Henry Donaghy wanted to be a Boy Scout lifeguard in the worst way.
It wasn’t the potential for money or the possibility of rescuing a pretty damsel in distress at the community pool.
“The reason I wanted to be a Scout lifeguard is that they had one heck of a great-looking patch,” said Donaghy, 81, who laughed when he admitted his initial motive all these years later. “It was about 3-by-3 on a dark blue background with a ring buoy in the middle and crossed oars. It was a knockout patch, and I said, ‘Gee, I’ve got to get that.’ ”
Donaghy, a financial planner who lives in Fourth Ward but was born in the Bronx and grew up in the Northeast, wasn’t alone in his desire to earn merit badges. Since 1911, when the Boy Scouts of America introduced its first 57 merit badges, more than 114 million boys have been lured by the circular patches that end up sewn onto their sashes.
BSA’s website states that if all of the merit badges ever earned were lined up in a straight line, they would extend more than 2,500 miles.
But they’re not all the same as when Donaghy earned his merit badges in the 1940s. Some have been discontinued, like Farm Layout and Building Arrangement, Bee Farming, Blacksmithing and Nut Culture.
Others have evolved with the times. Mining was renamed with the more scientific title of Geology. Printing became Graphic Art. Dairying merged with other animal husbandry badges to become Animal Science.
New patches have been introduced along the way, too. This year, Game Design, Programming and Animation were added to the list of possible merit badges.
More than 130 merit badges exist today, but earning them is not all fun and games. Those who wish to become Eagle Scouts – the highest honor in Boy Scouts – must complete a core of 12 that includes First Aid, Family Life, Citizenship, Personal Management and Communications.
“Those are the ones, primarily, we like them to do first,” said Ted Johnson, a Scoutmaster for Troop 67 in Charlotte, an 83-year-old troop in University City.
Every Monday evening inside Ebeneezer Baptist Church on West Sugar Creek Road, the back rooms bustle with the activity of Boy Scouts working toward their badges.
“When the boys first come in, we make sure they do Eagle requirements badges first, so that they don’t get distracted on doing something like fishing,” Johnson said. “When they go to summer camp, then they can do archery, woodcarving and leatherworks.”
Keon Regisford, 15, a sophomore at North Mecklenburg High School, said his favorite patch to earn was Environmental Science, where he learned about the environment and how humans affect it.
“You do this one experiment where you bury decomposable things like a banana peel and toilet paper,” Regisford said. “Then you come back and see how slowly it takes the earth to decompose it.”
“My favorite one was Lifesaving. I was the first one to get that in my troop,” said Desmond Woodburn, 15, a sophomore at Hickory Ridge High School.
The patches may look nice, said Donaghy, who earned his Eagle Scout rank in 1947, but the training that comes with them is the real prize.
“Because I got the Lifesaving merit badge, I saved the lives of three of our children, and I saved the life of a fellow Rotarian one night,” he said.
“The training you get as a Boy Scout – I know what it did for my life.”