EVERETT — Cub Scout Jake Miller of Pack 16 in Mukilteo knew the white-haired man in the well-pressed suit was a prominent person.
But the 8-year-old greeted former Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates as he did everyone else attending Thursday morning’s Friends of Scouting breakfast in the Edward D. Hansen Conference Center at Xfinity Arena.
“I said, ‘Good morning, sir. Free breakfast down the hall,’” Jake recalled.
And Gates’ response?
“He laughed,” Jake said.
Gates, the national president of the Boy Scouts of America and the event’s keynote speaker, told the crowd he wants to help modernize and transform an organization he considers a “national treasure” and a critical force for developing future leaders.
“Scouting had the greatest influence, together with my parents, of shaping my basic character and my outlook on life,” he said. “It is the finest organization for building character, teaching leadership, cultivating a sense of the importance of service to others and inculcating the stern virtues by which a civilization is made and sustained.”
The event, which drew an estimated 330 people, raised money for the Mount Baker Council, which supports scouting programs in Snohomish, Island, Skagit, Whatcom and San Juan counties.
Gates, who resides in Skagit County, has an illustrious resume of public service, beginning with a job at the Central Intelligence Agency at age 22. He rose to become director of the CIA and worked with eight presidents. He left as leader of Texas A&M University to become defense secretary in 2006 and retired from that post in 2011.
He said growing up in Kansas, where life revolved around family, school, church and Boy Scouts, and attaining the level of the Eagle Scout “gave me the confidence to believe that I could achieve whatever I put mind to,” he said.
Now, he said, he wants to be an “agent of change” to “take a great organization and make it even better.”
He said he’s pursuing a reform agenda to transform the organization so it can meet the “very different” demographic realities of America than existed when he grew up.
In an interview after the speech, Gates elaborated on his plans. He said he wants to reinvigorate a program known as Scoutreach to bring scouting into minority communities and neighborhoods, where families facing financial hardships cannot afford to buy uniforms.
“I think we have a big opportunity to do some real service” in those communities, he said.
Gates also wants to boost the organization’s presence online and through electronic devices to which today’s young people are tethered.
“We need to make better use of social media,” he said. “We need to be as smart in our programs as these Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts are every day on their electronic devices.”
Gates’ reform agenda won’t, however, extend to lifting a ban on gay troop leaders.
He said the organization took “a major step” in 2013 by welcoming gay youth into scouting, and it isn’t the right time to tackle the leadership question.
“I was very candid at the national meeting when I became president that to take the next step at this point would irrevocably split the movement,” he said, noting that two-thirds of scout troops in the U.S. are supported by churches.
Gates said he knows people inside and outside the organization want action and view him as the best person to lead the change because of what he accomplished while in government service.
When Gates ran the CIA, he changed the rules to enable the hiring of gays and lesbians. As secretary of defense, he oversaw the end of the military’s use of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on sexual orientation.
“I think my bona fides in terms of welcoming everyone are pretty well established,” he said. “But I think for scouting right now I want us to be a welcoming place for gay youth. It’s a place where we can protect them from bullying and make them part of the larger movement.
“I think we have some significant opportunities there,” he said. “I think right now we need to focus on our programs.”
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; email@example.com.