POCONO SUMMIT, Pa. — A fifth-generation Boy Scout, 11-year-old Brad Corr is steeped in all the lore and tradition: the Scout Oath and Scout Law, campcraft and community service, the daily doing of good deeds.
If he were recruiting a friend for the Scouts, though, what would be his best pitch? “We got to build catapults and launch pumpkins from them.”Old-fashioned fun is part of the Scout heritage. So is doing one’s duty to God and country. And so too is controversy. As the Boy Scouts of America heads toward its 100th anniversary in February, its first century adds up to a remarkable saga, full of achievement and complexity.
On one hand, no other U.S. youth organization has served as many boys — an estimated 112 million over the years — and is so deeply ingrained in the Norman Rockwell version of American popular culture. It can boast of a congressional charter and a string of U.S. presidents, including Barack Obama, serving as its honorary leader.
On the other hand, in the courts and the public arena, the BSA has doggedly defended its right to exclude gays and atheists from its ranks, overriding requests from some local units to soften those policies.
“We do have folks who say we probably should rethink this,” Bob Mazzuca, the chief Scout executive, said in an interview. “We can agree to disagree on a particular issue and still come together for the common good.”
The Scouts — though their numbers have dropped in recent decades — remain a pervasive presence across America, vibrant in many suburbs and heartland towns, pressing minority recruitment campaigns in urban areas where enrollment often has lagged. Mazzuca and others in the Scouts’ extended family view the centennial as an opportunity to look forward as well as back.
“We’re going to reintroduce folks to the impact Scouting has made and the reality that Scouting is more essential today than it’s ever been before,” he said.
No centennial campaign is needed to convince the Corr family that Scouting is essential. They’ve been engaged since 1928, when Edgar Corr became scoutmaster of Troop P-2 in Easton, Pa., and his son, Andrew, became one of the Scouts.
Andrew’s son, Ted Corr, now 71, became a Scout in 1950 and remains active as a unit commissioner. Warren Corr, Ted’s 40-year-old son, earned his Eagle Scout rank in 1987 and has served in various leadership posts since then. And Brad, Warren’s son, joined Cub Scouts in 2004 and crossed over into Boy Scouts last February as a member of Troop 29 in Forks Township, Pa.
A sixth grader, Brad is a Tenderfoot, the first rank a Scout can earn, with the ambitious goal of becoming an Eagle Scout within three years.
Some of Brad’s friends are in the Scouts, others have dropped out or never joined. A common refrain from many families, in Troop 29’s area and nationwide, is that they just don’t have the time for Scouting.For the Corrs, though, forgoing Scouting isn’t an option — even with Brad playing soccer, basketball and lacrosse, as well as cello and drums in the school band.
“Scouting gives enough flexibility that boys can do all kinds of activities — it’s not one or the other,” said Warren Corr.For the boys, said Corr, a big draw is “doing some cool stuff.” But as a former Scout turned adult leader, he sees a bigger picture.
“It’s about leadership, the confidence that comes with accomplishing something, the service to your country and community,” he said. “When you’re in Scouting, even three or four years of it sticks with you for the rest of your life.”
Ted Corr, the family patriarch, joined son Warren and grandson Brad for an in-depth discussion of Scouting at Camp Minsi, a 1,200-acre Scout facility in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains.
The biggest changes he’s seen in 60 years of Scouting?
“Aerospace and computer merit badges,” Ted Corr replied. “As a kid growing up in the 1940s, who’d have thought it?”And the worst change? Corr brandished his cell phone.
“They take these on camping trips now,” he grumbled good-naturedly.
Had cell phones existed in 1909, or the GPS devices that Scouts now sometimes use for orienteering, perhaps the Boy Scouts of America wouldn’t have come to be — at least not in the manner depicted in the BSA’s hallowed story of the “Unknown Scout.”
According to this tale, American businessman William Boyce became lost in the London fog, and was guided to his destination by a helpful youth. When Boyce offered a tip, the boy replied that he was a Scout (they were formed in Britain in 1907) and couldn’t accept money for doing a good turn.
Boyce was so impressed that he studied up on British scouting and incorporated the BSA on Feb. 8, 1910.During World War I, Scouts contributed on the U.S. home front by selling bonds and planting war gardens. They expanded their efforts in World War II, collecting rubber and aluminum, distributing civil defense posters, assisting fire brigades.
The BSA grew steadily, with membership peaking at more than 6 million boys and adult leaders in 1972. As of 2008, the total had dropped below 4 million — 2.83 million boys and 1.13 million adults.
