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Blairsville retiree stayed a Boy Scout for a lifetime

POSTED: May 17, 2009 1:00 a.m.

John Preston didn't know it at the time, but when his mother, Robbie, gathered his Cub Scout den together in the basement of their Ridgewood Avenue home in Gainesville, it was the start of a lifetime in Scouting for him.

He was 10 years old then. Seventy-five now, he and wife Martha are retired in the North Georgia mountains, but Boy Scouting is never far away.

Preston joined Troop 26, First Baptist Church, after Cub Scouts, earning his Eagle and Silver Palm at age 17. He fondly remembers when the Scout hut was in woods adjacent to the City Park football field. Electric lines didn't reach it, and Scouts used kerosene lanterns for light and a pot-bellied stove for heat, a far cry from amenities many Scout troops enjoy today.

F.E. (Gene) Bobo and James Mathis Sr. were adult scout leaders. Some of Preston's fellow Scouts were Leonard Parks, Bobby Reynolds, Garland Reynolds, Jim Lilly, Doug Smith, Rives Carter, Charles Cheves and Allen Carter. "I was just a punk kid," Preston says. Their adventures included camping trips to Lake Rabun and Lake Winfield Scott before the Rainey Mountain camp facility opened in Rabun County.

Preston remembers having to help haul heavy, wet canvas tents down and up a ravine to their truck after a week-long rain at one outing. He also remembers Scoutmaster Bobo staring at the Scouts through a tent opening when he discovered them telling off-color jokes.

"He didn't say a word," Preston said. "He just looked at us and walked away. I knew then I would never ever disappoint that man again."

Bobo continues active in Scouting as a member of the Northeast Georgia Council board.

Preston almost didn't make a career in Scouting. Attending Mercer University, he thought he wanted to be a minister. He was a Scoutmaster while in college, and talked to Charlie Bethea, a former Gainesville Scout leader, at an Order of the Arrow conference in Savannah. He told Preston there would always be a place in Scouting for him if he decided that was what he wanted.

"It was just like turning a light on," Preston said, and he set out on his new career path.

After graduating from Mercer, he landed a job with the Flint River Council, but Uncle Sam drafted him into the Army, eventually serving 1957-59 in Landstuhl, Germany. It didn't interrupt his Scouting career, though. He continued as a Scoutmaster and earned the highest training award in Scouting, the Wood Badge, at Gilwell Park outside London, the international training center for Boy Scouts.

Out of the service, Preston returned to the Flint River Council, married Martha in 1961, and transferred to the Elberton District of the Northeast Georgia Council. From there he advanced to several positions in Charlotte, N.C., Miami, the Chicago area, Lima and Columbus, Ohio.

The Prestons bought five acres in the Owltown area of Union County in 1988. They had been using it as a vacation camping spot until he retired in 1992. His Boy Scout skills came in handy when they decided to build a log house on the property. They would just "camp out" on the property while their house was being built, which builders promised would take only three months.

Instead it became nine months, most of which was spent in tents and an "outhouse" they had built for storage. "We were literally living under canvas," Preston said.

Complicating matters, he learned he would have to have heart bypass surgery. On his way to the hospital, Preston asked to go by the legendary Collegiate Grill in Gainesville. "I just wanted one more of their hamburgers," he said.

Friends allowed the Prestons to stay in a cottage while he recovered, and they moved into their new home Easter weekend 1994.

While retiring to the Blairsville area, Preston helped reorganize Boy Scout Troop 101 and served on the council board until his health problems surfaced. He also has served as state chairman for the Eagle Scout Scholarship Program, Sons of the American Revolution.

He is proud of the Silver Beaver award he received from the Northeast Georgia Council for volunteer service. He also has served as president of the Blue Ridge Mountains chapter of Sons of American Revolution and formerly sang in the Mountain Community Chorus. The Prestons are active in Blairsville United Methodist Church.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. His column appears Sundays at gainesvilletimes.com.



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