Boy Scouts: 100 years of loyalty and learning

  • Thu Sep 16th, 2010 12:33pm
  • News

By Andy Rathbun Herald Writer

The road was bad. The weather was worse.

Zach Eagle bumped along in the back seat of a pickup with its windshield wipers on. A friend’s mom slowly navigated the 10-mile dirt road in the Cascades.

Zach wanted clear skies for the trip to Wallace Falls State Park. What he got was a road slick from rain and, eventually, snow.

Zach, 17, of Snohomish, couldn’t let his disappointment show. He was leading more than a dozen people in a restoration project.

He knew the state park well. He hiked 175 miles last summer, and this forested spot was a favorite. He knew the decades-old stairs at the top of the falls were a mess of loose rebar and weathered wood.

He and his team set about changing that.

After bouncing over potholes and roots, they hiked the last quarter mile, carrying 35-pound blocks of wood and five-gallon buckets of soil. They pried wet timber out of the hard-packed earth. They hammered in fresh metal stakes. It rained and hailed on the first day. They kept working.

By day two, the sun came out. The old steps were gone, replaced by 30 pieces of clean-edged timber.

The teens weren’t wearing their uniforms — the light tan shirts, the olive shorts, the scarves. Regardless, passing hikers such as John Sullivan, 62, found out who they were: Boy Scouts.

“It’s going to be OK when we turn the world over to them,” said Sullivan, of Helena, Mont. “They’ll do a good job.”

A history of service

The Boy Scouts of America, marking its 100th anniversary this year, is more than ever producing Eagle Scouts like Zach, who may soon earn the rank thanks to the project he completed last month.

The Boy Scouts in 2009 broke its record by inducting 52,047 teens into its highest rank, with 139 coming from Snohomish County.

Scouts touch thousands of lives here every year. They build bridges over wetlands, disabled-access ramps at churches and flower beds at community centers. They collect battered old American flags and distribute crisp new ones. They put up flagpoles and stage food drives.

Bronze plaques don’t mark their work. They use a rule similar to the principle that guides their camping: leave no trace.

“It feels like you’re making a difference, even though it’s not obvious,” said Eagle Scout Leo DeBroeck, 17, of Everett, whose father and two brothers are also Eagles.

The impact on the boys is clear to mothers like Karen Fry, who helps out with an Edmonds troop celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Her 15-year-old son, John, is in that troop.

“Getting stronger and helping together: that’s what it’s all about,” she said.

The county’s Boy Scouts have been active since 1914, when C.G. Shelden led the first troop in Everett. Today in the Mount Baker Council, a five-county region including Snohomish County, the organization has 8,000 active Scouts, just shy of the number of people who live in the city of Snohomish.

Those Scouts have helped shape the region with their continual service projects.

The principles that guide scouting — to be trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent — carry beyond that labor. They stay with boys into manhood.

One of the region’s most famous Scouts, U.S. Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson, belonged to an Everett troop in the 1920s.

“Everett was sort of the confident mill town,” said the senator’s son, Peter Jackson. As a result, “the only exposure to timber and wildlife were timbers and wildlife being destroyed. Getting connected to wilderness and wild places, it was a pretty important thing for him.”

During his time in Congress, the former Boy Scout became a champion of the environment. He helped create the North Cascades National Park in 1968 and the Environmental Protection Agency. His scouting background connected to the causes.

“It was a defining experience,” his son said.

Historic congressmen aside, the scouting tradition also touches everyday life. Law enforcement officials, businessmen, county councilmen and oncologists all can write “Boy Scout” on their resume.

Bruce Overstreet, an Everett High School English teacher and Eagle Scout, said the group instills a mind-set of public service. It helped lead him to his career as an educator and a track coach.

“It’s a lifestyle,” said Overstreet, 49. “It’s a way of seeing the world.”

Challenges ahead

While the number of Eagle Scouts has reached record highs, membership in the Boy Scouts itself has dropped.

