Ross Perot, the populist billionaire and erstwhile presidential candidate from Texas, has poured untold millions into education programs while also advocating another way to mentor young Americans: Teach the Boy Scout Oath—“to do my best, to do my duty, to God and my country”—to every child in need of inspiration and purpose.
“In this country, you don’t have to come with a pedigree,” Perot once told an interviewer. “You just have to have the principles and the moral and ethical standards, and then you need to have the drive to get things done. All those things you get taught in Scouting.”
An evolving fraternity
When Perot earned his Eagle Scout badge in the 1940s, the Boy Scouts of America was a comparatively new organization, founded a little more than three decades earlier. But it had 1.5 million members and a history that included patriotic home-front service during two world wars and community volunteering during the worst depression in American history.
Now a century old, the BSA has evolved with the times. In many ways, it’s different from the organization that was incorporated in 1910 by Chicago publisher William D. Boyce and subsequently molded by many different hands.
The centennial 12th edition of the Boy Scout Handbook, printed on recycled paper, still teaches boys such things as how to use a compass, tie knots and neckties, survive in the woods, and render first aid. But it also shows boys how to use a GPS device, how to handle the basics of financial management, and how to avoid pitfalls on the Internet. And it has an iPhone application and its own website (bsahandbook.org).
But some things haven’t changed in nearly 100 years. Boys from both the second decade of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st still memorize the Scout Oath, the 12 Scout Laws, the Motto (“Be Prepared”), and the Scout Slogan to do a good turn daily.
According to Scout lore, Boyce was inspired to incorporate an American Scouting program after a trip to England in 1909, where he got lost while walking in a London fog and was assisted by a young boy who became immortalized as the “Unknown Scout.” The lad in a military tunic refused any compensation, explaining that he was fulfilling an obligation to do a “good turn.”
Intrigued, Boyce looked into the English Scouting movement that had been founded a few years earlier by Robert S.S. Baden-Powell, a military hero of the Boer War in South Africa. An inspired Boyce returned to the United States and incorporated the Boy Scouts of America, even though he had no scouts, no viable organization, and no clear idea of how he was going to get them.
What he did have was an organization for boys among an array of many, all aimed at shaping a demographic element of society that had emerged from the industrial revolution and the rise of the middle class—namely, the male adolescent living mostly in an urban environment. How to motivate and inspire these “modern” boys was a big concern for progressives at the turn of the 20th century.
The array of boy-centered organizations included the YMCA, which was one of Boyce’s initial collaborators, and such groups as Daniel Beard’s outdoor-oriented Sons of Daniel Boone and Ernest Thompson Seton’s American Indian-inspired Woodcraft Indians. Both Beard and Seton eventually became part of the Boy Scout movement, though Seton’s involvement was stormy.
“Seton and Beard both said they founded Scouting, but it might be more accurate to say that Scouting was not the product of a man, but of an era,” says Nelson Block, a Texas attorney, Eagle Scout, and longtime Scouting activist who has written and edited books on Scout history.
What separated the Boy Scouts from competing programs was a “big tent” stance on membership and programs and a passion for organization established by its first executive secretary, James E. West (1876-1948). Opposed to the kind of charismatic leadership that drove many other programs, West set up committees to standardize the oath, laws, and promotion requirements. Once the program was settled, the BSA issued its first Handbook for Boys in 1911. A year later, the BSA bought a year-old magazine titled Boys’ Life and turned it into a BSA publication that continues to this day. And in 1913, the first Handbook for Scout Masters appeared.
A key event occurred in 1916, when Congress granted a federal charter to the Boy Scouts of America. The charter gave BSA the sole claim to the name “Boy Scouts” and barred competing organizations from wearing the military-styled Boy Scout uniforms. This led to consolidations and further BSA dominance as the leading American organization for boys.
In its first decade, the Boy Scouts virtually exploded onto the American scene, growing from an idea in 1910 to 361,000 boys and 32,000 Scoutmasters by 1919. Along the way it dealt with a number of controversies, including fears that it might be a training program for soldiers, nervousness by sponsoring religious groups—such as Mormons and Catholics—that it might favor one particular creed, and its officially inclusive stand on race. The BSA leadership sidestepped the race issue by allowing segregated troops, though it made a concerted effort to recruit African Americans.
