It’s been 100 years since the founding of the Greenwich Council of the Boy Scouts of America. What was a novel concept then, of self-actualization through adherence to discipline and tradition, remains singular and unique. How else to explain the success of a program emphasizing the use of flint and compass in the era of the iPad?
Greenwich has what may well be the smallest BSA council in the nation in terms of its population or geographic reach, however such a distinction is actually a huge testament to the town’s role in the founding of the BSA [see The Original Trailblazer, page 97]. Since those early days, Greenwich has relied on the contributions of its grown-up Scouts, from Leonard S. Clark, one of the first Cos Cob Scouts who went on to serve on both the Planning and Zoning Commission and the Board of Estimate and Taxation, to two of our three current selectmen, David Theis and First Selectman Peter Tesei. “There’s definitely a connection between scouting and service,” says town Police Chief James Heavey, himself a former Scout. “With scouting comes a sense of purpose and direction that stays with you, whether your own Boy Scout experience is about finding one specific skill that gives you enjoyment through life, or taking on a deeper commitment like becoming an Eagle Scout.”
Today the Greenwich Council boasts no less than 2,500 young people active in its program. This includes summer day-campers at 249-acre Camp Seton, the jewel of the Greenwich Council’s program nestled along Riversville Road, and various town Explorer posts that admit girls as well as boys for activities coordinated alongside town police, fire, and Greenwich Emergency Medical Service. The core of the program, with an estimated 400 Boy Scouts and 900 Cub Scouts, is down a bit from the Greenwich Council’s all-time high (664 Boy Scouts and 745 Cub Scouts in 1971) but speaks to a lasting vitality.
Why the continued attraction? Malcolm Pray thinks he knows. “It teaches initiative, it teaches leadership,” he says.
For decades Greenwich’s go-to dealer for foreign cars, Pray today runs the Pray Achievement Center, a philanthropic educational program for young people. He credits his days as a Riverside Boy Scout in the 1940s for much of his success-oriented mindset. “I don’t think people change dramatically when they grow up from what they were,” he says. “The same moral values stick. The Boy Scout moral values stuck with me as a pre-teenager. Those same values hold true in later life.” Since returning to the Greenwich Council as a board member in 1974, Pray has backed his belief in Scouting with money. Lots of it, both from himself and a circle of wealthy area friends he has rallied to the cause. Jessica Reid, a spokesperson for the Greenwich BSA Council, credits Pray with collecting close to $2 million since he began heading the Friends of Scouting annual fundraising campaign in 2001.
“In addition, in prior years, he built the Malcolm Pray III Building at Camp Seton, and had several fundraiser luncheons, polo matches and dinners, all of which not only raised funds for Greenwich Scouting but also increased awareness of Scouting in Greenwich,” she says.
To celebrate a century of Scouting in Greenwich, we talk to five people whose experiences with the program span eighty years, from a boy who became a Tiger Cub just two years ago to the oldest Eagle Scout in town, who joined the Boy Scouts in the 1930s.
Paul Palmer: Lifetime of Achievement
Paul Palmer laughs about the Eagle Scout applicants he used to see when he was on the town council’s Eagle Scout review board a few years back. “The first thing I’d ask them is why they want to be an Eagle Scout, and you know what the answer was? ‘So I can get into the college I want to.’ I was flabbergasted. I’d tell them there’s a lot more than that to being an Eagle Scout.”
Palmer, eighty-eight and a retired plumber, is the town’s senior Eagle Scout, having achieved his certificate in 1936. He never did go to college, but says: “You will find as you go along, there are times you are so glad to be an Eagle Scout.”
Take that evening in June 1944, when the LST on which he served as a first class motor machinist got stuck on a sandbar on Omaha Beach on D-day, and everything depended on him and his mates keeping their cool. Or the times when he was a volunteer at the Sound Beach Fire Department rescuing people.
Being a Boy Scout began as an escape from Depression-era boredom, Palmer says, but he quickly found something else—a calling. “If you wanted to be a Scout, you really had to work at it,” he says. “Guys were very committed to the program, and you got to feeling that way, too. Nobody did it because their parents made them.”
