By: Lidia Soto-Harmon
Over the past 50 years, Gertrude “Bobby “ Lerch rarely missed a Girl Scout event, quite an accomplishment for a 104 year old woman. She was the first president of the Girl Scout Council of the Nation’s Capital, and I met her ten years ago when I joined Girl Scouts. She was a young 94 back then. I was struck by her sense of humor, her “tell it like it is” directness, and her deep passion for girls and the Girl Scout Movement. On March 10, we presented Bobby with the 90-Year Longevity Award to celebrate nine decades as a Girl Scout. Four weeks later she passed away at home, surrounded by her loving family.
In the last ten years, I have had many occasions to visit with Bobby to learn from her and to laugh about how “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” I remember during one Girl Scout Presidents’ Luncheon we were discussing whether Pluto should remain a planet. I adamantly stated, “Pluto is a planet, it was a planet when I was in second grade, and will always be a planet in my book!” Bobby turned to me and with her sharp wit said, “Lidia, if you cannot adapt to change, you are not going to make it!” It was with that tenacity that Bobby navigated the world and shaped Girl Scouting in the Greater Washington Region.
She was 14 when she joined Girl Scouts in 1924, and was immediately touched by the amazing sisterhood. She would tell stories about how the most important part of our movement is, and will always be, the girls. She told me we needed to listen to girls and do the things that mattered to them. She always would say, “Make sure that whatever you do, never lose sight of why girls join. They join because they want to belong.”
She was a trailblazer, earning a Master’s Degree in chemistry and serving on the board and as Chairman for the Community Chest of Montgomery County, which would later become known as the United Way of the National Council Area. Bobby rose through the Girl Scout volunteer ranks. She was the president of two Girl Scout councils in the Washington, DC area and led the effort to combine five diverse councils, which, in 1963, would become the Girl Scout Council of the Nation’s Capital. During her tenure as president, Bobby helped establish the Juliette Low Legacy Society, the council’s planned giving program to secure the future of Girl Scouting in this region. She successfully bridged geographic, socioeconomic and racial differences to bring Girl Scouts to all girls.
She often talked about the difficult summer of 1963, the summer she boldly integrated our Girl Scout camps. Bobby, along with the board treasurer, went to camps armed with the council’s checkbook, and announced to each parent dropping off their child that the camps were integrated. If they wanted their money back she could make that happen in a second. Bobby often said children do not notice color; rather, racism is something they are taught. She recalled the story of one child who wrote home about being saved by her best friend at camp. She was “drowning” in ankle-deep water, and this girl was her savior. When the mother came to pick-up her daughter she was amazed that this best friend was an African-American girl. Bobby sought to teach tolerance and set a standard of racial equality for the entire council to follow.
During Girl Scouts 100th Anniversary, the Madame Tussauds Museum made a wax figure of our founder, Juliette Gordon Low. I wanted to take Bobby to visit the museum since I remember her story of meeting Juliette when she was 14 years old in New York. She says that if she had known that meeting the founder was so important, she would have paid more attention. So we went together and the general manager gave us a private tour. When we passed Ronald Reagan’s wax likeness, Bobby turned to me and said, “Oh, I remember him. I went to the White House two years in a row to shake his hand!”
Bobby was an incredible leader, but most importantly, Bobby was a good friend. She was funny, smart, a mover and shaker, and much loved member of this community. This year, she was unable to attend our Girl Scout President’s Luncheon, a gathering she had organized for years. I wanted to make sure on that day she would have her favorite filet mignon lunch. I asked the chef to prepare it just the way she liked it. I arrived at Bobby’s home with a huge styrofoam container that I believed held her savory filet mignon. When I opened the box in front of her, it was chicken nuggets and French fries. Bobby did not skip a beat. She looked at me and said, “I don’t know about you, but I am hungry and this is still warm!” That flexibility, that joy for life, kept her engaged and a leader for so many decades.
I will truly miss our visits and the many emails she would send when she heard Girl Scouts on the radio, or read something that she wanted to share. Thank you Bobby for your legacy to this council. I will miss you so much. And yes, I now believe that Pluto is not a planet, and I will always follow your advice to listen to the girls.
The author, Lidia Soto-Harmon is the Chief Executive Officer of Girl Scout Council of the Nation’s Capital, which serves over 89,000 girl and adult members in the Greater Washington Region.