Good afternoon. I was asked to provide an update of the Troop’s history, covering the past 25 years – but my talk will actually be as much philosophy as history, because who we are today, and where we are today, are as much due to that philosophy as to the year-to-year operations of the Troop.
26 years ago, I very suddenly found myself the solo adult leader of Troop 111. Many of you already know the story, so I will not bore you with ALL of the details. Suffice it to say that at the second meeting I attended, the Scoutmaster walked in almost an hour late, handed me a cardboard box of records, stated that he had just been transferred overseas, wished me good luck, and walked out – never to be seen or heard from again. In those 10 seconds, like it or not, I went from being a possible part-time Assistant who hadn’t even received the application paperwork yet, to the full-time Scoutmaster. It’s hard to say who was more startled – me or the 6 Scouts in the room, none of whom even knew my name yet.
Compounding the problem, 3 months later Hannon Hall – the original St. Agnes Church and the place where held our meetings and stored our gear – was sold off, and we had “until 9:00 am tomorrow morning” to remove our gear. So, we had no meeting place, no closet space, a rookie Scoutmaster, and no Assistant Scoutmasters. One Scout’s mom transferred him to another Troop, convinced that we were finished. That left us with 5 active Scouts, 3 barely active Eagle Scouts, and 3 or 4 other boys who were on the roster only for that summer’s long-planned trip to the Matagamon Canoe Base in Maine. In short, other than a small but active and supportive group of parents, we were in dire straits.
We were not alone in our predicament. The late 80’s and early 90’s were a challenging time for Scouting in Arlington, due to very poor demographics (that is, there were very few Scout-aged boys in the Clarendon/Cherrydale/Waverly Hills area – more on this in a bit). In the mid-to-late 1960s there were nearly 70 Troops in Arlington – but by 1985, there were less than 20, and only 14 of those were left by 1995. Troop 102, our ancestral Troop at St. Charles (that is, the Troop that “spun off” 111 in 1939), lapsed in 1985; 151 (Arlington Methodist) was “ghosted” around that same time; then 813 (American Legion) and 623 (Ft. Myer) both folded around 1992, followed by 149 (Cherrydale Methodist) in 1993. And some of the remaining Troops were barely hanging on – including 111 in late 1988. Times for Scouting were grim.
Well, obviously, we refused to die. What equipment we had – which wasn’t much after we tossed all our flood-damaged junk – ended up in my basement and garage, and we started meeting at the Madison Center down by Chain Bridge – and did so for several years, until about a year after the new Parish Center opened up and a new Pastor arrived. In January of 1989 we welcomed a single Scout from Pack 111 – the only Webelos-II in the Pack that year. That may sound like a triviality, but in reality it was critically important, because that Scout soon recruited 3 other 5th graders from St. Agnes School. I previously mentioned the poor demographics in Arlington – those 4 boys represented 2/3rds of all the 5th grade boys in the school! [Hard to believe if you walk around St. Agnes School today.] Our 3 Eagle Scouts became a lot more active as we approached Philmont that summer (in no small part because I became the Advisor for their Crew), 2 Scouts who had quit returned and became somewhat active once they realized that the Troop was still on its feet, and we also gained a couple of walk-in Scouts and Assistant Scoutmasters. The following year we got 3 out of the 7 St. Agnes 5th-graders, and the long climb back was underway. Three years later we were strong enough to take in the last 2 Scouts from 149; we kept them under their own flag and uniforms, recruited 10 Webelos-IIs from a Pack 149 Den, and restarted their Troop a year later with those 12 Scouts and 5 of our ASMs [Troop 149 currently has about 65 active Scouts.] By 2000 we were at 75 Scouts, and 10 years later we hit 100 Scouts for the first time. We’ve been bouncing around between 80 and 105 Scouts ever since, first or second in numbers in Arlington.
Five to a hundred in 22 years. How did this happen?
