Youth crime-fighting club in 1930s revered Hoover's FBI

May. 05, 2013 @ 01:00 AM

Crime ran rampant during the 1930s, when the nation’s most notorious gangsters robbed banks, carjacked vehicles, and killed police officers and even innocent bystanders.
They also stole headlines, as newspapers breathlessly reported the capers of such well-known outlaws as John Dillinger, Al Capone, Bonnie and Clyde, Machine Gun Kelly, Bugs Moran, Pretty Boy Floyd and Baby Face Nelson.
Meanwhile, in an era when crime-fighting was black and white — the good guys vs. the bad guys — the ultimate good guy was J. Edgar Hoover, the highly regarded director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Brash and highly successful, Hoover grabbed countless headlines of his own, as he and his efficient army of “G-Men” relentlessly pursued his infamous list of “public enemies.”
One of Hoover’s most devoted fan clubs may have been in High Point, where four teenage boys — enamored with the FBI chief’s glamorous crime-fighting profile — founded their own investigative bureau, which they dubbed the High Point Secret Service Club.
“We were very impressionable kids, and we were all going to join the FBI when we were grown,” recalls club member — and former High Point mayor — Arnold Koonce Jr., now 87 and still living in High Point. “I think we got caught up in the romanticism of it, and the FBI looked like a real cool deal.”
The four club members — Koonce, Bill Ellington, Glen Loflin and Carter Allen — met in a makeshift headquarters over an abandoned garage behind Loflin’s house in south High Point.
According to a Feb. 13, 1938 High Point Enterprise article about the club, the headquarters contained a chemistry laboratory and fingerprinting kit; an arsenal of BB rifles, wooden pistols and a blackjack; and walls “plastered with newspaper and magazine clippings of notorious criminals and their escapades.”
A large photograph of Hoover — and articles about his success — also occupied a chunk of wall space.
“Oh, he was just the epitome of what we wanted to become,” recalls Koonce, who at the time was a 13-year-old eighth-grader at Ferndale Junior High School. “He had the values that we believed in, and good was winning out over evil.”
And here’s the cool part: You may never have heard of the High Point Secret Service Club — Koonce himself had all but forgotten about the club until recently reminded of it for this story — but the nation’s most famous gangbuster, J. Edgar Hoover, knew all about the junior detectives in High Point.
“I remember him writing us a letter,” Koonce says. “We posted it in the clubhouse.”
In fact, Hoover wrote several letters to the club, according to the 1938 newspaper article. He offered the youths praise and encouragement, and on one occasion he graciously turned down the club’s invitation for him to visit their headquarters. He did, however, arrange for a visit by one of his top agents — Edward Scheidt, special agent in charge of the FBI Field Division in Charlotte — and three other agents accompanied Scheidt.
The four teens also received the support and encouragement of High Point Police Chief W.G. Friddle, who invited them to tour police headquarters and the crime lab.
The 1938 article indicates the club members once recovered a stolen watch and turned it over to the police, but Koonce says the club’s activities amounted more to the study of crime-fighting than actual crime-fighting itself.
“We had a chemistry set with different chemicals in it — nothing harmful, of course — and my dad gave me a fingerprinting kit that we used,” he says. “It had the powder to dust for prints and the tape you use to take off the prints, and of course we drove everybody nuts with that.”
The club’s motto was “Truthfulness, Honesty and Integrity.” The club met once a week, and its members were required to pay a 25-cent membership fee, plus weekly dues of a nickel. Members wore “a G-Man badge,” according to the article.
Club members even drafted their own constitution and bylaws, which — among other things — required members to refrain from such bad habits as smoking, chewing and cursing. The bylaws also called for bravery.
“A member must not be afraid of any criminal no matter how tough or mean he claims to be, or to investigate any house, building, back alley or street at night or day,” the bylaws stated.
When representatives of the Greensboro Police Department learned of the club, they were so impressed that they asked the youths to help form a similar organization in Greensboro.
And then there’s this revelation in the 1938 article: “So heralded are the achievements of this group that the members of the feminine sex here have launched organization of a ‘G-Girls’ club.”
As it turned out, Koonce never joined the FBI — but he still flirted with the idea as a young man. After serving in the Navy during World War II, he earned a degree in commerce from the University of North Carolina.
Upon graduation, he actually interviewed with the FBI — representatives came to campus recruiting potential employees — but decided that wasn’t what he wanted to do. Instead, he returned to High Point and worked 40 years for Carolina Container Co.
To Koonce’s knowledge, he’s the only surviving member of the High Point Secret Service Club.
“I don’t think any of us went into law enforcement,” he says, “but we sure wanted to at the time.”
jtomlin@hpe.com | 888-3579