On Working for The Boy Scouts

…..My first job out of college was as a Scout Executive with the Boy Scouts of America. Essentially that meant I was a professional boy scout. You know, going camping a lot on weekends, going to an endless series of Cub Pack and Boy Scout meetings in the evenings, visiting schools and churches and community centers during the day trying to recruit scouts and potential sponsors, and the perennial job of trying to recruit volunteer leaders. These jobs were difficult enough in white, suburban, middle class and affluent neighborhoods but were a hundred times more difficult in the poor, inner city neighborhoods that comprised my district. It was actually the poorest area in Toledo, Ohio, which was the city in which I worked. What was a nice Italian American kid from NY doing in Ohio? Well, my so-called best friend at the time, Steve Cohen, talked me into transferring there to finish my BA in theatre after graduating from the community college we both had attended on Long Island because he insisted I would get a full grant there (which I did) but honestly, Ohio? But why return after graduating? Well, there was this woman I met there who eventually became my wife, then ex-wife, and she was there. So to be with her, I uprooted myself once again and returned to a state I was not particularly happy to be in.
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…..But that’s another story. This is about the Boy Scouts and there are some things I did working for them I was proud of, as well as some people I met whose memory I still cherish and whose pictures still grace my walls here in Istanbul and in a photo album of those years.
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…..Now how I got the job with the Scouts is another mini-story and it goes back to the year before when I was doing my student teaching in a small consolidated rural school district. I was there for 10 weeks and my supervising teacher was a retired Marine Corp colonel named Archie King. He liked to sign his name “a king” which I think says something about his personality, you know the lower case, the lack of punctuation after his initialed first name. Anyway, the deal with student teaching was you do everything possible to get along with your supervising teacher because his/her recommendation at the end of the term will be the single most important element in your file toward getting a teaching job. Of course, you must also keep in mind that this was during the Viet Nam War and there were still exemptions from the draft allowed for jobs like teaching. This was before Richard Nixon established the lottery that ended most of those exemptions. Okay, so I was trying my best to get along with Archie but here I was, an Italian American kid from NY, a theatre major in college, with long hair and a definite attitude toward the military. Also, long hair in those days was not what it is today: a fashion statement. Long hair was a political statement then. Having it meant you were at least liberal in your thinking, possibly anti-establishment, maybe even a dope smoking, communist leaning radical. SDS people wore long hair. Hippies wore long hair. And guys protesting the war, marching for civil rights, staging demonstrations wore long hair. Wearing it meant you at least were in sympathy with them and most likely would vote Democrat in elecions if you voted at all and weren’t some dropout living on a commune. Well, I wasn’t a dropout, wasn’t a hippie, had no communist affiliations, but I was definiitely a liberal Democrat who marched in protests and didn’t feel any obligation to going over seas to kill people, especially ones who were of the same racial background as two of my brothers.
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…..So Archie and I had a natural mistrust of each other BUT I was told by my college supervisor not to make any waves, swallow any emotions I felt rising to the surface by any remark he might make, and just get through the 10 weeks. Of course, I understood the wisdom of her advice, nodded, and did my best to pretend I thought he was a wise old man. But at the end of the first week, just before he was handing over the English classes I was to teach to me, he told me his philosophy on grading essays. He looked at the papers and if they were neatly written, the headings were correct, the title centered, the margins clean, and any crossed out words were done with just a single line through them, then he gave them an A. Any paper that failed to meet those criteria were graded according to how many lapses from those guidelines they committed. For instance, if the handwriting was a bit difficult to read, if the margins were not perfect, the title not centered properly, and words were crossed out with more than one line neatly through them, they got an F. When I asked, “But what if they had something interesting to say?”, he just smirked and said he didn’t bother reading any of them. It was obvious to him that if the papers met his criteria, then they were A papers and if they didn’t they were not A papers. There was no point in reading them. That took too much time.