It’s important to realize that Troop 111 isn’t big because we “cast a wide net” – that is, recruit a bunch of Webelos-II Scouts on the expectation that some will stick around, and the rest “obviously weren’t cut out to be Scouts anyway.” That is what many Troops do, and my opinion of that particular method of Troop-building is unprintable. Rather, 111 is big because we retain at least half of our Scouts through Eagle or til they age out at 18 and/or depart for college. We make no effort to recruit – and we have no need to, either. Our program and reputation are the only recruiting tools we need. It is routine for half the Webelos Scouts who Cross the Bridge into 111 to graduate out as Eagle Scouts 6 or 7 years later, and 3 times in the past 25 years every Scout who Crossed the Bridge earned his Eagle – one time all 8 Scouts who Crossed our Bridge and 2 others who transferred in after Crossing the Bridge in their original Troops, for a clean sweep of 10 out of 10; amazing.
But Again, Why?
I have pondered this question for years, and I’d like to share some thoughts with you today. Let’s return to 1988 – 1989 for a moment:
I joined 4 of our Scouts on one of the Council’s 1989 provisional trips to Philmont – where I was struck by the low regard the Rangers and Staffers had for Senior Scouts (and especially Eagle Scouts) who had obviously poor Scout skills. Which unfortunately included a dismaying number of them. And I thought to myself, not 111 Scouts, not on our watch. After we returned from Philmont, I began to research the Troop’s history in preparation for what I first thought was our 40th Anniversary, soon discovering that it was actually our 50th Anniversary, and also learning more and more of the Troop’s proud history (which is lightly covered in my 50th Anniversary speech; posted on our website). And again I thought to myself, this was once a “Super-Troop,” and we have inherited a legacy that is more than worthy of our efforts.
And so we set out from the very start to create a traditional Scout Troop – a throwback if you will – where mastery of Scout skills, faithful participation in camping and challenging outdoor activities, competency and eventually dominance in inter-Troop competitions, ability to teach, service to the community, and development of genuine life skills, were all held in high regard. As part and parcel of that approach, we developed a rigorous advancement program, requiring demonstrated proficiency, and proceeding at a measured pace – disdaining the latest fads such as First Year Camper programs, First Class in a Year, grade-based Patrols, minimalist Eagle projects, no re-testing of skills, and even such trivialities as no ghost stories or no competitive events with winners and (gasp) “losers.” We understood that cheap advancement would not, and will not, retain Scouts – in fact, it will LOSE them – and recognized that First Class, Star, Life, and Eagle Scout ranks are the BY-products of a genuine Scouting program, not the product. With that philosophy as our primary waypoint, we have stuck with the tried and true.
I will have some additional thoughts on this theme in a bit.
There is an ancient military aphorism that when the going gets tough, the tough get going. You’ve heard it so many times that it seems trite now, and yet – like most aphorisms – there is a diamond hard truth within. How do you dig each Scout’s personal well? Take him out of his comfort zone, step-by-step, until he learns what he is capable of enduring – and more importantly, capable of achieving. The New Scout who completes a 10 mile hike becomes the Senior Scout who completes the Alonzo Stagg 50/20 Hike (50 miles in less than 20 hours). The 11 year old who endures more than 25 inches of rain in one week at summer camp (which happened to us at Goshen in 1995 and again at Powhatan in 2013) becomes the Senior Scout who backpacks through day after day of heavy rain at Philmont, and when he returns to Basecamp wishes he could stay for another week. The Scout who goes underground and can sense every ounce of the 150 million tons of rock over his head, and realizes that any moment he could be 1/8th of an inch tall and 250 square yards wide, but doesn’t melt down or turn back, emerges as a more capable and mentally tougher person. The Scout who stands 75 feet up a Class 5 rock face with only a rope and his training between him and eternity – and does that and 10 similar climbs that day, again walks away as a more confident and mentally stronger person. The Senior Scout who leads his Patrol or the Troop at the Klondike Derby, the Projectoree, the Baltimore Orienteering Meet, or at the Senior Scout Winter Survival Trek, or who acts as the Crew Chief on a high adventure trek, has developed teamworking abilities and leadership skills that will never be gained in a classroom JLT course.
Those of you who truly comprehend what it takes to dig those personal wells will now also understand why Troop 111 stepped up and took the lead in re-starting the Projectorees 20 years ago, why we started the Alonzo Stagg 50/20 Hikes 19 years ago, why we helped start the Klondike Derbies 10 years ago, why we have put ourselves up against 60 or 70 or more Troops at the Maryland Scout Orienteering Championships for 15 years now, and why we have completed over 50 high adventures in the past 26 years, as well as the true motivation behind many of our other activities and our demanding advancement standards. Genuine challenges result in achievements with enduring value. We are not just a well-run boy’s social club doing fun diversions, nor a college application enhancement program. There’s a deeper purpose here.
