PETERBOROUGH — Two themes dominate the décor of Martha Manley’s RiverMead apartment in Peterborough.
The walls and shelves are lined with paintings, sculptures and figurines from travels to Tanzania, India, Liberia and beyond. Sprinkled among them is another kind of keepsake: photographs, pins and memorabilia collected over a lifetime of Girl Scouting.
Manley, 79, remembers camping with her mother’s troop for the first time around two or three years old. And she basically hasn’t stopped scouting since.
“I’ve always been a Girl Scout,” Manley says. “But I wasn’t allowed to be an official one until I was in the second grade, which was when I became a Brownie.”
She still has pins dating back to those days, alongside plenty that commemorate more recent experiences. In her 70 years with the organization, she’s led troops in New Hampshire and in Liberia, visited world scouting centers across the globe and served on the board for the Girl Scouts of the Green and White Mountains. And this fall, Manley was recognized by Volunteer NH with a Spirit of NH award for her service as a scout.
The Milford native, whose family owned and operated the Milford Cabinet newspaper for two centuries, says an appreciation of other cultures, as well as an affinity for service, were instilled in her early on.
“I was raised in a family that believed in raising us as what I describe as children of the world,” Manley says. “My father ran the newspaper, and they were interested in world affairs and world friendship and frequently had people visiting that were in this country for one reason or another.”
Her first tastes of travel as a young scout were to a Girl Scout “round-up” in Colorado, which drew more than 10,000 people, and then to Oregon for a two-week backpacking trip. Two girls from each state went on that excursion, she says, and, uniquely, they weren’t accompanied by adult leaders. The scouts were divided into patrols of eight and each girl had a responsibility, such as first aid or navigation.
At a time when many of her peers were getting involved in Rainbow Girls, a leadership and service organization known for its uniform of long dresses, Manley felt like Girl Scouts was somewhere she fit in.
“When I was an awkward adolescent and much more comfortable out camping and hiking than I was parading around and other things, there was a place for me,” Manley says.
She would go on to receive the highest award in Girl Scouting, now known as the Gold Award, which scouts complete in high school. Then, after earning a degree in mathematics from Smith College in Northampton, Mass., her appetite for exploration led her to the University of East Africa in Kampala, Uganda, where she worked as a teacher and earned a diploma in education.
That was also where she met her husband, Frank, who had been raised in India as the child of missionaries. He was enrolled in the same program, and after a year in Kampala the pair went to Tanzania to continue teaching.
Though she hadn’t been heavily involved with scouting since high school, Manley says she always knew she’d one day lead a troop like her mother did. So when the couple returned to the United States to start their family two years later, Manley set about to do just that, and soon got her own daughters, Carolyn and Barbara, involved.
“I was at a meeting with my mother at one point, a Girl Scout training session. And somebody asked, ‘Well, how do you find leaders?’ ”Manley recalls. “And she just looked up and said, ‘You raise them.’ ”
She even credits scouting with helping her find a direction for her career. Her family returned to the African continent about 15 years later, when Frank’s work took them to Liberia, and Manley started leading a troop of Girl Guides, as scouts are often called in other countries. During an activity about career exploration, the girls were looking at a deck of playing cards that featured real women and their careers. As Manley read the description of an accountant’s duties, she realized it sounded like the perfect job for her.
When she and Frank got back to the states, Manley, then 40, took the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT), got her master’s and worked as a CPA for 10 years before taking over the family business at the Milford Cabinet. Being a Girl Scout was part of what gave her the confidence to go for it.
“What Girl Scouting does, it teaches girls to be leaders,” Manley says. “It helps them to appreciate themselves and to know that they can do something and they can make a difference.”
Her financial expertise as a CPA is also part of what’s made her an asset as a member of the board of directors for the regional Girl Scouts council. Patricia Mellor, CEO for the Girl Scouts of the Green and White Mountains, describes Manley as someone who is deeply committed to her community and to her family, and who exemplifies the mission of the organization on a daily basis.
“She always has courage when she’s facing unknown odds, like the courage to speak up in group situations, the courage to try new things. She has confidence in her own abilities,” Mellor says. “But what is great is she also will admit when she doesn’t know something, and that is a very strong person to say, ‘I need to learn more and I want someone to train me.’ ”
For Manley, fellowship is one of the most important aspects of being a Girl Scout, and she’s connected with other leaders and guides all around the world. She’s visited three of the five world centers of the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts, including locations in Switzerland, India and the United Kingdom, and has also attended an African regional meeting of Girl Guides leaders in Nairobi, Kenya.
In Manley’s decades as a Girl Scout, the organization has continued to expand the opportunities it offers young women, with new badges around topics such as Internet safety, robotics and mathematics in the outdoors. But she says the core goal — to help girls grow and explore — remains steadfast.
“I am excited because what’s changed has been the way the program is presented for the girls that are around now. What has not changed is enabling girls to learn new skills, to become leaders, to learn what the world is like, to be able to be active in the world,” Manley says. “When [Girl Scouts founder] Juliette Low started having girls wear bloomers instead of skirts, this was radical.”
Her hope is that the tradition and legacy of Girl Scouting will live on and evolve for decades to come. And she plans to do all she can to make sure that happens — she added the organization to her will years ago.
“I think that’s a message that everybody needs to hear,” she says. “Whatever the organization, you need to support it financially as well as with time and talent.”