Patriotic activities in World War I and Depression relief work in the 1930s cemented the Boy Scouts as a thoroughly all-American institution. In 1934, for example, President Franklin D. Roosevelt devoted one of his radio “fireside chats” to asking the Boy Scouts to mount a “national good turn” for Depression-suffering Americans. Scout troops across the country responded by collecting more than 1.8 million articles of clothing, food, and furnishings.
Tellingly, Roosevelt’s radio talk ended with a recitation of the Scout Oath by Roosevelt, West, and a delegation of Eagle Scouts.
By then, BSA had also launched the Cub Scouts (in 1930) to enlist younger boys and Explorer Scouts (in 1933) for older teenagers. Membership age minimums were changed in 1949, lowering Cub Scout entry to 8 year olds, and lowering the age from 12 to 11 for joining Boy Scouts. Scouts could become Explorers at age 14 and older.
Scouting’s golden era
The end of World War II ushered in a golden era for the BSA that lasted two decades as post-war “boomers” came of age and joined the program. For nearly a decade after 1954, when the first post-war kids became old enough to join Cub Scouts, overall BSA membership grew by some 200,000 boys a year. In 1955 active membership exceeded 4 million. A decade later, membership stood at 5.7 million.
Significantly, the golden era of Scouting reflected more than an explosion in youth population. American families had more leisure time, more money to spend on programs like Scouting, and it was an era of “joining,” a trend also reflected in high church and club memberships. Moreover, the Norman Rockwell paintings showing eager Scouts and kindly Scoutmasters around campfires seemed to reflect the spirit of the country itself.
The seemingly inexorable growth and popularity of Scouting ran smack into the wall of the culture wars in the 1960s. In 1969 membership dropped for the first time by 65,000 boys from the previous year. That slide continued for the next decade. Today, Scout and adult membership in BSA is about 4.1 million. Of those, more than half are involved in BSA programs for younger boys—Tiger Cubs, Cub Scouts, and Webelos Scouts.
More recently, Scouting also found itself embroiled in cultural clashes involving its policy of excluding or expelling homosexuals and atheists. In 2000 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Boy Scouts has a constitutional right to set membership standards in accordance with its expressed values, but BSA continues to litigate other legal challenges associated with its policy. To many, the stand is a public-relations nightmare.
Changing with the times
However, changes in scouting programs belie the characterization of the Boy Scouts as being out of touch with the times. Today, for example, women are routinely involved in adult troop leadership, and in 1969 girls were allowed to join special-interest Explorer posts.
Scouting programs now begin with Tiger Cubs for 7-year-old boys and extend through BSA’s Venturing program that involves men and women between 14 and 20. Specific Scouting programs are tailored to boys who are interested in high adventure, such as rock climbing, community services, and career development. For decades Scouting has sought to engage ethnic and immigrant groups of boys and more recently it has even launched programs for young parents.
During 100 years, the Boy Scouts has involved an estimated 112 million American boys and a quarter of a billion boys worldwide. As a movement, it has seemingly found a way to be both flexible in its programs and immutable in its philosophy.
“Scouting has always been a reflection of the community,” Block said. “Young people change. The expectations of parents change. That’s what has happened in the 30 years that I’ve been a Scout leader. And as America evolves, Scouting does, too.”
David Hawley wrote about railroad baron James J. Hill in the November/December 2008 issue of the magazine.
Scouting Through The Years
1910: Boy Scouts of America incorporated by William D. Boyce, though the organizational name is transferred within months to a national executive board.
1911: Organizational dynamo James E. West becomes chief Scout executive and opens the national office in New York City. First BSA manual published by Ernest Thompson Seton: Boy Scouts of America: A Handbook of Woodcraft, Scouting and Lifecraft.
1912: BSA publishes its first issue of Boys’ Life magazine. Sea Scouting becomes an official program. First Eagle Scout badge awarded to Arthur R. Eldred of Troop 1, Oceanside, N.Y.
