Qualities of an Eagle Scout

Adapted from Scoutmastercg.com

One of the most commonly voiced frustrations of some Scoutmaster’s is what to do with a boy they just don’t consider has done enough, cares enough, or is good enough to become an Eagle Scout. They want to know what to do about this Scout who has passed all of the requirements but who, in their opinion, is not an “Eagle Scout.”

I remember distinctly a situation that occurred when I was a Scout.  Our Troop’s very first Eagle Scout set the bar pretty high, and he eventually went on to earn an M.D./PhD from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.  He is now a senior researcher in the field of pediatric ophthalmology at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda.  The next two Eagle Scouts were thought by the Troop (really, the parents in the Troop) to merit the worthy rank of Eagle Scout.  And then came the fourth candidate.  He wasn’t like the others.  He completed the requirements shortly before his 18th birthday, he wasn’t seen around the Troop meetings or at outings for the prior two years, and his Eagle Scout project was not of the same caliber of the projects completed by the other Eagle Scouts who came before him.  As is often the case, the parents were is a tizzy.  What was the Troop Committee going to do?  This young man was not an Eagle Scout.  Someone has to step up to protect the integrity of the badge – because if we “give” the award to this Scout, it will diminish the value of the award for the exceptional Scouts who came before him.

I will never forget the words of our Troop Committee Chair – one of my Scouting mentors, and one of the most decent people I have ever met – who explained Scout advancement this way:  if a pole vaulter clears the hurdle by 1 foot or 1 inch, he has achieved the success of completing that vault.  There is no other measurement – the vaulter either clears the vault or he does not.

And so it is with advancement in Scouting.  If the boy completes the requirements as written in the Scout Handbook, he earns the advancement.  The Scoutmaster (through the Scoutmaster Conference process) cannot add more requirements or implement his or her own personal agenda.   (Although, the Scoutmaster Conference is designed to encourage the Scout’s personal growth, and the SMC can suggest the Scout needs some more development time before advancing to the next rank.)  Similarly, the Troop Committee (through the Board of Review process) cannot evaluate the Scout using any other measuring stick than the requirements in the Scout Handbook.

In the end, my expectations (and yours too) are unimportant – when a Scout meets the requirements, he is an Eagle Scout. Each Scout advances in his own way – on his own terms. Some are terrifically frustrating and nonchalant about the way their selfishness affects other people, but they somehow complete the requirements anyway.

Scouters argue constantly over what constitutes an Eagle Scout, how we want them to act, and what qualities we expect of them.  Thankfully the official literature is relatively silent on these things, and for a good reason – each one is an individual and is evaluated on his own merits according to his abilities and interests – not against those of every other Eagle Scout nor anyone’s idealized concept of what an Eagle ought to be.

Of course we want representatives of this honored fraternity to be of unimpeachable character, tremendous resourcefulness, and exemplary citizenship.  We cannot see into their hearts and minds, and we can’t compare their will and courage against others.  Each has their own individual challenges to overcome.

Old men get cranky and stodgy – we live with our own failures every day, and it’s infuriating to see others repeat them.  We forget how we were when we were young – how little we knew – how selfish we were.  Even if we possess this knowledge of ourselves, we still want a young man a third or half our age and experience to be better than we were – that’s a frustrating way to be.

Most Scouts who achieve the rank of Eagle Scout in my tenure have gone on to be good solid citizens; college professors, lawyers, wonderful fathers and husbands, doctors, military officers, and other similarly respectable achievements.  A few have had trouble with the law, dropped out of school, and are generally troublesome to their families and society as a whole.  What they all have in common was they were given an opportunity to make something of themselves in a way that a relatively few boys will experience.  They have many years ahead of them – many lessons to learn – much work to do.

Their stories are still being written.

You and I have little control over who they will become – we can only present them with an opportunity to make good.  What they do with this opportunity is up to them.  There’s one set of requirements and, while some Scouts choose to take what some consider short cuts and half measures to fulfill them, the important thing is that the Scout clears the hurdles set in the Scout Handbook.  They have the rest of their lives to consider how they did it; what they are proud of, and what they they could have done better.

What they need – what we all need – is at least one person who can believe in them and who is unfailingly encouraging and supportive.  Hopefully we can be that person.

And, by the way, that young man became our Troop’s 4th Eagle Scout – and I learned an important lesson that I carry with me today.

Yours in Scouting,

Marc