In 1973, the organization had 4.85 million kids in its troops. By this year, that number dwindled to 2.7 million, a steep decline considering the U.S. population has grown by about 50 percent since then.

The exact reasons for the drop aren’t clear, but there are plenty of theories.

Former Scouts say children have less time. The Boy Scouts didn’t always compete with year-round soccer leagues, “Halo 3” and hundreds of TV stations.

“There was Boy Scouts, and there wasn’t a whole lot of other things,” said Larry O’Donnell, an Everett scouting historian.

Some parents might be turned off by the private organization’s guidelines. Their oath includes a promise to “do my duty to God and country.” Members can’t be atheists. Open homosexuals can’t serve, either.

“We understand not everyone agrees with our position on this, but we value the freedom of everyone to express their opinions,” said Deron Smith, national spokesman for the group.

Court cases also have rocked the organization. An Oregon sex-abuse case ended in April with the Boy Scouts of America being found guilty of negligence.

“Anytime there’s an issue with a child, it’s a tragedy,” said Tico Perez, the Florida-based national commissioner for the Boy Scouts, shortly before the verdict.

The national organization notes it has an extensive policy to guard against abuse, but that won’t put all parents at ease.

Their sons may have simpler concerns. They may question the social fallout from wearing the clean-cut uniform.

“Some people think it’s kind of nerdy,” said Boy Scout Kyle Curtis, 14, of Lynnwood. “I’m not really sure why.”

Scouts including Curtis, who may become an Eagle this year, see the good the organization accomplishes and enjoy the action it provides: sharpening axes, building fires, hiking for miles and miles.

“It’s kind of expected of you to be nice and stuff,” Eagle Scout DeBroeck said, “but it’s also expected of you to carry a knife” and know what to do with it.

The Boy Scouts are trying to expand their appeal by moving into new areas. Merit badges exist for scuba diving and snowboarding. The group launched an iPhone app last year.

“Our numbers have gone down over the years, but I tell you, in the next century, we hope to gain those numbers back,” Perez said.

The future of scouting

They base that hope on new Scouts like Conner Brennan, a wide-eyed 11-year-old from Marysville. He wants to be an Eagle Scout.

Brennan went to a merit badge retreat in March, and again in April, held at the Fire Mountain Boy Scouts camp in the mountains outside Mount Vernon.

He needed to start earning his merit badges, and decided on archery for his first.

After nearly three hours of instruction, he finally got to shoot.

His first arrow barely caught the edge of a weathered wooden target. His second missed entirely. His hand shook. As he tried to nock a third, the arrow slipped from his fingers.

He was surrounded by noise. Rifles popped at a nearby firing range. Other Scouts laughed as they shot arrows. Instructors called out words of encouragement.

Conner kept silent.

He picked up another arrow, pulled back the bowstring and released.

Thunk.

“Right in the bull’s eye!” shouted an instructor. “A nine-point shot!”

Conner ultimately earned his badge. He thinks it will take seven years to collect the 21 he needs. And then there’s that service project.

He knows it will be a challenge, but then, he is a Boy Scout.

“It’s an inspirational thing,” he said.

Andy Rathbun: 425-339-3455, arathbun@heraldnet.com.

Edmonds troop’s 50th

The Boy Scouts of America isn’t the only group reaching a milestone. An Edmonds troop is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year and wants to hear stories and see pictures from past Scouts.

If you belonged to Troop 312, chartered by Edmonds United Methodist Church, contact Karen Fry at 425-774-4305 by May 15 for details on the celebration.

More info: Visit troop312boyscouts.clubspaces.com

Become a Boy Scout

Learn more about joining or volunteering with the Boy Scouts of America at www.mtbakerbsa.org/membership.

Registration costs $15 annually, and uniforms also run a price. The Mount Baker Council, which oversees Snohomish County troops, has a financial assistance program, as do some troops.

For details, call the council headquarters at 425-338-0380 or visit its office at 1715 100th Place SE, Suite B, Everett.