1913: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints becomes first religious body to charter Scout troops.
1915: First Order of the Arrow members inducted. Congress grants BSA a federal charter protecting its name and insignia, an action that helps BSA absorb competing organizations. First 57 merit badge booklets published. Pioneer Scouting adopted for rural boys.
1917: BSA begins its “Help Win the War” home-front service. By the end of WWI, Scouts sell $200 million in Liberty Loan bonds, collect 100 railroad cars of nut hulls and peach pits for gas mask manufacture, and plant 12,000 Victory Gardens. Rotary International becomes the first service club to charter Scout troops.
1920: BSA sends 301 Scouts and leaders to the first International Jamboree in England.
1924: First achievement badges awarded to physically handicapped Scouts.
1927: Inter-Racial Service established to promote Scouting among African Americans and other minorities, though segregated troops continue.
1930: Charters are issued for the first Cub Scout packs.
1931: Boy Scouts adopt Depression relief work programs by collecting clothing and food.
1933: Explorer Scout program authorized.
1934: President Franklin Delano Roosevelt requests a “national good turn” for the needy, resulting in Scouts collecting 1.8 million articles of clothing, food, and furnishings.
1936: BSA membership exceeds 1 million.
1937: First national Jamboree held in Washington, D.C.
1940: The Irving Berlin Fund finances projects to bring Scouting to urban, low-income areas, using royalties from Berlin’s song, “God Bless America.”
1941-45: BSA’s home-front service during WWII responds to 69 requests from government authorities, including scrap and paper drives, distribution of posters, planting of Victory Gardens, and other activities. BSA establishes World Friendship Fund to aid Scout organizations in war-torn nations.
1949: Membership age minimums lowered to 8 for Cub Scouts, 11 for Boy Scouts, and 14 for Explorers.
1950: Second national Jamboree at Valley Forge, Pa., is attended by more than 47,000 members and adults. National membership tops 2.7 million and more than doubles during the next two decades: the “golden era” for Scouting.
1954: Thousands of Scouts participate in conservation projects as part of a National Conservation Good Turn program.
1959: Special-interest Exploring begins, with an emphasis on career exploration.
1967: BSA hosts the 12th World Jamboree at Farragut State Park, Idaho. Cub Scout programs revised, including Webelos Scouting for 10-year-old boys.
1969: Girls permitted to join special-interest Explorer posts. BSA membership drops by 65,000 from the previous year, beginning a pattern of membership declines that will continue through the next decade.
1970: First National Explorer Olympics held at Colorado State University.
1971: Operation Reach, a national program to combat drug abuse, is started.
1972: Sweeping changes in Boy Scout program include elimination of some outdoor skills for advancement to First Class. Though Boy Scout memberships continue to decline, Cub Scout enrollments reach an all-time high of nearly 2.5 million.
1976: Nearly 750 Eagle Scouts and leaders camp all summer on the Mall in Washington to observe the nation’s bicentennial.
1978: Boy Scout advancement plans modified again to restore outdoor skills as a requirement for a First Class badge. New handbook published in 1980 returns emphasis to outdoor skills.
1979: National BSA office moves to Irving, Texas. Cub Scout membership has declined from a high of 2.5 million in 1972 to 1.7 million.
1980: Erosion of memberships ends following the best growth year on record, resulting in 4.3 million boys involved in BSA programs. Varsity Scouting, a program emphasizing challenging activities, is started for boys between the ages of 14 and 17.
1981: Hispanic Outreach program initiated.
1982: Tiger Cubs program begins for 7-year-old boys and their families. “Prepared for Today” program started for latchkey children. More than 600,000 older teenagers are enrolled in Exploring program, with half of all posts devoted to specific career areas.
1987: BSA launches “Good Turn” programs aimed at the “Five Unacceptables”—drug abuse, hunger, child abuse, illiteracy, and unemployment. Scouts collect 72 million containers of food—the largest single food drive in American history.
