His Claim To Fame: The First Scout He Pledges It's So. Officials Give The Benefit Of The Doubt.

Posted: January 01, 1993

CLARKSBORO — A simple phrase defines the man.

It is "Scout's honor."

The words may serve to end any arguments about him.

And there he was, still sharp and spry at 96 and sitting straight-backed in a wooden chair, his carved face protruding from a starched collar, maintaining that 83 years ago in the Tacony section of Philadelphia, he became America's first Boy Scout.

"Scout's honor," he said.

Eighty-eight million followed him in the eight decades that separate then and now. If his words are true.

Harry Mansfield Coblentz, living out his days in the Shady Lane Nursing Home here, his three crooked fingers raised, trembling, his voice like brass booming up from the bottom of his belly, insisting, "I was the first American Boy Scout. . . . I was the first American Boy Scout. . . . Scout's honor."

And on and on.

"I lived in a golden age, I saw bridges built and planes fly where none did fly before, and I was the first American Boy Scout." The words echo through the halls and reverberate off the barren institutional-green walls.

His children believe his story. His daughter, Betty Bajewicz of Franklinville, nods and winks knowingly when he tells it.

His sons, Robert of Quinton, Salem County, and William of Las Vegas, have heard the story since they were kids.

It may very well be true.

A spokesman for the Boy Scouts of America in Irving, Texas, could not confirm Coblentz's assertion. He could not refute it, either. Nor could a scouting spokesman in Philadelphia.

"It's appropriate to say that if he's not the first, then he was likely to be among the first scouts in the United States," spokesman Blake Lewis said

from the national headquarters in Irving.

Lewis said it's very difficult to identify the first Boy Scout because scouting grew rapidly after Chicago businessman William D. Boyce formally founded the U.S. scouting movement on Feb. 8, 1910.

"A 96-year-old guy has a very legitimate claim to being one of the earliest members," Lewis added. "You're not going to have too many people who can remember the first days of the movement firsthand."

Richard B. Marion, scout executive at the Philadelphia Council Scouting Resource Center, which is housed in the oldest building built for scouting in the world, a 63-year-old structure at 22d and Winter Streets, had this to say: ''He says he was there when it started. I sure wasn't, you sure weren't. But he claims to be the first, and this is wonderful."

Marion added: "Our records don't go back that far, so we actually rely on people like him to bring us books and papers to tell us what happened!"

Well, in Coblentz's words, this is what happened:

In 1909, in the Tacony section of Philadelphia, young Harry Coblentz met England's Lord Robert Baden-Powell.

Baden-Powell, a hero of the Boer War, decided in 1907 to use his fame to help British boys become better men. He invited a group of boys to the world's first Boy Scout camp on the English island of Brownsea. The camp was successful, so he wrote a book, Scouting for Boys.

Coblentz said Baden-Powell came to Philadelphia in 1909 and rounded up American boys for a centralized movement in the United States.

It was in old St. Vincent's Home on State Road in Tacony where, says Coblentz, then a wiry 13-year-old who liked the sport of boxing, was the first among the boys in line and therefore the first initiated.

"Because my (last) name starts with C," he says proudly. "Scout's honor."

Coblentz says the thing that makes him remember is that his brother, Robert, who died of tuberculosis in 1916, was right behind him in line.

"Dad was an H (for Harry), and his brother Robert was an R," says Coblentz's daughter, Betty Bajewicz. "He always remembered that he was first."

James G. Sullivan, the superintendent of the Shady Lane Nursing Home and mayor of National Park, said it is the way Coblentz tells the story that makes him a believer.

"He has a very lucid, very vivid memory of that time," Sullivan said. ''He has a very good long-term memory in general, which is common for a man his age. If you want to know something about 50 or 60 years ago, you talk to Harry. He's very precise about dates, times, people, names of boats he sailed as well as the whole scouting movement. It's absolutely amazing.

"If he's not the first," Sullivan said, "he's among the first five, but I do believe he is the first Boy Scout in America."

In conversation, Coblentz mentions his distinction over and over. Sometimes suddenly. Sometimes shyly. Other times sharply, with fierce conviction and long explanation.

Most times he says it, he holds up his three fingers in scouting's international symbol for truth called the fleur de lis: French for iris flower and adapted from a turn-of-the-century mariner's compass pointing people in the right direction.

"Scout's honor."

It is clearly his proudest memory in a mind that has filled up with facts since Coblentz's birth on Aug. 6, 1896, in the Kensington section of Philadelphia.

He has led an adventurous life.

"He lived in a time when men went from horse-and-buggy clear up to the moon, is how he always put it," his daughter says.

According to Betty and Robert and notes that Coblentz has written and collected in a tan, dog-eared scrapbook, he served in the Navy as a machinist's mate during World War I. He made 13 transatlantic trips aboard the Leviathan, taking U.S. troops to Europe and even transporting young Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was then secretary of the Navy. His shipmate for a time was Humphrey Bogart, who had yet to be discovered by Hollywood.

He moved to Franklinville in 1923. In 1938, he became the proprietor of the Old Dry Dock, a dance hall in Franklinville. He ran that until 1947, when he started another business: Cobby's Home-Made Ice Cream shop, which he ran until 1973, on Swedesboro Road in Franklinville.

He served two successive terms as a Republican Gloucester County freeholder, from 1948 to 1954. Then he served 17 years as the chief clerk of the Gloucester County Board of Registration and Elections in Woodbury. He retired Dec. 31, 1969, at age 73. In 1972, he moved to Pitman.

He was married on Feb. 8, 1924. Anne Young Nichols Coblentz died in April 1990.

Together they had the three children, nine grandchildren, 12 great- grandchildren and one great-great-grandson, 2-year-old Christopher Clark of Franklinville. One of their grandchildren, Suzanne Plummer, won the Miss New Jersey title in 1973.

Coblentz rode with the mayor of Philadelphia on the first ferry to cross the Delaware from Tacony to Palmyra before the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge was built. He saw the first airplane flight from New York to Philadelphia in 1910.

He managed boxers and semi-pro baseball teams in the 1930s.

He lived, he says, "a golden life in a golden age."

But through it all, his proudest moment was that day in 1910 when he became the nation's first Boy Scout.

"Scout's honor," he says.

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