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…..Well, no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t do THAT. So the grades starting to change after I took over that second week and soon, at the end of the marking period, toward the end of my 10 weeks, many of his A students were getting Ds and Cs and quite a few of his F and D students were getting Bs and even some had As This, of course, led to a meeting with the principal, the college supervisor, Archie and me where he demanded the grades be changed. The principal then asked me to justify my grades. I just asked him to read the essays first because the grades were based on the content of each paper. So the principal and the college supervisor both sat reading while Archie and I avoided looking at each other, stared at the ceiling, the walls, our respective laps, and finally when the two of them were done, the principal looked at me, then at Archie, and said quite simply, “The grades will stand as they are.” So I won that battle, the students all loved me (to this day I am still in contact with a few of them) and I felt vindicated. However, as my college supervisor warned me, Archie had the last word. He wrote what was to her eyes the worst possible evaluation a student teacher could possibly get and doomed any chances I had of finding a teaching job in what became a highly competitive job market thanks to the war.
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…..Perhaps if I stayed in NY, I would have found employment but I returned to Ohio to be with the woman I was in love with and no one in Ohio would hire me as a teacher. That evaluation, even if they thought it might be unfair, marked me as trouble and with the long hair, I was not conforming to what was acceptable in that very conservative state. So after a few months of futile job searching, my placement file containing that recommendation was sent to the Toledo Area Council of the Boy Scouts of America for consideration as a candidate for a job opening that they had. And two days later, I was called in to interview with Dave Thronton, the Director of Field Services and the second most important man in the council. I had no hope at all of getting the job since the Boy Scouts were a conservative organization staffed by a lot of flag waving Republicans, expecially in Middle America. But I went anyway. And as I entered Dave’s office, this square jawed, crew cut ex-football player rose to his feet, came around from his desk and said, “Let me shake the hand of the man that Archie King gave a poor recommendation to. “He was smiling, even laughing as he pointed to a chair and we sat and talked for over an hour about everything, including Archie King whom he knew as a volunteer with the Scouts and whom he thought was a complete moron.
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…..So Archie’s evaluation landed me that job. And Dave Thornton became my advocate during the two, sometimes stormy, years I worked for him. Stormy because I was branded a maverick back then, a brand that has stayed with me ever since. And a maverick, in case you don’t know, is not just the name of a 1950s TV series but is what people called a cow without a brand, one that didn’t belong to any herd, was independent then of any group affiliation. And that is why Dave wanted to hire me because he believed only someone like me, with my long hair flying and my political convictions out in the open, could make inroads into the inner city where they desperately wanted to go. And when they sent me for training at Schiff Scout Reservation in New Jersey, Dave wrote the director of training to say, I found out later, that they wanted me back looking exactly the way they sent me. They weren’t, he told them, to touch a hair on my head. And that’s why I was the only long-haired Scout Executive in the country at the time.
Now I went where they wanted me to go and I have to admit almost everyone I worked with, once they got over their natural mistrust, supported me in all the programs I created.
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…..The people I loved working with: Dave Thorton, Art Adler, Ben Pettigrew, Bobby Jones, Troy Jackson, and the others I clashed with: Jack Darrah, Jack Darrah, Jack Darrah. And the kids who were in my own private troop, Troop 291 from Riverside Church: Billy Thomas, Jeff Diehl, Eddie Cain, Herman “Junior” Warren, Patrick Cotton, and others but those five stand out.
