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Troop 17’s Palomo set to retire
April 22, 2016 Frank Marquez   

Read more by Frank Marquez

Frank Marquez/Gering Citizen Troop 17 Scout Master Matt Palomo, Jr., who has been a pillar in the scouting community and a mentor to 82 Eagle Scouts, talks about years of volunteering. The meeting room in the basement of Christ the King Catholic Church is adorned with plaques, awards, and momentos of all the troop has accomplished.

“I didn’t know a damn thing about scouting,” said Matt Palomo, Jr. He joined Troop 17 at 13, and only achieved the rank of Star in five years, “which was not very good,” he said, realizing to advance in the troop meant bringing to life the one thing it was lacking – campouts.

The Scout Master at the time Dr. Max Gentry was at a disadvantage, limited by both age, and time, being a local physician.

Matt, who will be 64 on April 27, is getting set to retire from the Boy Scouts of America this year, after more than 50 years of volunteering. He was born in Nebraska, but raised in southwest Texas until he was 13. When he returned to Gering in 1964, Matt assisted Dr. Max, “a great, great man who started Troop 17 in 1957,” he said.

Matt, who was one of the troop’s first scouts, experienced culture shock, and it took him some time to adjust. Being raised in south Texas, he attended a school, with nearly all its students Hispanic and Spanish speaking. “Then, you come up here (to Gering), it was the opposite.” Although, Matt spoke English, he wasn’t as fluent.

He was invited by his cousins to join scouting, wondering what it meant. Once aboard, he watched several of the scouts drop out after reaching the Life rank, because as Matt put it, Troop 17 was viewed as being from the barrio (Hispanic neighborhood) and its ranks filled with a bunch of “Mexicanos,” and the prevailing thought was they’d never make Eagle. “I resented that,” he said.

So, “Dr. Max, as good as he was, invited VISTA workers, or Volunteers in Service to America,” Matt said. “Although helpful, they knew little about the scouting program. They also didn’t know how to relate to the young Hispanic scouts. Instead of giving the scouts respect, “they acted like they had whips,” he said, eventually rebuking one of the volunteers. “I told (the volunteer) he didn’t know what he was doing. They were treating us like bad kids. We’re not bad kids. Give us a chance. Let us trust you.”

When Matt took over for Dr. Gentry in 1971, his goal was to produce Troop 17’s first Eagle Scout. His brother Basilio Palomo became the troop’s first Eagle Scout on Nov. 4, 1973, and Matt thought briefly about quitting. He had accomplished his goal.
Eighty-one Eagles later, he’s still here, holding meetings in the basement of Christ the King Catholic Church near the corner of M and 18th streets in a room adorned with plaques, awards, and numerous photos of uniformed scouts dressed in their khaki shirts at celebrations and campouts.

Unofficially running the troop at 16, Matt took on more duties when he graduated from Gering High School in 1968, until Dr. Max could no longer run the troop. Officially, he became the Scout Master at 21. “I just stayed with it, not knowing it was going to be something like this. Here I was, a volunteer, and I didn’t know anything about volunteerism, but Dr. Max guided me through it.”

Matt placed more emphasis on developing an indoor-outdoor program, and a strong focus on advancement. He counts himself fortunate assisted by a number of other volunteers who stepped forward and held to same philosophy. Among them, Rudy Palomo, Rudy Hernandez, Dale Manke (SP), and Manuel Trevino. Two of his assistants, Ben Trevino and Melvin Shockley have invested a combined 52 years of service, Trevino with 31, and Shockley, 21. “I owe both Ben and Melvin a lot for being my bookends in this program. Without them, this would not be possible,” he said
Now the goal has shifted. It is not to produce Eagle Scouts. The current leaders want to teach the program of adventure to these boys. The scouts also learn about careers through merit badges, Matt said, pointing to a white plaque listing all of the troops’ eagles. “Isn’t that awesome?”

In its nearly 60-year history, Troop 17 boasts 82 Eagle Scouts.
With 26 current members, they involve themselves in activities which boost positive growth. “I don’t go by quantity,” Matt said. “BSA does. I go by quality of the group. That’s what I’m after. I look for the boys growing in scouting, advancement, meetings, campouts, and the support from the parents. They all got to learn to be accountable. The boys, they build up self-esteem.”

Describing typically how this has occurred over time through campouts, Matt said, “You got a boy who has never been camping in 20- to 30-degree weather, he learns to deal with the elements, from heat to hail to rain to cold. When they do it, they feel confident. You can see it in their body language. They stand taller, walk bolder. … These kids will thank you; they’ll respect you. They come back years later, bringing their sons, and say ‘look, I was in Troop 17.’ That’s awesome. Outside of the ranks and awards, these kids never forget scouting.”

