The Eagle Scout Award. It is the Boy Scouts of America's highest rank and among its most familiar icons. Men who earned it count it among their most treasured possessions. Those who missed earning it by a whisker, or a mile, remember exactly what requirements they didn't complete, and surely have a story to tell about why not.
Americans know that being an Eagle Scout is a great honor and accomplishment, even if they don't know exactly what the badge means.
But the award is more than a badge. It's a state of being. You are an Eagle Scout. You never were an Eagle Scout. You may have received it as a boy, but you earn it every day as a man. In the words of the Eagle Scout Promise, you "do your best each day to make your training an example, to which you pledge your sacred honor."
This year is the 100th anniversary of the Eagle Scout rank, and that event bears retelling its origins.
THE FIRST EAGLE SCOUT
America's first Eagle Scout, Arthur R. Eldred, was a member of Troop 1 in Oceanside, N.Y., a troop his brother Hubert had founded in November 1910. Probably the oldest Scout in the troop, Arthur moved rapidly through the ranks. He reached Tenderfoot by January 1911, was Second Class in February, and became a First Class Scout a month after that.
After the new Handbook for Boys appeared in August 1911, listing requirements for the first 57 merit badges, Arthur quickly got to work, earning 21 merit badges by April 1912. Sometime after that, Arthur applied to become an Eagle Scout.
The BSA hadn't quite figured out a system yet, so Arthur was examined by perhaps the most intimidating Board of Review in Scouting's history. It included Chief Scout Executive James E. West, Chief Scout Ernest Thompson Seton, National Scout Commissioner Daniel Carter Beard (another BSA founder), and Wilbert E. Longfellow of the US Volunteer Lifesaving Corps, who had written the Handbook's sections on swimming and lifesaving.
Arthur survived the high-powered grilling; on Aug. 21, 1912. West notified him that he was BSA's first Eagle Scout. However, he would have to wait until after Labor Day to receive the badge because the dies for the badge hadn't been created yet. During that period in between, Arthur saved two of his fellow Scouts from drowning, just proving what a truly remarkable example of scout training Arthur was.
EAGLE SERVICE PROJECTS
More than 115 millions boys have been Scouts in the last 102 years, and over two million have earned the coveted distinction of Eagle Scout. And all have been changed by the experience that has been called "the Ph.D. of Boyhood." These young men have positively affected the face of American culture by giving back to their fellow Scouts, their communities, and beyond.
Besides earning 21 merit badges, 11 of which are required, a Scout must serve in various leadership roles in their troop, and help other Scouts along the Scouting trail by sharing the skills they have learned. The biggest requirement, which culminates the Eagle Scout candidate's efforts, is accomplishing a community service project of a solid stature, which he must organize, secure resources and recruit manpower to complete successfully.
The Eagles' service project is the single most greatest youth service initiative in history, and has touched every community in America, and in many towns and cities, hundreds and hundreds of times over the last century. You cannot read a small town newspaper in America without running across a story of an Eagle Scout Service project on a pretty regular basis.
Whether it is building duck boxes, or installing a handicap-accessible ramp at a church, or painting an American Legion, or cleaning up a neglected cemetery, many hours are spent by these Scouts making a difference in their home towns. Some are more ambitious than others - building a playground at a Russian orphanage; or building a library for an African school; or restoring wetlands - and some projects baffle the mind at the amount of energy and enthusiasm that these young Americans put into their projects. Just recently the National Eagle Scout Association announced that over 100 million hours of service has been spent by all Eagle Scouts, and each year forward, more than three million hours are added to that amazing total.
The Eagle Scout comes in all sizes and colors and shapes, and for some, it continues on to the halls of power - to the White House and Congress, to the corner office and the executive suite. For others, it leads to the great outdoors - to the Appalachian Trail, the South Pole, and the summit of Mount Everest. For still others, it culminates in service in the classroom and the laboratory, in distinguished military service, and the Peace Corp and the local community.
The honor roll of Eagle Scouts reads like a who's who of American Life: President Gerald Ford, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, astronaut Neil Armstrong, businessman J.W. Marriott, filmmaker Steven Spielberg, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Congressman G.T. Thompson and Congressman Bill Bradley, athlete Hank Aaron, explorer Steve Fossett, Tuskegee Airman Col. Charles McGee, Medal of Honor recipient Tommy Norris, Noble laureate Peter Agre, Pulitzer Prize winner E.O. Wilson, TV personality Mike Rowe, Frank Fritz, History Channel star from American Pickers, and many, many more.
This year, over 50,000 Scouts will receive their Eagle Scout Award. Where will the trail lead them? Only time will tell, but one thing is for sure: Whatever it is, odds are they will do it very well.
Here in the Twin Tiers, the Allegheny Highlands Council - which serves Chautauqua, Cattaraugus, and Allegany counties in New York, and McKean and Potter counties in Pennsylvania - averages about 40 Eagle Scouts a year, who will average about 130 to 150 hours per project, and every so often, there's an ambitious 500 hour project. You just never know.
John Wojciechowicz is executive of the Allegheny Highlands Council Scout Executive and an Eagle Scout. For more information about scouting programs in your town, call the Scout Service Center at 665-BOYS (2697) and visit alleghenyhighlands.org.