, so far,” Scout Ian Schmitt-Ernst said of his own High Adventure Trip.

As the Scouts pound clay into discs or roll it into spirals, the troop’s diversity is manifest, with black, biracial and white Scouts in attendance. There are also Hispanic and Pacific Islander members of the troop. The Boy Scouts of America, of which Troop 61 is one of thousands, expounds inclusivity. “It is the philosophy of Scouting to welcome all eligible youth, regardless of race, ethnic background or orientation, who are willing to accept Scouting’s values and meet any other requirements of membership,” the group’s website reads. “Prejudice, intolerance and unlawful discrimination are unacceptable within the ranks of the Boy Scouts of America.” However, church-sponsored troops like 61 can still ban Scout leaders who are gay, a remnant from a long history of discrimination.

In the early days of Scouting, black youth were effectively barred in the South, and relegated to separate troops elsewhere. “Boy Scout officials in Richmond, Virginia, threatened a public burning of Scout uniforms if black boys were allowed to wear them,” writes Macleod in Building Character in the American Boy. In 2014, the organization finally admitted openly gay Scouts after a century-old ban. More recently, in January, the Boy Scouts of America announced that it would accept and register transgender youth after an 8-year-old transgender boy was expelled from a Cub Scout pack in New Jersey.

“When I first started, women were only allowed to be den leaders; they weren’t allowed to be cubmasters or scoutmasters,” said Myron Thomsen. “That’s changed for the better.”

In fact, Thomsen’s wife, Linda, currently serves as cubmaster of a local pack. “They seem to bring just a different viewpoint at looking at life,” says Thomsen of female leaders. “I think that’s important for the boys to learn, and I think it helps them, as they get older, to treat women with just more respect.”

Although none of the Troop 61 Scouts, or their leaders, identify as LGBTQ, such a member would be welcome, says Doc.

In the end, relationships are what sustain Troop 61. “The nostalgia to the troop is personal connections,” says Pat Bieser, another troop leader. And, for many Scouts over the years, the personal connection to their scoutmaster is the strongest of all. “The world would be a better place if we had more people like that,” Jascha Walter says of Doc. “I’ve never met anyone like him.”

In March, Doc retired from the Medical College of Wisconsin, where he was an associate professor of neurology. He will continue to provide consulting for the Southern Wisconsin Center, a facility for people with intellectual disabilities, but his career in medicine is mostly behind him. He has no plans to retire from being scoutmaster of Troop 61, however.

“His character is without rebuke,” says Bieser, who was only 11 when he met Harrington.

Part of Troop 61 lore is the story of the trailer that was stolen from outside the Scout House. Luckily, a nun from the parish spotted the thief as he drove away and called the police, who soon found the trailer nearby in the driveway of a down-and-out scrap collector. To mask its origins, the scrap collector was painting all over the trailer, but it was returned, intact, to the Scout House.

Winter camping. Photo by James Stukenberg

During the winter camp in Oconomowoc last February, standing on a front porch equipped with saggy mattresses and sleeping bags, Doc recounted the events, feeling badly for the scrap collector, who needed the trailer more than the Scouts did. He chuckled and then shuffled away to take care of his troop. ◆

‘Scouting Around’ appears in the August 2017 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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