California’s First Vigil Honor Recipient

Carl Helmick at 21 years of age, 1928 (Source: Findagrave.com)

After the Order of the Arrow’s founding in 1915, it spread rapidly across the United States.  For early Lodges, this can be tracked by their location and lodge number.  In the late 1930s, the Order of the Arrow finally reached California.  The first three Lodges, Canalino 90, Navajo 98, and Tahquitz 127, were founded in 1936, 1937, and 1938 respectively.

Researching California’s First Vigil Honor Recipient

So…here is a question, who was the first Vigil Honor recipient in California?  As with many things, the answer is not simple.  What we thought was the answer may not be the answer after all.  Let me explain.

First, I would like to provide some background.  History has always fascinated me, and as the Order of the Arrow became a progressively more important part of my life, OA history would follow.  I got my first taste of OA history, good and bad, when I was the Lodge Chief-elect of Cahuilla Lodge in 1994.  The 1994 National Order of the Arrow Conference (NOAC) was being held at Purdue University that year.  One of the adults on our contingent was a past Lodge Adviser named Marv Goffman.  Marv was a really interesting character, sometimes a little grumpy, and I found him a little intimidating.  He also had an incredibly jovial side of his personality that would leave you laughing non-stop.  During the course of the week, I sat down with him many times (often while eating pizza after pizza) and picked his brain.  I inherited a list of Lodge Chief and Advisers.  He looked at it, shook his head, then told me the list was wrong.  He couldn’t remember specific details, but he knew the list had issues.  I learned right there, don’t accept everything that’s put to paper.  It would turn out he was correct, and that should be the subject of a future article.

A couple years later, my Section Adviser (George Torbett) retrieved for me a National list of Vigil Honor recipients from Lodge # 127.  The list was great to have, although they had combined all instances of Vigil Honorees from A-tsa, Tahquitz, Wisumahi, and Cahuilla into a single listing (I assume the same has been done with Navajo since most of the Lodge’s territory joined Cahuilla in 2006).  It was a lot of work (and occasional errors) to separate the listing back into their original Lodges.

Carl Helmick, 3rd from Left, in his capacity as Riverside County Scout Executive (Source: Desert Sun, January 25, 1961)

From there, we noticed a peculiar omission.  Carl Helmick, the Riverside County Scout Executive from 1937 – 1972, was missing from the Vigil Honor list.  Mr. Helmick is the person who motioned for the Executive Board to petition for an OA Lodge in 1938, this was not somebody to be missed.  In addition, Chris Manning (California Inland Empire Council President) had his pre-1951 Vigil Sash.

It was an open question among the Cahuilla Lodge group of historians about Carl Helmick’s Vigil Honor.  Did he actually receive it?  When did he receive it?  Did I somehow miss his name from the original list?

The George Chapman Vigil Honor List

In the meantime, George Chapman (first Chief of the OA, Vigil Honor Secretary 1942-1952) kept a meticulous list of Vigil Honor inductees.  The first recipient, and one of the first guesses if you were pondering the first California OA Vigil, was Andy Groenick in 1946 from Canalino 90.  For nearly 20 years, it was thought that the first Vigil from Tahquitz was John Herring in 1947.  Navajo Lodge’s first recipient, Virgil Burson, did not show up in the National record until 1955.

Andy Groenick was crucial to the Order of the Arrow’s growing role in the BSA in California.  It would be no surprise to see his name come up first.  But we may have a different answer.

Carl Helmick Vigil Certificate

Recently, one of my friends called me from a Tradoree in Indianapolis.  He had a surprise.  A paperwork collector was selling Carl Helmick‘s Vigil Honor certificate.

I made a quick deal over the phone to have it purchased on the Lodge’s behalf, then emailed several Cahuilla Lodge historians asking for their help to donate to the cause.  Luckily, they helped make it happen.

Those who donated are:

  • Cynthia Blessum
  • Larry Krikorian
  • Travis Martois
  • Ron Price
  • Tracy Schultze

A Big Surprise

When we received Mr. Helmick’s certificate, we were blown away because it had a date of July 4th, 1939.  This predates any known Vigil Honor recipients in California by 7 years.  In addition, after speaking to Bill Topkis (OA National Committee, member of History and Preservation Sub-committee), we found that Carl Helmick is not listed on the National list that was kept through 1955.  I didn’t make a mistake and miss his name, he really was missing.

The certificate offered a few clues.  It was signed by Martin Mockford (in pencil, unclear why), who was the National Secretary starting in 1959.  Originally, my friend proposed it was a reprint.  With Mr. Helmick omitted from the Chapman list, I think this was his first certificate, completed after the fact.

What To Make Of This New Information

Why did this happen?  It is easy to speculate.  The early days of the Order locally, as Southern California camp societies transitioned to OA Lodges, it took time for their program to become the Lodges we would recognize today.  It is unclear if Mr. Helmick kept a true Vigil.  He may have, but as a Scout Executive, it is possible he was simply installed via paperwork.  Most, if not all, modern Scout Executives kept a true Vigil, such as Cahuilla’s Don Townsend in 1995.

Because the Lodge was in it’s infancy, and they were still learning what it meant to be an Order of the Arrow Lodge.  The Lodge obviously did not properly petition for Mr. Helmick’s Vigil.  However, he did get a true pre-1951 Vigil sash, and his certificate was generated.  So is it possible that he should be added to the official list 78 years after he apparently kept his Vigil?

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