The Boy Scouts today. Still going strong after 75 years

The thing about the Boy Scouts of America is that it was founded by a disparate conglomerate of reform-oriented and religiously inclined individuals, either very steeped in Protestant Christianity or in sort of an American civil religion greatly influenced by American Indian mysticism. A lot of the really influential people who were involved in the founding and the nurturing of the movement were really hoping to save the country, to save America . . . through the Boy Scouts of America. -- Prof. Jay Mechling ``I can't say that every day I woke up looking for a little old lady to help across the street,'' says Gerald Ford, former Eagle Scout, former assistant scoutmaster, and former President of the United States. ``But it made me more responsive of the needs of people in all walks of life. It taught me to work with other people, to be cognizant of their needs, and taught me the benefits and requirements of teamwork.''

Sequestered in his Rancho Mirage, Calif., office, the former President has kept himself entirely off limits to the press in recent months. But this day he accepts literally one phone call -- the one inquiring how becoming an Eagle Scout back in the '20s helped shape the formative years of a President-to-be.

``It had a very tremendous impact on my character development,'' he says of his four years in Troop 15 in Grand Rapids, Mich. ``Going after those merit badges made us competitive -- all six in my patrol became Eagle Scouts in record time -- but it also helped broaden our experience for the things we didn't know would make a difference until later on.''

Expected words, perhaps, from a man so close to the Scouting movement, who has appeared in national print and TV ads decked out in Scout neckerchief, assuring millions that a Scout is reverent.

But the organization can build a good case for its leadership training from the success of a man like Gerald Ford, as well as that of former Scouts in other fields. Topping the seven-decade-long membership list of the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) -- as officials hasten to point out this 75th anniverary -- are congressmen (a whopping 66 percent of the 98th Congress), athletes (Hank Aaron, Herschel Walker), actors (Jimmy Stewart, Paul Winfield), astronauts (Neil Armstrong, James Lovell), and such notables as movie director Steven Spielberg and journalists Harrison Salisbury and Howard K. Smith.

The Scouting movement started in 1907, when British Lord Robert Baden-Powell took 21 kids of varying backgrounds to England's Brownsea Island to test the unconventional idea that outdoor life builds character -- and could be fun as well. Three years later Americans Daniel Carter Beard and Ernest Thompson Seton helped adapt the program of citizenship training, character building, and physical fitness to the United States.

Since then, 75 million youngsters have signed up to pursue merit badges that now run the gamut from bugling and beekeeping to railroading and rabbit raising.

Since 1979 the BSA has been growing by about 100,000 members a year, reversing a downward trend in the post-Vietnam '70s. At present, the organization can boast nearly 5 million members. From youngest to oldest that now includes: Tiger Cubs (7-year-olds), Cub Scouts (8-10), Scouts (11-17), Varsity Scouts (14-17), Explorers (men and women, 15-20).

To commemorate its successes -- and to remind both itself and the greater public that it has changed with the times -- the BSA will be pulling out the stops all year long in a veritable onslaught of jamborees, camporees, jubilees, dinners, reunions, parades, floats, encampments, and pageants.

But the organization is also taking an inward look. When Messrs. Baden-Powell, Beard, and Seton started the BSA to help boys make better use of free time in a largely rural America, could they have envisioned troops in the big city? Single parent weekends? Merit badges for business or computer science?

Acting on its own motto, ``Be Prepared,'' the BSA had to make some dramatic changes through the 1960s and 1970s. Some have been merely cosmetic. The knickers and breeches of 30 years ago yielded to trousers. Shorts are still in, but the wide-brimmed army hat has largely given way to such headgear as red berets and visor caps.

Other changes are more substantial: The number of merit badges has grown from 67 in 1920 to 119 last year. They now include such diverse and futuristic endeavors as atomic energy, American business, and electronics.

Still other changes have come from legal pressures. In the mid-1980s, the BSA finds itself in two court cases: one involving questions of homosexual leadership, and the other concerning a woman who wants to be scoutmaster.

In 1979, also as a result of legal battles, Scouting's top honor, the Eagle Scout badge, was made more accessible to the handicapped.

Overall, the organization is solvent, growing, and sticking to its basic goals, which have been supported rigorously by nearly every President since Woodrow Wilson: admonishing youth ``to help other people at all times; to keep . . . physical strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.''

``I'm not so sure that what the young person would see has changed that much,'' says Ben Love, incoming chief scout executive, the top position in the BSA. ``It's still built around the out-of-doors, still a program filled with fun and camping because research continues to show that's what they want.''

