Peggy Tuck Sinko, 62, earned her 55-year Girl Scout membership pin in the 100th anniversary year of girl scouting in the United States. Do the math: 7 and 1912 — the age Sinko became a brownie in Indiana, and the year Girl Scouts of the USA was born.
In Oak Park, the first Girl Scout troop was organized at First Baptist Church in 1920, so, locally, the anniversary rings up as 92.
In 2012, some 1,500 girls and more than 500 adult volunteers are members of Service Unit 409, which covers Oak Park, River Forest and Forest Park, and folds into the Girl Scouts of Greater Chicago and Northwest Indiana. That council includes some 87,000 girls and 24,000 adult leaders in 245 communities. The national number is 3.2 million Girl Scouts — 2.3 million girl members and 880,000 adult members, working primarily as volunteers.
But we digress. Let’s get local.
In March, Service Unit 409 named Sinko its 2012 “Woman of the Century,” a once-in-a-lifetime distinction to be sure, and well deserved for Sinko, says Deb Besser, the volunteer co-manager of the local contingent.
To mark that century for all area girls (and guys), Sinko has curated “A Century of Girls Leading the Way: Celebrating 100 Years of Girl Scouting (1912-2012).” The exhibit officially opened at the Historical Society of Oak Park-River Forest on March 12, commemorating the day Juliette Low held her first Girl Scout meeting in Savannah, Ga., a month before the sinking of the Titanic.
The exhibit will run throughout this year. For details, or to schedule a tour, call the Historical Society at 708-848-6755.
“Few organizations make it to 100 years old, so it is certainly something worth celebrating,” says Sinko, a historian and retired librarian. “We want to tell that old Girl Scout story, but we want to show how the organization has adapted and, in particular, focus as much as we can on our local Girl Scout program — their service, travel, crafts, troop activities, badges, and camping. Oh, and cookies, let’s not forget them,” she adds with a laugh.
“We have pictures from the 1930s of Girl Scouts at a local bakery in Oak Park, actually baking the cookies,” Sinko says. “It’s more entrepreneurial now, and that is something that has changed since I sold Girl Scout cookies.”
Keeping the old
During a preview tour of the exhibit, Sinko proudly points out the complete Junior Girl Scout uniform, circa 1970s — green, with accompanying sash, busting with badges.
A few steps further we find a revealing curiosity.
“These are old thin mint boxes from about 1963,” Sinko says. “They were found inside the walls of an Oak Park house when they did their remodeling project, and when they were dropped off here, they still had the cookie wrappers inside and mint residue in them.”
Also on tap is a section depicting camping in the 1960s, a replication of a typical crafted Christmas ornament from 1973, and badges and medals dating way, way back.
“Girl Scouting was huge in River Forest and Oak Park in the 1930s,” Sinko says. “We have an actual, official Girl Scout membership card for a girl from Troop 9 in 1935. Troop 9 was out of Longfellow School. I don’t know if the badges were hers, but they are appropriate to the time period.”
Halfway through, Sinko pauses to flip through an old Girl Scout Jamboree keepsake and breaks into song:
It’s a challenge to go camping. It’s a challenge to be free. It’s a challenge to go camping, so come and camp with me.
“There are so many songs we sing around a campfire,” says Jenny Roen, an Oak Parker who herself was a Girl Scout from first through 11th grade and has been a local volunteer, on and off, since. “‘Make New Friends’ is a great starter song, and a good one to know. But then there are the wacky camp songs, like ‘Papa, Put the Paper on the Wall,’ which is my favorite, and the ‘Bumble Bee Song,’ of course: ‘I’m bringing home a baby bumble bee.’ Yeah, that’s it.”
For local Girl Scout history buffs, of great interest might be an authentic 1920s-era Girl Scout handbook. It details “how to earn a Tenderfoot, second class, and first class distinction,” Sinko says, including how to earn obscure badges: e.g. the “Laundress,” the “Automobilist” and the “Telegrapher,” to name only a few.
“The Telegrapher badge required girls to take in 25 words per minute using a sounder in American Morse Code, transcribing the message in longhand or on a typewriter directly from sound, with no mistakes,” recites Sinko, a board member of the Historical Society of Oak Park-River Forest.
Her own specialty was the art of Semaphore flag waving, but Sinko says the ones here were donated by another local Girl Scout. In the 1930s, Sinko’s mom used to practice her Semaphore flag alphabetic signals with another Girl Scout in her front yard. Mastering this form of nonverbal communication, she says, was a requirement to advance rank in the early days.
She still pulls them out once in a while when she dresses up like a “captain” at special Girl Scout meetings to demonstrate them. She also demonstrates how to assemble a bed roll, even though Girl Scouts have used sleeping bags and bunks in cabins during camp-outs for years.
“With an anniversary like this,” says Frank Lipo, executive director of the Historical Society of Oak Park-River Forest. “We are not going to turn into a Girl Scout museum, so we don’t want to take everyone’s memorabilia and add it to our existing collection. But I do think this is an opportunity for anyone who has something really unique and memorable to share it with us.”
Sinko has been involved with Girl Scouting here for over 30 years, despite having a son, no daughters.
“But I was a girl scout all through high school in Indiana, had a wonderful experience, and through it really understood on a personal level how an organization such as this has the power to positively impact girls’ lives,” says the current registrar for Service Unit 409. “Girl Scout people like to laugh, are adventurous, are willing to go out of their comfort level, and not afraid to be silly. And from the get-go, this organization really saw itself as having something for every girl. That is really the mindset. It is one of the reasons I have stayed involved. It’s all about the girls.”