1990: Kellogg Foundation provides a three-year grant to fund training programs to place Hispanic professionals in top leadership posts in California and Texas.
1991: World Jamboree in South Korea includes Scouts from former Soviet republics.
1998: Venturing, which began in the early 1990s as Outdoor Exploring, becomes an official BSA division, emphasizing challenging activities for older teenagers, including high-altitude rock climbing, skiing, and surfing. First-year membership tops 188,000, growing to 250,000 within a decade.
2000: In a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court rules in favor of BSA excluding gay persons, saying the private organization has the right to set membership rules and standards. The case involves New Jersey Eagle Scout James Dale, who was identified through his membership in a college group. As part of its 90th anniversary, BSA identifies the 100 millionth Scout as 12-year-old Mario Castro of Brooklyn, N.Y.
2001: Scouts distribute bottled water and blankets to ground-zero workers in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center. The Greater New York Councils provide 500 cots for the workers and a nation-wide collection is launched to help victims and others.
2002: Eagle Scout Darrell Lambert of Port Orchard, Wash., is expelled for declaring that he doesn’t believe in God, a policy later upheld by courts as constitutional. The National Scouting Museum opens at BSA national headquarters in Irving, Texas.
2004: The “Good Turn for America” program, launched with the Salvation Army, American Red Cross, Habitat for Humanity, and thousands of smaller groups, provides 3 million collective hours of service for the nation’s neediest people.
2007: After three years, “Good Turn for America” has involved 1.5 million Scout and adult participants in 70,000 service projects.
2010: Boy Scouts of America celebrates 100 years of involving more than 112 million young Americans in Scouting. Internationally, the World Organization of the Scout Movement has reached 250 million youth.—DH
Eagle Scouts Have Soared High
“You say that you’re an Eagle, and automatically people expect more from you—and that will continue throughout your life,” says U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, who received his Eagle badge in the 1960s.
Of the 112 million youths who have participated in American Scouting during the past century, fewer than 2 million have achieved its highest rank by their 18th birthday. To receive the Eagle badge, the Scout must earn 21 merit badges, including 12 that are mandatory, and carry out a service project to benefit his community. And his “attitude and practice of the ideals of Scouting” must be evaluated and approved by local and national councils.
“Being an Eagle Scout means that you took control of your own life,” says Michael Bloomberg, who was an Eagle Scout before he became a billionaire media mogul and mayor of New York City.
But perhaps the greatest testimony to the value of the Eagle badge is how far so many of its recipients have soared. Eagle Scouts have walked on the moon (Neil Armstrong, Apollo 11) or become heroes of a failed attempt to get there (Jim Lovell, Apollo 13). They have founded major corporations (Sam Walton of Wal-Mart and Ross Perot of EDS and Perot Systems). One sits on the U.S. Supreme Court (Justice Stephen Breyer) and one became president of the United States (Gerald R. Ford).
Here are some other notable Eagles:
•Sens. Lamar Alexander, Bill Bradley, Richard Lugar, Mike Enzi, Jeff Bingaman, Sam Nunn, Lloyd Bentsen, and Terry Sanford
•Former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis
•Gen. William C. Westmoreland
•Adm. Elmo Zumwalt Jr.
•Brig. Gen. Robert L. Scott Jr. (commander of WWII’s “Flying Tigers”)
•Medal of Honor recipients Jimmie Dyess (World War II) and Leo Thorsness (Vietnam)
•Cmdr. George Coker, prisoner of war in Vietnam from 1966-1973 (2,382 days)
•Tuskegee Airman Percy Sutton (later a civil rights leader and New York businessman)
•Secretary of Defense Robert Gates
•Former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson
•J.W. Marriott Jr., CEO of Marriott International
•Cartoonist Milton Caniff (“Terry and the Pirates,” “Steve Canyon”)
•Trumpeter and jazz musician Wynton Marsalis
•Arizona Cardinals offensive lineman Deuce Lutui
•Baltimore Ravens quarterback John Beck
•Actor Jon Heder (Napoleon Dynamite)
•Olympic freestyle skiing silver medalist Joe Pack—DH