By Ron Leir
As Kearny – and the nation – prepares to mark the 12-year anniversary of the 9/11 tragedy that killed nearly 3,000 civilians, public safety workers and the terrorists who staged the attacks, once again, it is the Pioneer Boys & Girls Club of America that is donating the memorial flags for the observance.
Those 9/11 remembrance flags will be raised on Friday, Sept. 6, (after a 1:30 p.m. ceremony at the 9/11 memorial at Kearny High School stadium) at the town’s six elementary schools and KHS in memory of the nation’s dead, including the seven victims from Kearny – Antonio Rocha, George Strauch, Antoinette Duger, Patrick Dickinson, Michael Robuthan, Judith A. Reese and Thomas Sullivan – along with the first-responders who perished trying to save others.
Kearny’s Marty Nystrom, who helps organize the annual event, credits the Pioneers, not only for their steadfast support of the annual event, but for a host of worthy causes to which the organization contributes, ranging from scholarships for Kearny residents to attend Hudson County Community College to donations to the West Hudson Arts & Theatre (W.H.A.T.) troupe.
“I was in the Pioneers, myself, as a kid,” Nystrom recalled. “They always emphasized patriotism.”
Although the group has been inactive for perhaps the last 15 years, the club’s advisory board still maintains a trust account built up from past dues and property sales – which, according to board treasurer Phil Johnston, is hovering at around $300,000.
And, from that closely monitored fund, the seven-member board, headed currently by Ann Lindenfelser, dispenses contributions to charitable and/or civic endeavors.
Last year, for example, the club provided the West Hudson Scholarship Committee with a $50,000 endowment designed to give high-achieving Kearny students an opportunity to attend HCCC.
A web history of the Pioneers reports that the fledgling organization actually took root in East Newark in spring 1928 at the North Reformed Church Mission Building, affiliated with the Dutch North Reformed Church in Newark, with its focus on organizing activities for kids ages eight to 12, as a prelude to Boy Scouts.
The organizers, led by Herbert Brookall, settled on the name, “Pioneer Boys of America.” Boys who became members wore uniforms of khaki pants, brown shirt with white buttons, black tie and sailor hat, and paid five cents a week in dues. At each meeting, they recited an oath and took a pledge to live respectable lives.
Within a year, the club had expanded to include Kearny and Harrison and, by 1931, its activities were centered in Kearny where the “troops” of boys marched in the “Decoration Day” (now Memorial Day) Parade, eventually, forming a drum, fife and bugle corps, and participating in other parades in the region.
In 1931, the Pioneers – whose territory now included North Arlington – set up their first summer camp in an apple orchard in Preakness. Later, the campgrounds moved to Bayshore on Barnegat Bay, and then, to a 52-acre property in Smithsburg where the boys and their adult leaders built a mess hall, concrete swimming pool and administration building.
With the advent of World War II, and with so many adult leaders being called for active duty, the Pioneers sold their camp and purchased a two-story building at the Belleville Pike and Chestnut St. in North Arlington that they converted into offices, multi-purpose room with stage, kitchen, dining area and recreation room with a safety rifle range and miniature car track.
As the war continued, the Pioneers sold their Youth Center but established a First Aid Emergency Unit for Civil Defense.
In 1968, a bill signed by then- Gov. Richard Hughes permitted Kearny to sign a 99-year lease with the Pioneers for use of a property at 600 Elm St. as its headquarters. The building has since fallen into disrepair but contains some of the club’s artifacts.
Advisory board trustee and former board president Ken Lindenfelser said the Pioneers “were founded on a strong belief in patriotism” and, while its initial mission was to “prepare young men for life,” eventually, embraced girls as part of its membership.
The Pioneers were clearly modeled after the Boy Scouts but differed, according to Johnston, in that they were “less discipline oriented.”
A Pioneer as a youth, from 1958 to 1964, Johnston later went on to become a volunteer troop leader at Kearny’s Washington School. Yes, he said, kids still wore uniforms and recited the Pioneers “creed,” but the focus at weekly meetings was primarily on “learning skills and recreation.”
“Our troop did stuff like practicing first aid, semaphoring, knot-tieing, canoeing on the Delaware, camping in Stokes State Forest and at the military base in Washington, D.C., and trips to the Statue of Liberty and the submarine base in Connecticut,” Johnston recalled, smiling. “We’d get 30 kids in three vans and take off.”
Starting in the late ‘70s, unfortunately, the club ran into what became an insurmountable problem when “we just couldn’t get adult leaders anymore,” Johnston said, and gradually, the troops started to disband.
“Now,” Johnston said, “we’re no longer active but we’re still doing good.”
The club continues making donations, primarily to youth-oriented programs and services, such as KHS’s Project Graduation, the KHS electronic activity “billboard,” along with periodic subsidies for high school uniforms, helmets and other equipment, Lindenfelser said.
And, he added, there is the financing for the 9/11 flags, which was encouraged by the late Kenneth Russell, “one of our more active trustees, who felt we needed to teach our youth important lessons.”