One man opened outdoors to many

Published October 15, 2006

ST. PETERSBURG - Leroy Prothro taught hundreds of African-Americans how to load a backpack, pitch a tent and fish for bass.

"He was the consummate outdoorsman," said the Rev. Wayne Thompson of the First Baptist Institutional Church. "And he made sure that every one of his Scouts learned to do all as well. He got us out of the 'hood and into the outdoors, and for that I will always be grateful."

Prothro, who died in 2001 at age 74, is being honored this week at the Boy Scouts Distinguished Citizens Banquet. A $5,000 academic scholarship will be awarded to an outstanding Eagle Scout in his name.

"There is a long list of people that Mr. Prothro set on the right path," Thompson said. "It includes many teachers, doctors and lawyers. Leroy had quite an impact on a lot of people."

But Prothro's influence in the outdoors community reached far beyond Scouting. Prothro, known in some circles as "Jaybird," went to work for Bill Jackson's Shop for Adventure when it was a one-room operation on Fourth Street.

Jackson, who turns 91 this month and still works every day in the store that bears his name, said Prothro was a pioneer in the outdoors industry.

"He came to work for us in 1951," he said. "Back then, after World War II, a lot of the gear was army surplus ... a lot of canvas, real heavy."

Prothro used Jackson's tents and backpacks on camping trips with his Scouts and saw the need for lighter equipment. The time he spent in the woods helped him connect with other outdoor enthusiasts.

"He loved to talk to people," Jackson added. "He had a real knack for it, and I think that was because he genuinely liked to help people."

Jackson's son, Darry, who was just a boy when Prothro went to work for his father, said having a black salesman in a retail store during the 1960s was controversial: "People came into the store from time to time and would say I don't want a black man waiting on me. But they would spend a few minutes talking to Leroy, and in the end he would have made a new friend."

Prothro mastered all departments, selling everything from snow skis to kayaks. But his first love was fishing.

"When my boys were little, just 6 or 7, he took them fishing," said Harriet "Mrs. J." Jackson. "The boys persuaded him to let them keep some very small fish, which were forgotten in the trunk of my car. We didn't find out till days later when we noticed this awful smell."

Prothro's other great love was Scouting. Drafted by the leaders of Bethel Community Baptist in the 1940s, he led the all-black Troop 130 for more than 40 years.

"I was very proud of his work," said his wife, Alice. "All of our sons became Scouts. He helped so many young men. My friends and I always made sure all the Boy Scouts were well-dressed and well-fed."

Thompson said Prothro would be pleased to know that there will be a scholarship for Scouts in his name.

"He valued education," Thompson said. "He made us bring our report cards to Scout meetings, and if there was a problem, you would be having a one-on-one talk with Mr. Prothro in the back room."

Prothro's greatest lesson was one of respect.

"He taught us how to co-exist peacefully with nature," Thompson said. "Whenever we went into the outdoors, he made sure that we always left it cleaner than we found it."

For more information on the Leroy Prothro Scholarship, contact the West Central Florida Council of the Boy Scouts of America at (727) 391-3800.