What was it about Scouting that made it so special? Palmer says it was the camaraderie, the sense of being a part of something bigger. For his Eagle Scout project, Palmer and two other scouts cleared a path so children could walk to the then-new Riverside School. “We worked on it for over a month in the summer, clearing brush, fighting mosquitoes, building two bridges, taking breaks only when it rained,” he says. “It was one of those things I took from Scouting that gave me confidence, like learning first aid. After that, whenever an occasion arose, I knew I could solve the problem.”
Palmer remembers an Eagle Scout honors ceremony last June, when a record nineteen Eagle Scouts were inducted. At one point, all of the Eagle Scouts in town, some ninety in all including Palmer, were asked to stand as one, sitting down as their year of induction was called out. “There were so many of them! As they called the years off, more and more people sat down. I was the last one standing. “After it was over, I went over to one of the organizers. I told him, t’hat’s great, but next year, let’s start with the oldest. I was standing up there for a while!’”
Jim Heavey: Man of Service
Jim Heavey has built a life around Scouting. Back in the 1970s, at fifteen, he helped out the Greenwich Police Department as a member of a Scout-affiliated Police Explorer post. Today, he’s Greenwich’s police chief. In 1978, he got his Eagle Scout badge, which he says contributed both to a first-class education at Northeastern University and promotion opportunities as an Army Reserve officer who served in Desert Storm. Scouting for him is a family affair. He’s assistant scoutmaster of his son Jamie’s Glenville troop. His daughter, Anna, belongs to Police Explorers. His wife, Kia Heavey, helps run Camp Seton’s annual fishing derby every spring.
“There’s a connection through Scouting with people and places that changes your life,” says the fifty-one-year-old. “I’ve gone places with scouting I never would have otherwise gotten to.” Last summer, that place was Michigan State University, where during his time off as Greenwich police chief he helped run safety and security for a national meeting of the honorary Scouting fraternity, the Order of the Arrow. The summer before that, he was in West Virginia clearing trails. The summer before that, he was sleeping in a tent in the Grand Tetons.
“I’m glad my son is interested in Scouting, but even if he wasn’t, I’d still be doing it,” Heavey says. Greenwich Scouting has 300 adult volunteers, including Heavey and his wife. For Jim, it’s all about giving back to a program that he says gave much to him. “For me, a lot of Scouting had to do with learning about leadership, and much of that came from the examples set by the scoutmasters I had back in the 1970s,” he says. “Even before I had a son, there was personal satisfaction in giving other boys an opportunity to have that same experience I did. I’m not perfect; but I want to be a role model—a watchful adult while boys learn—sometimes through trial and error, the same things I did.”
J. P. Holko: A Family Legacy
For grandsons J. P. and Matt, Andrew Holko had one final request: Make Eagle Scout. A Boy Scout since 1929, J. P. Holko’s grandfather could recite the Scout Law from memory. “It was the last conversation we had with him,” J. P. recalls. “It’s hard to stay active, keep wanting to pursue it. But when your grandfather tells you on his deathbed how important it is to him for you to get Eagle Scout, obviously we were going to do it.”
For J. P., Scouting is about a lot of things. Like acceptance. “Boy Scouts is a program where we accept everyone,” he says, explaining that even for kids who find it tough to fit in, the Boy Scouts offers camaraderie, a new group of friends and a place to feel comfortable. It also taught him about being a leader. “At thirteen, I can remember I was senior patrol leader,” he recalls. “The other Scouts in my troop were playing around, not really focusing. I remember yelling at them. I remember how horribly ineffective that was. I realized that’s not really leadership, yelling at a bunch of people about what you want them to do. “It’s about leading by example,” he continues. “If there was a campout, and a hundred pounds of wood that needed to be carried, I’d carry the largest stack.”