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…..Before I get into my troop and some of the programs I started, I should describe the job. A Scout Executive was the guy who organized troops, cub packs, explorer posts by first finding a sponsor, some organization that would provide a meeting place, and then visiting schools to recruit boys (and girls for the explorer posts), and then recruiting adults, usually from either the sponsoring organization or from parents of the kids or sometimes some former scout would show up at the office and volunteer to work with a unit, and basically putting all those pieces together. In the case of cub packs, you needed to find den mothers (again, usually from the parents) and a cub pack leader (generally a male but sometimes, in the inner city districts where I worked, you used women when men weren’t available). The boy scout troop leaders were men, as well as the explorer posts, but again, in inner city units, this was difficult to find. Usually you could find a sponsor, a meeting place, and schools would generally let you come in and make a sales pitch for the program, but in districts like mine, that wasn’t always the case. But even if you could overcome the obstacle of a sponsor, there was the volunteer adult leadership that was a problem. There were just too many single parents or parents working two, sometimes three, low wage jobs while trying to make ends meet. I mean, we’re talking people below the poverty line here, or teetering on the edge. And though many would have liked to volunteer, it just wasn’t economically feasible for them to do that.
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…..So that’s how my first program came into existence. The Den Sister Program. The idea was simple: I needed den mothers for cub packs and there just weren’t any to be found in the neighborhoods I was working, so I thought why not use college students who were education majors and thus would cherish the experience of working with kids in extra-curriculum activities. I approached some sororities first who were known for their altruistic work and gave my sales’ pitch. Before I knew it, I had 4 coeds who had a car and were willing to drive the 20 odd miles into Toledo to work with these underprivileged kids in the poorest area of the city. From there, word of mouth got me some more volunteers and soon I had about 6 groups of college girls from three different colleges–Bowling Green University, Toledo University, and Mary Manse College–all holding weekly meetings with kids from the ages of 8-11 in inner city schools. From that group, I soon had male volunteers to work as assistant scoutmasters in other inner city troops and even started a boy scout troop in an orphanage. There were expenses to run the program: gas money for the students, supplies, registration fees, etc. which I paid for out of my own pocket at first, and though many of the students didn’t want to be reimbursed, I felt morally obligated to do that. As the program grew in the second year, I needed to find some organization to help fund it and approached the organization called Model Cities which had deep pockets of federal money. This was part of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and all I had to do was go to a meeting and make my proposal. Well, that’s how I got a death threat from the Black Panthers, but that’s another story, and suffice it to say, since I’m still breathing, nothing came of it. Just talk.
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…..Anyway, there was some local coverage but the chance for national recognition hinged on the Field Director Jack Darrah who was supposed to handle that. He was a smug, arrogant product of a white, middle class background from some insular neighborhood in some Midwestern city and we just never did like each other. I had long hair, muttonchops, wore moccasins with my suits, jeans with my scout shirt, was living with the woman who would one day become my wife, was an anti-war, draft dodging liberal. Without going into details, we finally came to blows, or I should say he physically attacked me in the Scout Office, charging like an enraged bull, which I sidestepped, got him in a headlock, and still regret not belting him when I had the chance. Art Adler, my partner, couldn’t understand why I didn’t clip him, but I saw no point in it at the time. Anyway, our boss, Paul Reinbolt, brought four of us into his office the next morning–Dave, Jack, Art, and me–and had Jack officially apologize to me. Watching him shift in his seat, stammer, grow flush with embarrassment was actually better than punching him.
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…..The Den Sister program was just one program I started. I also initiated a camporee for just inner city troops, a warehouse for used uniforms for underprivileged kids, provisional troop camping in the summers (that’s where kids from different inner city troops could spend 2 weeks in camp with me acting as the scoutmaster for all of them and with a paid staff of 3 assistant scloutmasters recruited from the college plus my buddy Ben Pettigrew and junior leaders from 4 different inner city troops), and a scout troop that met in a juvenile jail. I had my own troop, too: Troop 291 from Riverside Church. We met every week on Monday nights (my official night off) and they were a racially mixed group that had a reputation before I took over as troublemakers. They loved to fight and so we organized boxing matches for “grudge fights”: three one minute rounds with the gloves on them and my junior assistant scountmaster, Patrick Cotton, as referee. Patrick was a 17 year old black kid whose father had been a Golden Gloves champ when younger and had trained Patrick himself before he disappeared. And those “grudge fights” let them get their anger out without seriously hurting each other. It was their rules, which I learned was necessary to impose order and discipline on kids who desperately wanted order and discipline in their lives. These rules were devised by the junior leaders themselves–Jeff Diehl, Billy Thomas, Patrick Cotton, Junior Warren–and we all, including me, obeyed them, otherwise we hit the ground and did pushups: 25 for the first offense, 50 for the second, 100 for the third, and it kept doubling with each offense but no one ever went beyond 100. And the rules were: no fighting (unless it was supervised), no stealing, no cursing, leave the meeting place or campsite cleaner than we found it. And the rules only took hold when I got down on the ground and did 25 pushups for uttering a curse. It was then they understood that the rules were for everyone, regardless of race, age, or position, and they began not just to respect someone because you were told to, but to respect someone because they earned it. And when I inspected the campsite before we left, the rule was one pushup for every piece of litter I found, and again, that rule became meaningful when I dropped to the ground with the rest of the troop and did the pushups for each piece of litter found with them.