The numbers since 1988 are, of course, impressive (forgive me if some of the numbers aren’t exact). We’ve been to summer camp every year, of course, hitting 7 different summer camps in a Scout-selected rotation. We’ve sent 19 Crews to Philmont in 14 different Contingents, 3 Crews to Northern Tier, 1 to Matagamon, and 2 more to Killarney Provincial Park in Canada, about 8 Crews to the Florida Sea Base, and about 8 more on SCUBA trips to Lake Rawlings and throughout the Caribbean and Central America. We’ve backpacked in the Swiss Alps, the Wind Rivers, the Pisgah National Forest, Yosemite, and 4 or 5 times along the Appalachian Trail. We’ve completed half a dozen “Triathlon Treks” (biking/canoeing/backpacking), 3 Susquehanna River Canoeing Treks, and 3 end-to-end C&O Canal Bike Treks. We’ve done about 2 dozen Guns and Arrows weekends, 20 Projectorees, about 20 Orienteering Meets, a dozen Fall Camporees, 2 dozen caving trips, 19 Alonzo Stagg hikes, 2 dozen rock climbing trips, and probably more than 50 ski trips, including half a dozen to Killington, Vermont – we’ve taught hundreds of Scouts how to ski and snowboard. We’ve been the #1 Troop in the District for collecting food in the annual Scouting for Food drive for 26 years. We’ve helped run a Water Point at the Marine Corps Marathon also every year for 26 years, and we’re the longest serving volunteer group in the history of the Marathon – and on and on, through seemingly countless other events. We have indeed kept the “outing” in Scouting.
The results? Although we are universally acknowledged to be running the most challenging program in Arlington, over the past 20 years Troop 111 has turned out more Eagle Scouts than any other Troop in Arlington. About 120 over that time span, for a current grand total of 165. How about that? – The most demanding Troop turns out the most Eagle Scouts.
Again, why is that? Why do our Scouts stick it out despite all the effort and commitment we demand? In my opinion, it’s because the Scouts themselves understand the “value added” by their participation in a comprehensive Scouting program, and sense that the front-line adults truly care about them and their futures.
This statistic, however, is not the end of the story. If the number of Eagle Scouts is a metric for success, then I suppose we have been quite successful. If, however, your goals are higher – and ours are – then the jury is still out.
Turning out worthy First Class, Star, Life, and Eagle Scouts is a laudable achievement, but in fact it’s only a means to those higher goals. We seek to better the future for all, not just for the individual. The world faces a bewildering array of challenges, some of them seemingly insurmountable – you need only read the screaming headlines in the Washington Post or on any on-line news service to understand what we face, and more importantly what our children will face. Who will meet those challenges? It will not be those who live their lives by the adage of “I got mine.”
A fellow Scouter, Bob Leggett of Troop 1128 – one of the few front-line Scouters in our District with a longer tenure than myself – explains his motivation as: “I am Building America One Boy at a Time.” I took that adage and mentally re-phrased it as: “We are Trying to Improve America One Scout at a Time.” I will reach into the distant past for one of my Scoutmaster’s Minutes that I believe you will still find pertinent: In his farewell address to the cadets at West Point, General Douglas MacArthur stated of those cadets, “the long grey line has never failed us.” I believe we can better the General’s comments, because when it comes to improving our Nation and the world, the long green line has also never failed us. I hope you will hold that thought tight long after today’s celebration has faded from memory.
Can we sustain what we have re-built? Can we avoid the sine wave of boom and bust that plague so many Troops? I believe we can, so long as everyone understands our true objectives, and refuses the siren call of cheap advancement and trivial activities for the sake of false resume enhancement. If we do, then it will not be a hope, a desire, or an expectation, but rather a certainty, that 25 years from now another leader will stand up in front of another large group – hopefully including many of you – and opens his 100th Anniversary speech with the preamble that: “Troop 111’s second Golden Age started 50 years ago, and continues on today.”
For those of you who have served in the past, Thank You! For those who serve today and will continue to serve in the future, I hope that in any way you can, whether large or small, you will help us on that mission. Thank you.