J. P., thirty, is a service manager at Computer SuperCenter on Mason Street and lives near downtown Byram in a house his grandfather once lived in—and one that J. P. is currently renovating. He points out that the skills involved weren’t learned in the Boy Scouts, but his willingness to take on such a project stems from the confidence instilled there. J. P. and his brother honored their grandfather’s dying wish and became Eagle Scouts. Today, J. P. remains active with Greenwich Scouting, sitting on the board charged with approving projects Scouts commit to for their Eagle Scout badge. “I’m impressed by the young kids getting Eagle Scout now,” he says. “I think it’s even harder for them than when I was a Scout. So much more is expected of them. My friends and I did Scouting—that was it, school and Scouting. Now the kids are also on the football team, they’re running; they’re swimming. I think they’re expected to do a lot more.”
Ben Wurst: Reaching New Heights
It was 2003, and Cos Cob first-grader Ben Wurst watched a Cub Scout recruiting rally. “I wanted to be that guy on the stage saying ‘I’m an Eagle Scout,’” says Ben. “I didn’t realize how long it would take.” Called “the Ph.D. of Boyhood,” the Eagle Scout rank represent an elite cadre within the Scouting organization. To earn it, one must accomplish three things: 1) Rise to a leadership position within your Scout troop. 2) Earn 21 merit badges, each of which requires hours of individual application. 3) Devise and see through to completion a project that benefits the community at large, and which has nothing to do with Scouting.
Not surprisingly, only 4 percent of BSA members achieve the distinction. At sixteen, Ben is currently the youngest Eagle Scout in Greenwich. Though there was a time in the eighth grade when he had his doubts—about making Eagle and the whole Scouting program. What kept him going? “A lot of it is friendship,” he says. “A lot of guys are close, even between the different ages. I’m friends with guys in the sixth and seventh grades, even though I’m in my junior year in high school.”
At Greenwich High, Ben balances Scouting with another life, as a member of the varsity swimming and water polo teams. When he was Senior Patrol Leader for Troop 10 in Cos Cob, he juggled his varsity commitments with planning Scout outings and homework, leading to some hectic, never-ending weeks. But he never had any return of his middle school doubts. “Scouting forces me to deal with things as they come up,” he says. “Just scheduling things. Just being the Scout motto, Be Prepared.”
College acceptance boards are on record as prizing Eagle Scout applicants, and Ben knows he has a golden ticket that way. But he insists that isn’t what drives him to stay active with the Scouts. “It’s given me a whole way of living my life,” he says. “If you’ve done anything wrong, you can figure out what it was by going through the Scout Law: Were you being trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, reverent? Those are the twelve points of the compass in Scout Law. You follow those, you’re a good person. You’re set for life, really.”
Carter Simko: Heart of a Tiger, Eyes of an Eagle
If one wants to know what the future holds for Greenwich Scouting, begin with eight-year-old Carter Simko of Riverside. “I really like doing it,” Carter says. “I’d rather do Scouting than watch TV.” Two years ago, Carter came home and told his father, Mike, that he wanted to be a Tiger Cub, the program’s rank for its youngest Cub Scouts.
He quickly fell in love with Cub Scouting, with its array of achievement-oriented programs and its emphasis on skill-building. Take the Pinewood Derby. “You build mini-cars and race them,” he explains. “There are trophies, for best appearance, best workmanship, speed, first-prize, second-prize, third-prize.” Mike, a real-estate developer and builder, became a Scout volunteer after his son joined. He watched Carter take on his Pinewood responsibilities with pride. “Carter’s a perfectionist,” he says. “He painted his car four times this year.” “Five times,” Carter interrupts.
“He saw little nicks in it, tiny imperfections,” Mike continues. “He sanded it down. He repainted it. It was all him. Every night he would say, ‘Let’s redo the car.’ He was really into it.” For Carter, the passion of Scouting is palpable. Walking through Camp Seton one sunny afternoon, he pointed out favorite activity areas: the BB-gun range, the hiking trails, the Nature Center. Even that blandest-sounding of traditional Scouting activities, knot-making, has appeal for the young Tiger Scout: “[Knots] help you in the future. And lashing! We made a ladder out of plain old sticks that could hold a grown-up and two other kids at the same time. It was really strong.” For Carter, Scouting is something he plans to continue. He looks forward to becoming a Boy Scout in a few years. Even more, though, he dreams of joining the ranks of the organization’s elite. “I really would like to be an Eagle Scout,” he says.