Reasons for the decline are many — the explosion of other after-school activities and sports, a perception among some families that the Scouts were too old-fashioned or conservative, and sporadic scandals that generated bad publicity while undercutting the BSA’s commitment to integrity. Among the problems:—Allegations in several states that membership rolls of some Scouting programs were inflated to boost contributions. The Scouts tightened verification of enrollment data.—Several sex-abuse cases involving troop leaders and BSA officials, which prompted the Scouts to strengthen background screening.
Perhaps the biggest long-term jolt to the Scouts came in the form of a legal victory — the June 2000 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court which said the BSA, as a private organization, had a right to exclude gays from its adult and youth ranks.
It prompted numerous local governments and charities to curtail support for the Scouts because the exclusionary policies toward gays and atheists violated anti-discrimination codes.
Kevin Cathcart of Lambda Legal, a New York-based gay rights organization, said the current Boy Scout executive council seems immovable on the membership debate, but he predicted change would come.
Mazzuca, asked about the exclusion of gays, replied: “We recognize that not everyone is going to agree with us on this particular issue. This issue is going on in every nook and cranny of our country. We’re just not at the point where we’re going to be leading on this.”
As for atheists, BSA leaders have signaled no interest in amending the Scout Oath, which includes a pledge of duty to God. Religion is fundamental to the Scouts; the Mormon, United Methodist and Roman Catholic churches are the largest sponsors of units across the country.
“We do believe that to become the best you can be, you need a belief in something bigger than yourself,” Mazzuca said.
Many atheists think otherwise.
“The Boy Scouts are synonymous with American values and patriotism,” said David Niose, president of the American Humanist Association. “By excluding atheists and secular Americans, they are essentially saying we cannot be good citizens.”
The BSA has been striving to correct underrepresentation of minorities in its ranks, with recruiting efforts by the BSA’s Scoutreach Division and now a vigorous new campaign to recruit Hispanics — including a Spanish-language Scout Handbook.
But an ethnic gap remains. Though the BSA doesn’t have precise racial numbers because declaring ethnicity is optional, an analysis it commissioned last year indicated that about 11 percent of Scouts were black or Hispanic — compared to about 28 percent of the national population.
By contrast, the Girl Scouts of the USA — which has no formal ties with the Boy Scouts — says blacks and Hispanics constitute 23 percent of its 2.6 million youth members.
Among those on the urban front lines is Ron Timmons, 38, director of field services for the Scouts’ New York City councils.
A Scout in Brooklyn as a youth, he makes recruiting missions into inner-city schools.
“When you walk in to a classroom with the Scout uniform on, you always have some giggles,” he said. “But when we start talking about the outdoor experience, the camping, rappelling and climbing, they kind of sit up in their chair.”
Urban recruiters face multiple challenges, Timmons says: Many boys don’t live with both parents, and many families face hardships, complicating the task of getting enough adults to enroll their sons and help run a unit.
The recruiting challenges are different two hours away in northeast Pennsylvania, where Glen Lippincott, 59, helps oversee Scouting activities in the small town of Sciota.
Lippincott says the local unit, Troop 84, is holding its own with 21 active Scouts, but has struggled to attract boys from the black and Hispanic families moving into the region — often with a breadwinner commuting into New York and feeling there’s scarce time left for Scouting.
“Us white, middle-aged leaders — we’ve tried to understand why we can’t get them involved,” he said. “Probably it will take a couple of generations.”
Lippincott has been active in Scouting for 50 years. His family’s BSA ties span four generations, starting with his father, Jack, and extending to his brother’s grandson, Cody Weiss, a Scout with Troop 84.Cody, 13, joining other troop members at a cookout in the fall, discussed the Scouting pursuits he likes best — camping, shelter-building, learning first aid. He aspires to be an Eagle Scout, yet he guessed that most of his schoolmates consider Scouting “not cool.”
That’s a common perception, as the Scouts acknowledge. In fact, a key goal of the BSA’s strategic plan for 2011-2015 is “to be seen by youth as cool” as it seeks to reverse the long membership decline.
“We’ve been slow to realize the changing landscape of how people form their opinions,” said Mazzuca, who noted that the Scouts are making greater use of Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.
He sees two contrasting forms of competition — youth sports and “unhealthy things” like video games.
“If our competition is some other recreation program, we deliver a whole lot more,” he said.Glen Lippincott drew the contrast this way: “In sports, if you’re not good, you sit on the bench. In Scouts, nobody sits on the bench.”
Lippincott became emotional as he discussed Scouting’s core goal — lifetime character-building.
“It’s a game with a purpose,” he said. “It gives you a moral compass on how you conduct yourself.”