That troop, those kids, taught me about the importance of giving one’s word, because they had been lied to before (a previous scoutmaster stole the money the troop earned in a fundraising project to buy camping equipment) just as they were lied to by the government, by their teachers, by every adult in their world, and they needed to know I would never lie or cheat them, and that if I promised something, I would deliver. And I promised them that they would be treated fairly and equally, and so my actions always had to mirror my words.
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…..How I got to be the scoutmaster was another example of keeping my word. You see, the first step in starting a troop is to go into the school and recruit boys. Then you show up at the first meeting and try to talk whatever adults show up with their sons to be the leaders. Well with 291, there were about 20 suspicious kids that first meeting (remember, the previous scoutmaster had stolen their money) and no adults. The second week, there were still about 20 kids and still no adults. The third week, when no adults showed, one of the kids turned to me and said, “I guess you won’t be coming back next week.” I said that I would and I’d be bringing a scoutmaster for them with me. Well that fourth week I walked in with a scout shirt on and said, “Guys, I’m your new scoutmaster.” I just couldn’t let those kids down. And I was the scoutmaster for two more years until I quit the Scouts and went back to New York. But not before I recruited a parent to replace me. That troop had never had a scout get past the rank of Second Class but I had 4 scouts make Star (that’s First Class plus 5 merit badges) and we won third place in the district camporee that year. And more importantly, they had stopped fighting and stealing and actually worked as a team, black and white together.
And for me, that was what scouting was about: teaching teamwork, developing leadership potential, things I still believe in as an educator. And that is why I became an administrator instead of just staying in the classroom because I’m still trying to encourage teamwork among my staff, develop leadership abilities in those I think have that potential, and develop programs that will help students grow, to reach more people than I could possibly reach in just a classroom. The administration is the dark side of education but it’s where light has to shine and sometimes it takes a maverick to shine that light.
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…..And though I had more heartbreak than I counted on, seeing kids I believed in turn to drugs, crime, end up crippled and outcast, because no matter how successful you are in the inner city, tragedy is just around the corner every day of every week, I still saw kids like Billy Thomas develop the characteristics that would serve him well as a man. And if I had to do it all over again, I would slip on my moccasins, grow my hair long, and fight those battles against prejudice and poverty all over again. For Billy, for Junior, for Patrick and Jeff and old Ben Pettigrew and Dave Thornton. For if one’s words aren’t reflected in one’s actions, then your words are empty and I just wouldn’t know how to live with myself if that were true.
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…..So whatever I’ve done since those days, I learned from my experience with The Scouts. It taught me the value of my own convictions and, like Billy, it forged the characteristics that have made me a man.

3 thoughts on “On Working for The Boy Scouts

  1. Excellent story. It’s crazy…the people who gain power over children and are revered by the system. I taught ESL to migrants for a couple of years, beating my brains against white privilege before I had to give in for health reasons.

    Thanks for being that guy who cared when no other adults did. It is a tough road.

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