Another fervent volunteer, Wyatt Kramer, an Eagle Scout from another local troop, has helped Matt with Troop 17’s scouts for the past four years. He has opened up his property near the North Platte River, to fishing, canoeing, and archery.

Matt also credits his wife Aurora for the kind of success Troop 17 has achieved. “We have been married for almost 40 years, and she’s always been behind me on this. As a married man, you know this is an important relationship, especially as a volunteer. You spend so much time doing it.”

Matt revealed that scouts can reach Eagle in about 26 months; that means they’d be sewing the patch on their shirt in the eighth grade. “That’s too young, as far as I’m concerned,” he said. “They’re not mature enough. If that happens, the boys will drop out. But if I keep them to the end of their freshmen year to the start of the sophomore year? By that time, things start to happen.” They will have had four years of mentoring about the do’s and don’ts in life; they gain advantages in the military with a boost in rank. “So, that’s an incentive. Scouting is designed to build character, and skills in being a better citizen. … I’ve seen it.”

The troop has invited all walks. In the beginning, most of the scouts were Hispanic, about nine out of 10 as Matt recalls, mostly of Mexican descent. Now, as Matt said there’s more of mix, only a third are Hispanic and the rest of the troops are white and biracial. Thus, the stigma that Hispanic boys caused trouble has faded. “We don’t take kids in trouble, we take kids in general,” he said. “That’s not fair to these kids (to label them). That shows you where the times are going, but the boys, all the boys want one thing: They want to belong, to learn, to feel good about themselves. If you allow them opportunities, they will accomplish great things.”

Over time, as though out of his peripheral view, Matt has watched over the boys – their grades, and extra-curricular accomplishments. As for their family life, he keeps it out of the scout room. “Family support is one thing,” he said. “Word is on the street: The boys know what to expect when they come here. We try to help however we can, but only in the scout room.”

Belonging to the troop means doing the work. Matt shows no favoritism. All the scouts must attend meetings. There are no shortcuts when it comes to requirements. If they come to him with scheduling conflicts, he simply gives them time to mull their choices, and decide what they value most. To do less, would only be holding back on their own development. He stands firm, knowing how far Troop 17 has come, and what it has gone through to gain credibility.

In the beginning, “we were damned for having no Eagle Scouts, then when that turned around, we were damned for having too many,” he said.

Over the years, Matt has defended his Eagle Scouts during their reviews, refuting flimsy critiques. He exhibited his knowledge of scouting’s rules, including how many hours a scout should serve as a volunteer; how scout masters can serve as counselors; and how no boy can be denied the rank of Eagle because of his religion in answer to challenges brought by a former BSA president.

In the spring of 1988, Matt was selected for the Scout Master Award of Merit, being the first in the nation to receive the award when it was issued. That year, Matt spent a week in San Diego as one of America’s 70 best Scout Masters in the country – only two, including Matt, were of Hispanic heritage. The same former president was there, and invited him to sit at the head table during the awards ceremony.

When scouts earn their Eagle, Matt expects them to come back at least once a month. At that same time, as sophomores in high school, they may have jobs, tougher classes, sports, and girlfriends.

Making time is a tough demand, he said, but doable.

Matt has served as a similar example to his own children. His youngest son, Sergio, 30, works as a child psychologist in Omaha. As a member of the troop, Sergio made Eagle on April 24, 2001, and makes frequent returns to the Twin Cities. Last summer, Sergio spent three days with the troops at summer camp. Matt’s oldest, Luisa, 35, is a teacher in Omaha, and a second daughter, Andrea, 33, earned a degree in accounting and lives in Boston.

Heading into retirement, Matt said he feels good, and thinks about writing several books on how to be successful in life.
“It’s quite an accomplishment. I pat myself on the back a lot,” he said. “I’m self-motivated. I think back, and say, ‘you can do it.’ That’s my drive. There are two things, my ethnicity and height. I never let those things stop me. I’ve proven all the doubters wrong. If you put your mind to it, you can do it. And God’s always been in my life. If I die today, I told my kids, I’ll die a complete man. Everything I set out to do, I accomplished, even when society said I couldn’t – from running my own business for 34 years (a landscaping service), to raising a family, to my work in tennis … I’m not ready to go. I want to still be around. As long as I can. These kids keep me young. … They all want the same thing – they just want to belong, trusted, led. So, how can you lose?”

About one of the more important lessons to scouts, Matt said, “You have got to think about today, and plan for tomorrow.”
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