Reflections on the Eagle Scout Award Turning 100

One hundred years ago this week, Arthur Eldred of Troop 1 in Oceanside, New York became the first to earn the rank of Eagle Scout, a short two years after the Boy Scouts were established in America. Since then, about 2.1 million boys have gone on to earn the Eagle Scout rank, the highest rank in Scouting. This equates to about 2% of the 115 million boys who have been in Scouting over the years.  During that time, the requirements for the honor have changed, but the constant has been the consistently high caliber of men the rank produces.

Becoming an Eagle Scout is an award that is given for life, ‘always an Eagle” the saying goes. What’s often referred to as the PhD of boyhood is exactly that, a confidence in a wide array of skills that few others pick up until later in their lives, if ever. It’s an honor that follows men around the rest of their lives. In offices everywhere, resumes marked by the Eagle Scout recognition get moved to the top of the pile. It’s a distinction that men, many years past their courts of honor, list in their obituaries.

There’s a responsibility that accompanies a lifetime award. As any Eagle Scout will tell you, when a fire needs to be started, when a knot needs to be tied, or when a map needs to be read, heads turn toward you. But that responsibility also carries a honing of skill. Seldom a day goes by when I don’t practice a skill I first learned as a Boy Scout.

There’s also instant admiration among those who have earned the award. You know a fellow Eagle Scout is someone who can be trusted and depended on for help. (Marion Barry excluded.)

Beginning as a Tenderfoot, a boy must ascend through four more ranks of increasing difficulty before tackling the requirements for Eagle Scout. When he begins work on the last rank, he must earn 21 merit badges, each a crash course in life skills and subjects; many are required like First Aid, Personal Management, and Environmental Science. He must also serve his troop and demonstrate leadership and responsibility.

In 1965, Scouting added a service project to the requirements. This project must benefit the Scout’s community and, to say the least, is a monumental undertaking. He must first develop a proposal based on existing guidelines. Weeks of planning and preparation follow, as well as recruiting fellow scouts to assist and, oftentimes, requesting donations from others in the community.

Projects routinely take more than 200 hours to complete and their mark on American communities is impressive. In Michael S. Malone’s history of Eagle Scouts, Four Percent, he states:

“in 2009, the total number of Eagle Scout project service contribution was 10.5 million hours … in 2010, scouting’s centennial year, Eagles would once again contribute 10 million hours of service.” Malone, using conservative estimates, extrapolates all projects since the institution of the requirement to exceed a quarter of a billion hours, making the Eagle Scout service project “the largest voluntary youth service initiative in American history [and] probably the greatest in human history.”

Finally, each candidate must conduct a conference with his Scoutmaster and defend his work during his Eagle Scout board of review. The board can be a tough sell and scouts can be turned down if they are not adequately prepared. Only after passing these hurdles can a scout be awarded the rank of Eagle and only if he completes all of this work before his 18th birthday.

It’s an arduous journey, but one that is full of lasting rewards, as well. Merit badges provide insight into hobbies and even jobs, which can last a lifetime. Friendships are created that can be just as lasting and memories that never grow old.

While it’s not implied causation, many Eagle Scouts go on to great things. The list of Eagle Scouts who have become famous is quite long. Of the 12 men who walked on the moon, 11 of them were Boy Scouts and the first, Neil Armstrong, was an Eagle Scout. But many, many more go on to be successful among reasonable obscurity, leading companies, non-profits and growing families. One of my favorite Eagle Scouts, Mike Rowe, has a sensible approach to the award, spelled out in his speech at the Boy Scouts Annual Meeting this past year.

The Boy Scouts and the Eagle Award have been in the news again recently and not for reasons of celebrating the centennial. An internal review confirmed the Boy Scouts membership policy, specifically the exclusion of gays. This has outraged many Eagle Scouts, who have returned their awards. My take on the issue hasn’t really changed since the last time I wrote about the Boy Scouts.

Still, my experience is filled with positive and great memories. I recently found a journal I kept from a Philmont trek and I was shocked to be reminded of a nearly constant rain, bears, and bad food. In my mind, it was perfect and fun every day. Times change and the mind forgets the bad. So, for the time being, I’ll just reflect on my time as a Boy Scout, the skills I learned, and how the experience shaped me and be thankful.

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