Witness the latest Boy Scout Handbook, in which outgoing Chief Scout Executive J. L. Tarr reminds Scouts to carry the book as a constant reference for such diverse pursuits as pole-lashing and knot-tying, locating the Big Dipper, and stopping a nosebleed.

What has changed, he and other observers remark, is the number of activities competing for the attention of the young. These include multichannel TV and radio, computer arcades, and rock video, for instance, as well as proliferating sports programs.

``I would like to have had my two sons follow the Scouting career I did,'' says astronaut James Lovell. An Eagle Scout himself, he feels the self-sufficiency, integrity, and loyalty learned through Scouting prepared him for a 23-year career in the military -- a career that culminated with two trips to the moon for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

``They both became Cubs,'' says Mr. Lovell of his two sons. ``But at the time they were growing up there were so many other activities to take their time . . . that they never followed the Scouting career that I did.''

Even in the 1940s, when Lovell was a Scout, recruitment and retention were persistent hurdles, forcing the national organization to adapt in order to broaden its appeal. Fifty years ago, that meant starting the Cub Scouts to attract younger boys interested in preparing for Scouting. In the past two years two more categories have been added: the pre-Cub Tiger Cubs to attract seven-year-olds, and a more personalized program called Varsity Scouts, an attempt to keep members interested at the crucial age of 14, the age of greatest exodus.

Scouting officials note that since girls become a major preoccupation through the teen years, the Explorers -- another special category that concentrates on careers and business -- became coed in 1971. A major push to take the Scouts to the inner city took place in the 1970s. Photographs of blacks, Orientals, and Hispanics began to appear in the previously nearly all-WASP Scout Handbook -- as well as directions on such things as bird watching in the city, litter prevention, and recycling.

And although the BSA has changed its face, altering and expanding its programs, some criticism seems to remain constant.

``I had fun for the most part, but I never warmed up to the paramilitary structure, hierarchy of command, saluting, and all that,'' says a one-time Scout, echoing a frequently heard refrain.

Prof. Paul Fussell of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, a cultural historian, defended the goals and goodness of the movement in the now-famous 1979 tome, ``The Boy Scout Handbook.'' He suggested that those who criticize Scouting the most are those that know the least about it: liberal intellectuals.

``They have often gazed uneasily at the movement,'' he wrote. ``After all, a general invented it, [Rudyard] Kipling admired it, the Hitler Jugend (and the Soviet Pioneers) aped it. . . . its khaki uniforms, lanyards, salutes, badges, and flag worship seemed to argue incipient militarism, if not outright fascism.''

But, he hastens to add, anyone who imagines that the movement is either sinister or stupid or funny should spend a few hours with the Official Boy Scout Handbook.''

``The constant moral theme is the inestimable benefits of looking objectively outward and losing consciousness of self in the work to be done. To its young audience vulnerable to invitations to `trips' and trances and anxious self-absorption, the book says calmly, `forget yourself.' What a shame the psychobabblers of Marin County will never read it.''

The success or failure of the now 55,067 Scout troops countrywide appears to rest with the quality of volunteer leadership -- specifically the scoutmaster, around which every troop is formed.

``Getting an adequate supply of well-chosen or well-qualified leaders is and always has been a very difficult problem for the Boy Scouts,'' says Herman Hattaway, professor of history at the University of Missouri, Kansas City, who is preparing a book on the Scouts. ``Far, far too many parents have viewed the BSA as a sort of very convenient `Baby-Sitters of America.' Besides the hosts of wonderful parents that step in to help, there have been fumbling dunderheads, as well as the occasional sexual deviant.''

In the case now pending before a California court, regarding an admitted homosexual who was denied access to a national jamboree, the BSA is maintaining that its status as a private corporation allows it to determine criteria for its volunteer leadership.

The Connecticut housewife who wants to become a scoutmaster is fighting the decades-long BSA stance that young boys need male supervision. ``The BSA was formed partly as a result of what was considered the feminization of America,'' says Jay Mechling, a professor of American studies at the University of California, Davis, who has studied the group since 1975. Since so many women were becoming schoolteachers, there was concern that American youth was going soft.

``The BSA stance is that the only place women can serve are as den mothers, on troop committees, members of executive boards, committee commissioners -- everywhere except unit leader of a Scout troop,'' says Love.

Whatever its weaknesses, whatever the criticisms, many observers say the movement is needed more than ever.

``I disagree vigorously with those that say Scouting doesn't help America's youth,'' says President Ford. ``What was good for me and my associates then is equally good for young people today.''

Says Professor Mechling: ``The Boy Scouts of America are attempting -- and when the organization functions at its best, they're succeeding pretty well, too -- in building and improving the citizenship, the fitness, and the character of American youth.'' -- 30 --{et

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