On Sunday, instead of watching the Packers in the NFC Championship, I went to an Eagle Scout Court of Honor ceremony.
Ripon’s newest Eagle Scout — one of 84 from Boy Scout Troop 735, to which can be added the 80 from former Boy Scout Troop 737 — is one of about 2 percent of Boy Scouts who become Eagle Scouts. Among the list of more than 2 million Eagle Scouts, you may have heard of:
- President Gerald Ford.
- Gov. Scott Walker.
- Baseball players Albert Belle and Shane Victorino.
- Governors and U.S. Senators Lamar Alexander and Ben Nelson.
- Cartoonists Bill Amend (“Fox Trot”) and Milton Caniff (“Steve Canyon”).
- Astronauts Neil Armstrong, Charles Brady, Roger Chaffee, Steven Lindsey, William McCool, Ellison Onizuka, Richard Truly, and Milwaukee’s own James Lovell.
- U.S. Sens. Jeff Bingaman, Thad Cochran, Mike Crapo, Mike Enzi, Mike Lee, Richard Lugar, Sam Nunn, Warren Rudman, Jeff Sessions and Gordon Smith.
- New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
- Former U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley (D–New Jersey), previously a Rhodes Scholar and pro basketball player.
- Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer.
- Fourteen recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor.
- One of my favorite authors, Clive Cussler.
- Dr. William DeVries, who performed the first artificial heart transplant.
- Presidential candidate Michael Dukakis and his running mate, U.S. Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D–Texas).
- Football coaches Chan Gailey, Jim Mora and Ken Whisenhunt.
- Drag racing pioneer “Big Daddy” Don Garlits.
- Governors and former presidential candidates Jon Huntsman and Rick Perry.
- J. Willard Marriott, president of Marriott Corp.
- Charles McGee, one of the Tuskegee Airmen.
- Defense secretaries Robert McNamara, Donald Rumsfeld and Robert Gates.
- H. Ross Perot.
- Mike Rowe, host of “Dirty Jobs” and a Ford commercial (that doesn’t include Aaron Rodgers) on a TV stationnear you.
- Robert Lee Scott Jr., World War II fighter ace and author of God Is My Co-Pilot.
- Filmmaker Steven Spielberg.
- Rex Tillerson, CEO of ExxonMobil.
- Sam Walton, founder of Walmart.
- The writer of this blog.
I got to speak at an Eagle Scout Court of Honor for a member of our parish several years ago. In preparing for that speech, I was pleased to be able to recite, without online prompting, all 12 pieces of the Scout Law — a Scout is Trustworthy, Loyal, Helpful, Friendly, Courteous, Kind, Obedient, Cheerful, Thrifty, Brave, Clean and Reverent — and almost all of the Scout Oath:
On my honor, I will do my best,
To do my duty, to God and my country,
To obey the Scout Law,
To help other people at all times,
And to keep myself physically fit, mentally awake and morally straight.
The Boy Scout Motto is the headline of this blog, “Be Prepared.” The Boy Scout Slogan is “Do a Good Turn Daily,” and even though I got my Eagle Scout Award 31 years ago this month, I still try to do that, even if doing a good turn is as mundane as holding open a door for someone.
Having a Boy Scout and a Cub Scout in the house gives me multiple opportunities to flash back to my own Scout experience. Being a Scout got me into doing things I was unlikely to have done without being a Scout — to name a few, camping, hiking, canoeing, learning first aid, and working on conservation projects. My backpack, purchased by my parents in 1976, still sits downstairs and gets use. I got through homesickness (despite being out of my house for all of one or two nights per campout.) My transition from selective gourmand to omnivore was a result of the Boy Scouts; your menu choices are (1) eat what’s offered or (2) don’t eat. (One of my favorite breakfasts is the simple “Eggs on a Raft” — a piece of bread with a hole in the middle into which an egg is dropped for frying on a griddle.)
Adult-supervised leadership opportunities are a valuable facet of Scouting. I was a patrol leader and Assistant Senior Patrol Leader, and served as our troop’s scribe (which I guess counts as my first journalism experience) and bugler. (The latter was a field promotion during one summer camp because the incumbent bugler didn’t want to get up one morning. I quickly found out that the bugler is the least popular Scout because he tells Scouts to get up when they don’t want to and to go to bed when they don’t want to.) Among Scouts (and beyond, for that matter), leadership is much more about personal example than command through your title — it’s about doing, not just telling others what to do.
