- Associated Press - Sunday, May 28, 2017

MOBILE, Ala. (AP) - When you know you’ve helped land men on the moon, it’s hard to rest easy knowing you fell short of becoming an Eagle Scout by just one little merit badge. But 85-year-old J. Leon Pringle Jr. is on the verge of wrapping up that 69-year-old piece of unfinished business.

Pringle grew up in Hattiesburg, Miss., and fell just short of Scouting’s highest rank. But in recent years he’s become involved with Troop 113, based outside Mobile at Saraland United Methodist Church. Troop leader James Currie said that when the troop became aware of Pringle’s missing merit badge, they decided to help him fill in the lost piece of the puzzle.

Pringle said he was affiliated with three different Hattiesburg units - Troops 3, 11 and 22 - and loved scouting. He clearly was no slacker: He rose to the rank of Life Scout, one rank short of Eagle, and earned 26 merit badges, five more than the 21 then required for Eagles. But there are mandatory badges and electives, and one of the required badges was bird study. Somehow, that became a sticking point. Swimming and Lifesaving were favorites, and Cooking is one he reckons helped him throughout his life. But he just couldn’t get into the birds.

At a press conference held Thursday to discuss Pringle’s continuing adventure, he flipped through a 1948-vintage Scout Handbook. The requirements for the Bird Study badge included spotting and documenting 40 different species. “That’s a lot of birds,” said Pringle.

“It was tough, and at that point in high school, I guess I just got diverted by other things,” he said. “I regret to this day that I didn’t finish it. I’ve wished many, many times I’d have finished it.”

Pringle went on to become an electrical engineer with a career with Ford Motor Company and NASA, where he worked as a flight controller specializing in keeping tabs on spacecraft electrical power systems. Among other programs, he worked on many of the Apollo missions, including Apollo 11.

“I was on duty when we landed on the moon,” he said.

More recently, Pringle connected with Troop 113 and found a place as a merit badge counselor. His story about falling one merit badge short became a motivational tool. He’s a big believer in the merit badge program.

“I know when most kids enter college, they don’t know what they want to study,” he said. “The merit badge program gives boys an opportunity to be exposed to everything from forestry to mining to engineering to space exploration and all sort of fields, to see if they’ve got an interest in it.”

James Currie said that recently, the members of the troop decided to complete their bird study badge with Pringle. “So Leon, at 85, and everybody else, the other 12 guys, together the 13 of them are going to earn Bird Study. So we’ll be able to ceremonially award Leon the badge he would have gotten in 1948.”

Currie said there’s an important distinction to be understood. Scouting rules firmly state that scouts must complete rank requirements before turning 18. Nailing down that last badge won’t make Pringle an Eagle, or even an honorary Eagle, and he knows it.

“In my own mind I will know that I accomplished that, albeit many years later,” Pringle said. “I will derive a lot of satisfaction from knowing that I eventually conquered Bird Study.”

Currie said that studying alongside Pringle will be a memorable experience for the younger scouts, and a lesson about the value of finishing what you start. They plan a trip to the Audubon Nature Institute in New Orleans in July, where they’ll knock out most of the badge requirements.

Time has worked in Pringle’s favor, in a way: The badge now requires scouts to document 20 species, rather than 40. But he’s quick to point out that Scouts now have to undertake a major service project to earn the rank of Eagle, and that wasn’t a requirement back in 1948.

“We did not have to do a service project,” he said. “In that sense, scouting has got tougher.”

Troop 113 was dormant for years, James Currie said, but came back to life several years ago. It produced one Eagle Scout in 2015 and another - Quinn Currie, his son - in 2016, and another scout is currently wrapping up his Eagle requirements.

Thanks to Pringle’s NASA connections, Quinn Currie, now 19, got some special commendations when he made Eagle - including a letter and signed photo from astronaut Fred Haise.

He said that there were times when he too came close to giving up. “Absolutely,” he said, mentioning that his service project alone involved more than 300 man-hours of work. “Sometimes it was tough to stay focused.”

He’d completed most of his merit badges by the time Pringle joined Troop 113 as a merit badge counselor. But he can see Pringle’s impact on younger scouts. “I do feel the story is pretty inspirational,” he said.

Troop leader James Currie said that while Pringle won’t wear an Eagle badge, his place with the troop puts him in a rank all his own.

“He’s the head eagle of the nest for these guys,” Currie said.

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