Do a Good Turn Daily: 1909 Davidson Grad Inspires 2020 Scouts

Boy Scout Troop

Mike Matzinger, a scout leader in Greensboro, North Carolina, found inspiration in a letter written by a Davidson alumnus during another pandemic.

When a flu pandemic swept the world, most schools and churches in North Carolina closed. In response to the sudden shift in the rhythms of daily life, Robert E. Denny sent a letter to his scouts that drew inspiration from the Boy Scouts of America slogan, “Do a good turn daily.”

At that time, Denny, a 1909 Davidson graduate, led the Greensboro Council of the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) as the organization’s first scout executive.

A century later, Mike Matzinger, an organic chemist who lives just outside of Greensboro, North Carolina, learned of a deep connection with Denny.

Matzinger also serves as the unit leader for more than 100 young people through the BSA, including a troop of young women and a co-ed Sea Scout Ship.

“The granddaughter of one of the young men who received the letter in 1920 found the letter in her grandfather’s mementos box and brought it to me,” Matzinger said. “It was important enough to a 13-year-old to keep it for the rest of his life.”

The letter offers much of the advice today’s troops under Matzinger’s direction are encouraged to follow. During the pandemic then, just like now, many of the businesses and organizations that drive social and economic life were closed. But in the letter, Denny urges the scouts to use the extra time they have for good, rather than waste it. He implores scouts to help people in their homes, help people in their neighborhoods and, at the end of each day, share how they tried to make a difference.  

“Denny wanted to give the scouts accountability by asking, ‘What did I do today to help someone other than myself?,” Matzinger said. “If you failed, you have the next day to do better. His words are eerily similar to what I tell my scouts today.”

Denny’s influence did not end with the letter. Scouts from Matzinger’s groups have the opportunity to earn a patch created in Denny’s likeness and receive the honor of being named “R.E. Denny Good Turn Ambassador” if they do at least one “good turn” a day for 14 straight days.

The scouts have stepped up to meet the challenge. They’ve made blankets for the homeless, collected more than 11,000 pounds of food for a local pantry, taught adults how to read, made devices to make masks more comfortable for healthcare workers, taken meals to neighbors and written cards to shut-ins.

“I keep telling them… 100 years from now, a family member is going to open a box of your mementos,” Matzinger said. “Do you want that story to be that you played the Xbox, or do you want that story to be that you fed the hungry and helped the homeless—that you took care of your community?”

Matzinger learned through scouting and through church that he had an opportunity to serve others. As a young person, he worked with inner-city youth who were trafficked or homeless. When his own children were old enough to join the organization, he expanded his own involvement.

“Like Denny, many of us go into our lives as servant leaders, never knowing the legacy we might be leaving behind,” he said. “You can do good at 11, and you can do good at 88. His story reminds us that a habit of doing a good turn daily can impact others beyond our expectation.”  

Denny transferred to Davidson after a year at Guilford College. He jumped in wholeheartedly, playing football and baseball and running track. He served as president of his sophomore class, was involved with the YMCA and participated in student activities ranging from the Glee Club to the debate team.