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Henrietta Potter helped Scouts get their Wings

March 27, 2008|By GLORIA DAHLHAMER

Editor's note: This is one in an occasional series of profiles of area residents who share the stories of their lives and experiences.

Henrietta Sinn Potter remembers vividly the day she took her Girl Scout troop to Washington National Airport to see the U.S. Air Force's famed Blue Angels. The Hagerstown Scouts, members of Shawnee Girl Scout Council's only Wing Scout troop, had been given the honor of escorting the pilots from their plane to the airport.

Potter says, with a twinkle in her eye, "It was supposed to be a dignified occasion."

Instead, her young Scouts got the giggles.

"The more I admonished them to be quiet, the more they giggled. Finally, one of the girls whispered, 'Mrs. Potter, they aren't wearing pants.' Sure enough, they weren't. You could see right through their flight suits to their underwear. One of them was wearing polka dot shorts."

That was back in the late 1940s, when Fairchild Aircraft was booming and C-82 Packets were rolling off the local assembly line. Airplanes were big business, and aviation was an attractive career field for young women as well as young men. In 1944, at the urging of Girl Scout Executive Katherine McCullough, Potter organized the first Wing Scout troop in this area. Ten teenage girls signed up to learn about planes and pilots, and especially Packets.

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"We met once a week in Republican headquarters above the Colonial Theater," she recalls.

The troop was sponsored by the Hagerstown Business and Professional Women's Club (BPW), and received support from the Washington County Republican Club.

Classroom studies included aircraft identification, meteorology, navigation, radio communication and related subjects.

Potter says advanced training included orientation flights in a J-3 Cub donated by the Piper Aircraft Corporation. Pilots and flight instructors for these flights were volunteers from Fairchild, Henson Flying Service and Civil Air Patrol.

One of the troop's big jobs, she recalls, was washing airplanes at Hagerstown Regional Airport.

"That's how I got my son-in-law," she says. Her daughter, Betty Lou, met her future husband, Fairchild test pilot Bill Rinn, during one of those plane washing sessions.

The Wing Scouts' favorite activity was touring other aiport facilities. With members of Hagerstown BPW serving as chauffeurs, the girls took field trips to Andrews Air Force Base and New York's LaGuardia Airport, and studied aviation history at Kitty Hawk, N.C.

Once the girls completed their training, they won their wings and graduated from the troop. Potter says she took three troops through the program between 1945 and 1952, when the program was abandoned. In that seven-year period, 26 girls earned their wings.

Although Wing Scout Troop 20 no longer is a part of Shawnee Girl Scout Council, members still get together once a year. Former Wing Scout Janice Carper of Shepherdstown, W.Va., says friendships started back then have continued for 60 years. The Scouts meet for lunch annually to reminisce.

While most of the members have remained in the Washington County area, some live as far away as Texas and Florida. Potter keeps up with all of them via letters and phone calls. Eight of the 26 Wing Scouts have died.

Potter remained active in Girl Scouting through 2004, serving on Shawnee Council's board and most recently on its archives committee.

Now 93 years old, she's slowing down as a result of a broken ankle. She lives at Homewood in Williamport and takes part in activities there and with other organizations. She is a former member and past president of the Hagerstown Business and Professional Women's Club and participates in the club's special events, including its 70th anniversary celebration earlier this year.

Born Henrietta Louise Betts in Big Pool, the nonagenarian remembers when Hagerstown YMCA summer camp was in the Big Pool area. Her family moved to Hagerstown when she was 3 years old, and she went through the local public school system. She attended elementary school at the former Surrey School, where "the elementary grades were on the first floor and the boys' high school was on the second floor." She attended the girls' high school in the former Broadway School, and graduated in 1929 at age 15 from the "new" consolidated high school in Hagerstown's north end. "That was back when you could skip a grade if you could keep up," she says. "I skipped two grades. And when the schools finally went co-ed, I thought that was just great."

Her first job was as a telegrapher with the postal telegraph service. She went from there to Hagerstown Shoe & Legging, "where my church (Christ's Reformed) is located today." She spent 12 years as a secretary in the county register of wills office, and another eight years as a secretary in the Maryland state legislature during the two terms of Gov. Theodore McKeldin. She says she especially remembers working with Washington County delegates Charles Downey and Myron Bloom.

In the 20-year period between 1960 and 1980, Potter co-owned and worked as a tour guide with Travel Plans Inc. She visited almost a dozen countries, "but I was too chicken to go to Russia." During that period, she saw the famed Passion Play in Oberammergau in Germany four times.

Of all the things she's done, she says she's most proud of her stint as a Wing Scout leader. "The girls have all turned out to be model citizens," she says. "We've got a doctor, teachers, a lab technician ... all good people in our group.

"After all these years, they're still my girls."

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