35 years ago, Kathy Hall was a single mother of three in search of a male role model for her then 7 year-old son. She decided to enroll him in her neighborhood Boy Scout troop, under the Grand Towers district. When she found out that there were no parents whatsoever involved in the troop, she took it upon herself to carry the gauntlet, and became the den mother to about 15 young cub scouts.
Her son left scouting after three years, but she stayed. Camping on weekends and cooking outdoors became her trademark skill for the pre-teens.
“It was amazing to me – they would ask ‘The things that we cook at home, can we cook in the woods?’ and my answer was always yes. If you want to bake a pie, if you want to have biscuits, we can do that outdoors. And they thought I was joking until we actually got out in the woods and did it," she says.
Balancing her day job in medical records was not a problem, she says.
“I was having fun along with the kids. It was a learning process. They were teaching me, I was teaching them. It was more or less to me hand in hand.”
She and the scouts had fun, and were even able to bridge the occasional rifts they encountered in the neighborhood. Once, when they had a gathering near O’Fallon’s Park (West Florissant at Fair) they were told they couldn’t wear their blue and gold uniforms because they were gang-related colors. She took a stand in the name of scouting, and ended up gaining the respect of the crowd and members who were involved.
“It ended up [that] the gangs respected me, I respected them," she says. "They had little brothers – they would bring their brothers to our scout meetings, never had a problem. I was really excited about that – just knowing I did not give in to what they wanted. This is scouting. We’re gonna be here, we’re not running away. You respect me, I respect you.”
39 year-old Tony Cobbs fondly remembers the time he spent as a Cub Scout under Scoutmaster Hall’s tutelage. At the age of five, he and his older brother became scouts, and learned survival basics. Her mentorship went well beyond the campfire, he remembers.
“She just didn’t play about the Boy Scouts. She’ll check your grades from school, she’ll call your mama on you," he says. "You do boy scouts on top of what your job is, on top of what your responsibilities are at home. So for you to give that much time to somebody else and still have 3, 4 kids. That’s the one thing they show you. If you’re going to do something, stick to it. See it through.”
In 1985, she began a week of advanced leader training in a class called Wood Badge. At a dinner one evening, she walked in to a standing ovation, and found out she had been named as the first female scoutmaster in the country. But the title was bittersweet.
‘The night that I was told that I had just became the first female scoutmaster in the country, I was also told that it would not be out because I was black. That was the bottom line," she says. She was upset, but chose to not rock the boat. "We’d had Miss America – she was black. We’ve had other black females that has succeeded, and I could not really understand.”
It was never in the papers or the news, and for years, she kept it to herself – until just a few years ago, when she read a story about another woman who declared herself to be the first female scout master. In November, the Board of Aldermen recognized her 35 years of service with a public declaration, engineered by James Clark of Better Family Life and Keith Antoine, who works with Aldermen Louis Reed.
David Pettiford, the district director of the greater St. Louis-area council, was aware of her dedication and commitment before he began working with herin 2011. He says that Hall’s involvement in the Boy Scouts of America is not as big of an anomaly as one might think.
“There’s been an evolution in scouting and that evolution has taken on a lot of individuals who would not traditionally be involved in scouting, which includes a lot of African American people as well," he says. Pettiford was one of many individuals, along with several board of aldermen and other individuals on the platform when Hall was recognized for her years of service to the Boy Scouts.
“Females – they’re a very crucial part of the boy scout program, and without females, there probably wouldn’t be a boy scouts. So Ms. Hall being an outstanding participant in scouting for quite a bit of time, she’s kind of blazed a few trails in that respect.”
But two decades ago, Hall remembers that being a female scoutmaster in a man’s territory wasn’t the most welcoming place to be in.
Once at a campfire, she was harassed by a man who tried to scare her with a stick. He hissed and wiggled it to mimic a snake – and she was having none of it. On another occasion, where she was paired with six other men, the food was prepared to where she could not eat it. She came prepared with peanut butter and crackers, and stood her ground.
“I told those guys – ‘I came out here for one reason only – to get the training that I need to help the boys in my unit.’ After they found out that I was not leaving, it turned. They became my friends.”
Just because the times have changed, however, doesn’t mean that there have been a surplus of male leaders. She even keeps applications in her car, just in case. But her unique perspective allows for boys to learn how to be men from a completely different point of view. “We’re women – we know how we want to be treated. So we’re going to tell our sons how to treat people, how to be respectful how to be honest – these are the scouting ways.”
Even though she is now 62, battles regular health issues and long since retired from a day job, she says her life’s work as a scout master and trailblazer is far from finished.
“I’ve found out [that] sitting around is not going to stop me from hurting. So I may as well continue with scouting, because it’s giving me something to do, and it’s helping these little boys to do something. It takes my mind off of my pain.”