Sixty years ago, 16 students from Towson High School set off on the trip of a lifetime.
The year was 1957 and, after more than two years of preparation, the Towson High students — most of whom were sophomores and seniors — embarked in June on a 10-week European adventure with their Girl Scout troop, whose members called themselves the “Merrie Landers.”
Along with two adult troop leaders and three college-aged troop assistants, the Merrie Landers toured eight European countries that summer. They sailed to Europe on one of the most famous ocean liners in history, the RMS Queen Elizabeth, a ship operated by Britain’s Cunard Line that offered transatlantic service from 1946 to 1968 between New York City and Southampton, England.
While in Europe, the girls spent time camping, visiting Girl Scout pen pals and even presenting a 30-minute skit about United States history at an international scouting meet-up as they toured England, Scotland, Belgium, Germany, France, Switzerland, Italy and Holland.
“None of us had ever been [to Europe],” said Nancy-Bets Hay, of Cockeysville. “My parents were in their 40s and they hadn’t been.”
Hay, a part-time social worker and retired college admissions director, was 15 at the time of the trip. The Towson native, who is now 75, grew up in Wiltondale and lived in Riderwood for 50 years before moving to Broadmead, a retirement community in Cockeysville.
Decades later, the surviving members of the troop are spread across the country. But 12 members recently reunited in Shrewsbury, Pa. to celebrate the 60th anniversary of their cross-ocean adventure.
“To look back on that age — I don’t ever want to be that age again — but it was life changing,” Hay said of the tour of Europe.
Of the 16 students who traveled to Europe in 1957, three have died as have both troop leaders and one of the group’s three chaperones. One former Scout was unable to make it to the reunion this year from her home in Illinois.
The rest, who live along the East Coast, from New York to North Carolina, gather every five years to celebrate the anniversary of their summer adventure, said Barbara Figge Fox, a member of the troop.
The 77-year-old, who now lives in New Jersey, lived then in Aigburth Manor, in Towson.
“Our annual newsletters are filled with people going places and traveling,” Figge Fox said of the group, adding that the meetings help keep members of the troop updated on each other’s lives.
Bathing in salt water
The idea for the trip was unusual at the time, Hay said.
However, after one of the Merrie Lander’s troop leaders, Margaret Boulden, came back from a trip abroad she proposed the idea to the troop and it caught on. Bouldin died in 1993.
The Merrie Landers met at Towson Presbyterian Church to plan the trip, which took more than two years of preparation and about $900 in fundraising per person for travel expenses — roughly the equivalent of about $7,800 in 2017 dollars.
Hay sold mixed nuts and gift ribbon and hosted movie nights at Towson High to come up with $400 of her contribution, with her parents and troop funds covering the rest.
Eleanor Macqueen is 78 and lives in Shrewsbury, Pa. At the time of the trip she was 17 and lived in Southland Hills with her parents and two older brothers.
In addition to preparing for the trip by partnering with other Merrie Landers to study the different cultures the group would experience, the girls had to get an assigned buddy for traveling.
Macqueen raised her share of the trip money through working as a babysitter for 50 to 75 cents and hour, and as a page in the Towson Library, for 50 cents an hour.
To keep the trip under budget, the girls made the five-day journey across the Atlantic on the Queen Elizabeth in tourist class and stayed in youth hostels and campgrounds, while in Europe.
The accommodations on the ship were small and cramped, Hay said. Though a steward was appointed to look after the group, they had to bathe in hot salt water. For the sake of time and to preserve the hot water, the group of 21 split into groups of two and three to take baths together.
Every night of the trip, Hay said the ship had an activity scheduled to keep the guests occupied.
“We were very much aware of the image of ‘the ugly American’ so we had to be conscious to be respectful with our behavior,” Hay said.
Even so, the Merrie Landers did get into some mischief on the trip.
Hay remembers climbing fences to get to the upper decks on the stately ocean liner to sneak a glimpse into the first class ballroom, where she spied people dancing in evening gowns and tuxedos. “Everyone seemed so old,” she said.
Later in the trip, the group snuck out of a Paris hostel to see the Folies Bergere, a popular cabaret music hall featuring almost nude dancers, Figge Fox said.
The Scouts also traveled to Glasgow, Scotland to sightsee and camp. Clad in pressed Girl Scout uniforms complete with skirts and pantyhose the 10 days spent living in tents were no more comfortable than the five they spent sharing a saltwater bath on the Queen Mary, but was just as exciting, Hay said.
“We did have what we called ‘civilian wear’ to go out in the evening, but in the ’50s the girls didn’t wear slacks like they do now,” Macqueen said. “I don’t recall having any slacks.”
In Switzerland, the group attended an international camp for Girl Scouts and their international equivalents, the Girl Guides. The high-schoolers were split up and distributed across the camp site with groups of Girl Guides from other countries.
The trip led not only to lifelong friendships for the Towson High students, but also with the friends they made along the way, Figge Fox said.
In 1965, Figge Fox moved to Germany with her husband, a soldier in the Army, and met up there with a Dutch friend she made on the trip in 1957.
“We left in 1965 and I thought I’d never see her again and then she married an American airman and moved an hour away from me,” Figge Fox said.
When The Baltimore Sun covered the group’s 20th reunion in 1977, the reporter described the women as “middle-aged,” said Figge Fox, who worked as a freelance writer for The Sun and retired in 2009 as the senior editor of U.S. 1, a weekly community newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.
“Today, we can't complain about being called seniors and elderly, but we're good examples of how Scouting changes lives,” Figge Fox said.
A profound effect
Most important of all were the experiences that set them up for future adventures and professions, the women said.
One of the Merrie Landers became a linguist. Another worked for the CIA as an economic analyst specializing in the Soviet Union and then Russia. She lived in Moscow for four months at the height of the Cold War, according to Figge Fox.
Hay and Macqueen both credit the trip with instilling in them a lifelong love of learning and travel.
“I love traveling more than I would have had I not had the experience,” said Hay, who calls herself the “least-traveled” of the group.
She has returned to England and Scotland since her trip and has traveled to Canada and Holland.
Macqueen has traveled up and down the Mid-Atlantic, across the American Midwest and went back to Scotland, London and Italy with her late husband, Arthur Macqueen. The couple also traveled to Ireland, Canada and Nova Scotia.
“It’s impressive when you learn who these people became,” Macqueen said of the 1957 group. “It had a profound effect on us.”