Feb. 7, 2010— -- They are young symbols of virtue: honest, trustworthy, doers of good deeds and builders of campfires. For a century, the national organization Boy Scouts of America has been living its pledge to do its duty for God and country.
Scouts camp, hike and earn merit badges in wilderness survival, computers, farm mechanics, chemistry and more. But while most of Scout activities center on having fun outdoors and exploring nature, these experiences are meant to build character, self-reliance and citizenship.
Eagle Scout and author of "Boy Scouts of America: A Centennial History," Chuck Wills knows this firsthand. "Scouting is outing, a phrase the Scouts formerly used as a slogan. But scouting also means having experiences that are going to mold your character in a positive way, make you a better citizen of your community, of your nation and of the world," he said.
According to Boy Scout lore, American W.B. Boyce was given directions by a young man after becoming lost in a London fog. The boy refused a tip for the good deed, saying he was a Scout. Boyce was so impressed by the young man's actions that he brought scouting to America in 1910.
An American institution by World War I, Boy Scouts of America grew to 6 million members by the 1970s, and its wholesome reputation has been deeply etched in the national culture. To be a Boy Scout means to be straight, true, and even a little square. Norman Rockwell even immortalized the Scouts uniformed image in dozens of his paintings and magazine illustrations, preserving them in Americana.
The Corr family of Easton, Pa., boasts five generations of Scouts, going back to the late Edgar Corr, who became a Scout master in 1928. His grandson Ted Corr, now 71, has been involved with the Scouts since he was 12. Ted's son Warren, 40, and grandson, Brad, 11, have followed the tradition.
"I learned a lot of skills, a lot of life skills, first aid, swimming, that kind of thing. I can still build a fire!" Ted recalled fondly.
Building Character and Confindence
Warren has climbed through the ranks since joining the organization as a Cub Scout in 1977, attaining the highest rank, Eagle Scout, in 1987. He has served as an assistant Scout master and den leader. He marvels at the transformation scouting can have on young men.
"When I look at some of the boys who start off when they're 11 years old, they're new. There's quite a bit of hand-holding there. By the time they're 16 or 17, I look at these young men and the leadership and the confidence that they have in a relatively short period of time. There's a sense of satisfaction in being a part of that," Warren explained.
Warren knows the skills Scouts develop will carry the young men into successful careers in adulthood. As a businessman, he sees the benefits every day at work. He says the shared sense of discipline and purpose makes other Scouts, especially Eagle Scouts, effortless to find.
For those young men who've reached the Eagle status, their demonstrated capacity for service and excellence follows them throughout their lives.
"When you tell someone you're an Eagle Scout, they do look at you a little differently. It makes you try to live your life and conduct yourself, whether personally or professionally, to a higher standard," Wills said.
At 11, Brad may be too young to appreciate all the advantages scouting will give him, but he knows he enjoys it.
"Well, I heard that my grandfather and my dad was in it. [They] told me about camping trips. And I decided to join up 'cause I heard about all the fun stuff that they do in it," he said. He's quickly earning merit badges, and he hopes to make Eagle Scout in just three years.
Famous Alumni Shaped America
Supporters say the scouting experience builds strong, confident leaders. They point with considerable pride to its roster of former Scouts who went on to great achievement, including President Kennedy, astronaut Neil Armstrong, baseball great Hank Aaron and filmmaker Steven Spielberg.
"I think the Scouts have changed America profoundly, because as of now, 110 million people have worn the Scout uniform in one way or another. And the moral lesson and the experiences that have been imparted to them have obviously percolated through society as a whole just too profound to really enumerate," said Wills.
But in recent years, the Boy Scouts of America has hit some rough times. The association has been rocked by controversies over allegations of sexual abuse by adult leaders and its refusal to accept gays, girls or atheists.
And membership has declined steadily. Today it's down to 4 million as young boys find other ways to fill their time.
Still, its supporters say scouting is as relevant as ever, and that as long as America needs leaders, it will need the Boys Scouts of America to help form them.