‘A life to imitate’: Scouting community weighs in on life of Jack Kepley

Published 12:10 am Sunday, July 10, 2022

SALISBURY — Every once in awhile a figure emerges in a community who leaves behind a legacy that stretches on for generations.

For Salisbury, that figure may very well be Jack Kepley.

Upon his death on June 25, Kepley left behind 98 years of endless civic duty, constant commitment to his friends and family, and a towering impact on innumerable others who passed through his life during that time.

To best understand just who Jack Kepley was and how this legacy was crafted, it is necessary to consider the thoughts and memories shared by some of those who felt that impact personally.

‘A true hero’

Alfred Wilson has been the Scoutmaster of Troop 448 for 20 years and involved in other leadership positions for even longer, having grown up as a member of the troop and meeting Jack Kepley shortly after joining.

To Wilson, Kepley was a role model from the start, encouraging him to get involved with an organization like the Scouts and even paying him a penny for each brick he cleaned at the house where he previously lived.

Wilson also learned more about Kepley as he grew older, discovering that the man who was responsible for running Troop 448 at Coburn Memorial United Methodist Church never completed his own scouting career, even though he had been a registered member of the group since 1937.

Kepley’s scouting career and his life took a detour, like that of so many other young Americans, during the early 1940s when he went off to World War II, serving in missions in the South Pacific with the Army’s 34th Infantry, 24th Division.

While Kepley himself was never one to brag, Wilson later learned that during his time on duty, the Salisbury native had been on the beaches around the Philippines when General Douglas MacArthur posed for an iconic image of him wading towards the shore of a recently secured battleground.

Wilson explained that Kepley did not focus on these interesting details of his past upon returning home but instead threw himself into his education, earning a business degree from Catawba College, and into civic service soon after.

“He was a true hero. Every day there are heroes who walk among us and Jack was one of those people,” said Wilson.

Kepley’s heroism, Wilson said, went beyond going to battle and extended into the way he looked out for Troop 448 and took over leadership of the group when he took on the role of Scoutmaster in 1952, a position he would hold for over 40 years, and one that the young man he once paid to clean bricks would take on years after.

‘The ultimate Scout’

Jack Kepley retired from the position of Scoutmaster of Troop 448 in 1992 but Henry Fairley vividly remembers the enduring presence of the man when he joined the local troop two years later in 1994.

Fairley explained that even though Kepley was already 70 by that time, he was still actively involved in numerous other aspects of Scouting.

“He made 448 an institution…he took leadership to a new level,” said Fairley.

Fairley describes Kepley as a leader concerned with instilling the principles of “duty to God, country and to self” in his Scouts and who would tell the troop that “it is not what others see you do that matters, but what you do for others when no one is looking.”

Kepley would help lead his troops on annual Scouting trips around the region and was praised by new, younger generations of troops for his savvy as a hiker, mastery of handicraft and his willingness to find leadership opportunities for others as well.

Jack led “a life to imitate,” said Fairley, and “the way he took leadership to a new level” during his time as a Scoutmaster made him the face of Scouting in Rowan County.

‘A voice of reason’

Justin Fisher had the opportunity to get to know Jack Kepley later in his life, as a man who was still involved with Scouting, but who also had adopted a role of mentor for the community as a whole.

Fisher said he turned to Kepley not only as a Scouting leader while he was young, but also when he got older and needed guidance in making other life choices.

Fisher’s decision to get involved in the armed forces was largely influenced by his discussions with Kepley, a man whom he said never pushed him one way or the other based on his own experiences in World War II, but instead looked at all sides of the matter.

“He was always a voice of reason,” Fisher said.

When Fisher’s father passed away, he once again found himself turning to Kepley. He had been out of Scouts for years by then but he still knew he could turn to Jack Kepley.

Kepley spoke with Fisher and helped him gain perspective on his loss, providing insights into life and grief that he had experienced for decades prior and all of which he was willing to share.

“He was a great, great man,” said Fisher.

‘It was never about Jack’

Wayne Kennerly remembers Jack Kepley from his youth almost as much as from his later years.

Sitting down recently, he spoke about how Kepley was always a civic-minded person.

The Harold B. Jarrett American Legion post #342, for example, was largely the result of Kepley’s efforts, along with other surviving Rowan County soldiers, to memorialize a fellow local resident and World War II soldier who perished in the conflict.

Kepley was also a member of the Salisbury Lion’s Club for over half a century, winning Lion of the Year in 1963 and then Man of the Year in 1994.

Kennerly said that the contributions to the community didn’t stop there.

Kepley was also a chairman on various boards and committees at Coburn Memorial United Methodist Church and served as a Sunday school teacher for years there as well.

“My sister is 86 years old and Jack was her teacher,” Kennerly laughed.

The Boyden High School (now Salisbury High) alumnus had his hands in just about any project he came across around Salisbury and Kennerly said that every time this happened, he wanted the focus to be on others.

“It was never about Jack,” said Kennerly. “He was most happy when someone else got an award for a job well done.”

An enduring legacy

Kepley leaves behind more than many can even fathom. His marriage of 72 years to his late wife, Grace, serves as a reminder of the importance of a strong union for younger couples to follow.

His family, including children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, alike have carried on his name throughout the community throughout the years.

The Jack Kepley Scout Building, off of South Main Street near his old church, reminds those who pass through town or participate in the Scouts about his legacy as well.

The two books he published, one including letters from his time in World War II and the other about his time in the Scouts and philosophy as a leader for the group, put that very same legacy into writing.

Countless awards and commemorations, including his induction into the Order of the the Long Leaf Pine and reception of the Silver Beaver Award, solidify this legacy, too.