Monday, February 08, 2010

BSA: The First Century

IMAGE: "The Ideal Scout", a 1937 sculpture by Robert Tait McKenzie, in Philadelphia PA.

One hundred years ago today, the Boy Scouts of America was incorporated in Washington DC. There were several men involved, but the chief among them was a Chicago businessman named William D Boyce, who learned of the Scouting movement while on a business trip to England.

The story goes that Boyce found himself on the streets on London, lost in a "pea soup" fog. A boy walking by saw his predicament, and offered to direct him to his address. Upon arrival at his destination, Boyce attempted to give him a gratuity. The boy refused, saying that as a Boy Scout, he could not accept a reward for doing a good turn. This intrigued Boyce, who wanted to know more, so the boy also referred him to the Boy Scout headquarters elsewhere in London.

IMAGE: Daniel Carter Beard (1850-1941) in a photo most likely from the 1937 National Jamboree.

Boyce brought back a wealth of material with him. The corporation was established with the assistance of YMCA leaders, and two avid outdoorsmen named Daniel Carter Beard and Ernest Thompson Seton. Shortly thereafter, Boyce left the BSA to pursue other ventures (among them the Lone Scouts of America, for boys in rural areas, which later merged with the BSA), and a Washington attorney named James E West took over as the first "chief scout executive." His administrative prowess gave the BSA the sureness of organizational footing that has carried it to the present day, as the largest national scouting organization in the world. On the downside, West wasn't much of an outdoorsman, which made for numerous disagreements with both Beard and Seton.

Who was the "Unknown Scout" who helped Boyce? He disappeared before anyone could learn his name, and a nationwide search did not move him to come forward. There have been suggestions that the story was largely, if not entirely, fabricated by a man who wanted to lend a mystique to Scouting's origins in America. Nevertheless, years later, the Unknown Scout was the recipient in absentia of the BSA's highest adult service award, the Silver Buffalo. The Prince of Wales received it on his behalf.

IMAGE: William "Green Bar Bill" Hillcourt, the man who saved the BSA from itself.

If Boyce was the founder of the BSA, another man of more recent years could be considered its savior. William "Green Bar Bill" Hillcourt was an advisor to the BSA for many years, and after a failed attempt to modernize the program in the early 1970s, he came out of retirement to return the BSA Handbook to its more traditional focus. "Outing is three-fourths of Scouting," so the saying goes. It is a major component of the method, one by which character development and self-reliance are taught.

Many famous Americans have been in Scouting. 3 Boy Scouts out of 100 eventually earn its highest award, Eagle Scout. One USA president, the late Gerald Ford, is an Eagle. (Contrary to popular opinion, John Kennedy only went as far as Star Scout, one rank above First Class.) The first man on the moon, Neil Armstrong, is also an Eagle Scout. Other notable Eagles include New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, some guy named Michael Moore (no kidding!), former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Antarctic explorer Paul Siple, film director Stephen Spielberg (who helped established the Cinematography merit badge), and so many others.

Including this one.

Throughout the month of February, mwbh will be devoting essays on various aspects of the Scouting movement, and what Scouting has meant to the author, from his boyhood to the present day.

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