My single most memorable Scouting experience was being part of this motley group that spent nearly a month in the Philmont Scout Ranch in the New Mexico mountains, with my father and our Scoutmaster (who took this photo):
The Philmont trip involved horseback riding, black powder rifle shooting, climbing of tall trees, and miles and miles (more as the years go by) of hiking.
(One thing you may notice is that the Boy Scout uniform is better looking today, the Scouts having ditched the horrid former olive color for khaki. Cub Scouts still wear blue and gold.)
Boy Scout adult leaders deserve enormous amounts of credit for being willing to spend time with middle-school-age boys under any circumstances. The energy level of Cub Scouts can be difficult to deal with, but at least Cub Scouts usually do what you tell them to do. That extra touch of middle-school moodiness must drive leaders to (want to) drink. And yet boys cannot possibly have enough adult male role models, if for no other reason than to reinforce the lessons their fathers try to teach them at home.
At least in Ripon from what I’ve observed, Boy Scouts are apparently OK with being publicly known as Boy Scouts. That was not the case in Madison in the late 1970s for the most part. I’m not sure if that was a character flaw of Generation X, a facet of the pit where I went to middle school, or what. Cub Scouts wore their uniforms to school the days they meetings, but almost no Boy Scouts would have been caught dead wearing a uniform to school. I don’t think my Eagle Scout Award was printed in the Madison newspapers, and I was fine with that.
(On the other hand, the same month I became an Eagle Scout began my first boyfriend–girlfriend relationship. She told me her mother was hugely impressed by my being an Eagle Scout. So, like putting your Eagle Scout status on your résumé, the benefits of being an Eagle Scout may go beyond what you’d expect.)
I went to three summer camps in addition to the aforementioned Philmont trip. As a father I’ve gone to Camp Rokilio, the local council’s Cub Scout camp near Kiel. There were no Cub Scout camps in my day, but it’s a great concept under the theory that if you get someone to do Cub Scout things, that boy will want to do Boy Scout things later. (That assumes that the Cub Scout camp is not actually, as a fellow father concluded one year, Fat Farm for Dads. I asked my wife, and she denied that that was the case, which proves the conspiracy.)
Earning the Eagle Scout award is probably the biggest accomplishment in the lives of its recipients to date. Becoming an Eagle requires earning at least 21 merit badges, serving in troop leadership positions, performing hours of community service, and then planning and executing a service project of his own. Green Lake has a new dock for canoes and kayaks thanks to Ripon’s newest Eagle Scout.
My Eagle project was cleaning up a scenic overlook in Hoyt Park on Madison’s west side. The first time I saw it with my Scoutmaster, a Madison police officer, it was carpeted with trash. Six hours of Scout work later, it wasn’t. One year later when I went back, trash had returned, but not as much. (Three decades later, the area is so overgrown with trees and other foliage to be almost unrecognizable.)
Earning the Eagle Scout Award does not mean your life will be trouble-free thereafter, nor does it mean the recipient will live the life he should live thereafter. (The first part of the Scout Law, “Trustworthy,” requires me to point out that other Eagle Scouts include infamous D.C. politician Marion Berry, Fred Phelps of the execrable Westboro Baptist Church, two serial killers, and Watergate figures John Erlichmann and H.R. Haldeman.) The Eagle Scout Award is something to shoot for as a Boy Scout. Once you become an Eagle Scout, that award becomes something to live up to every day.
One maxim of the Boy Scouts is to leave a place in better condition than you found it. I think one reason that so many Eagle Scouts go into politics — whether it’s serving on a city council or school board or going much higher up — is an honest attempt to live up to that maxim, rather than an attempt to accumulate personal power. Of course, being an Eagle Scout doesn’t require you to earn big public accomplishments; our world would be a better place today if more people, whether Eagle Scouts or not, lived up to being an Eagle Scout.
Obviously I want my sons to be part of that 2 percent, but the thing about earning the Eagle Scout Award is that, while a Scout can’t earn it without a lot of help (including parental encouragement), he still has to earn the award himself. Thirty years later, it occurs to me that, like winning a sports title, the accomplishment of being an Eagle Scout is less than the accomplishment of doing what’s required to become an Eagle Scout.