Scouting Builds Men

by President Ezra Taft Benson

President of the Council of the Twelve

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    As Latter-day Saints we have a priceless legacy—a legacy based on the solid truth that character is the one thing we develop in this world that we take with us into the next. This is a heritage that one cannot buy. It is a fountain of continuing strength for coping successfully with life’s problems.

    You young men and women are our greatest assets. I have confidence in you, I have said before that the greatest honor ever bestowed upon me by the inspired Scouting movement has been the privilege of working with boys and young men in this great program.

    Some 50 years ago I became an assistant Scoutmaster in a little country town in southern Idaho. What a challenge it was to work with and to lead 24 boys in the first Scout troop in this little rural community. Talk about rewards for effort! Every day of my life has been enriched by that association and service. I wish time permitted me to tell you the satisfying story of those 24 lively, sometimes mischievous, but wonderful boys. I have been rewarded tenfold. I think I will divert just long enough to tell you one little experience.

    In those days each ward was expected to have a boys’ chorus, and the bishop would often invite the Scoutmaster to lead it. So it was in our case.

    For weeks, before and after Scout meetings, we prepared, and finally the time came when we would meet in competition with the other wards in the stake.

    We were successful in winning over the 11 wards, and then we were to meet the winners of six other stakes of the Cache Valley at Logan, Utah. It was a great experience to go down to the great city of Logan, a city of about 10,000 people. Many of those boys had never been 25 miles from home. I shall never forget approaching that great building, the tabernacle in Logan. We went inside and drew for position, and to the increase of our anxiety we drew last place.

    Finally the time came for our group to march up to the platform. As the accompanist played “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” those 24 boys went up the aisle and formed a half-moon on the stage, while I crouched down between a couple of benches to try and give them some leadership. I got a great thrill as those 24 boys sang together, and of course, you can well appreciate I would not be telling this story had we not won in Logan.

    We went home literally walking on air! We were so happy that our little community of 50 families had won over the other stakes and wards of the valley.

    Monday night was Scout meeting, and shortly after the meeting opened one of the boys reminded me that in a moment of great anxiety or weakness, I don’t know which, I had promised that if we were successful in winning the contest, I would take them on a 35-mile hike over the mountain to Bear Lake. Well, of course, a promise made is a debt unpaid.

    We began planning our hike, and during the meeting one little 12-year-old raised his hand and very formally said, “Mr. Scoutmaster, I would like to make a motion.” That was a new thing in Scouting, or it was for me. I said, “All right, what?” He said, “I’d like to make a motion, so we will not be bothered with combs and brushes on this trip, that we all clip our hair off.”

    I noticed three or four older boys starting to squirm in their seats. They had reached that very critical age in life when they were beginning to take notice of the girls, and a clipped head, they knew, would be no asset to them with the women. We put the question to a vote, and it carried with these three or four older boys dissenting. Then it was agreed that if they didn’t submit willingly, there were other ways of enforcing the rules of the troop, and they submitted. Then, true to form, never forgetting, one of them said, “How about the Scoutmasters?”

    It was our turn to squirm. But the following Saturday at the county seat, two Scoutmasters took their places in the barber’s chair while the barber very gleefully went over each head with the clippers. As he neared the end of the job, he said, “Now, if you fellows would let me shave your heads, I would do it for nothing.” And so we started on that hike—24 boys with heads clipped and two Scoutmasters with heads shaven.

    Well, it was a glorious three weeks together with those wonderful boys out in the hills and in the mountains and on the lake. I wish I could take the time to relate the life of each one of those boys from that time until the present; I am proud of them. One of the joys of working with boys is the fact that you do get your pay as you go along. You have an opportunity to observe the results of your leadership daily as you work with them through the years and watch them grow into stalwart manhood, accepting eagerly its challenges and responsibilities.

    Such satisfaction cannot be purchased at any price; it must be earned through service and devotion. What a glorious thing it is to have even a small part in helping to build boys into men, real men. And that is the purpose of Scouting—to build men.

    I would to God that every boy of Boy Scout age could have the benefits and the blessings of the great Boy Scout program. It is truly a noble program; it is a builder of character, not only in the boys, but also in the men who provide the leadership. And character, after all, is the priceless thing you build in this life and take with you into the next. I have often said that Scouting is essentially a spiritual program, a builder of men. It is established upon a deeply spiritual foundation.

    In the first part of the Boy Scout Oath we declare, “On my honor, I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law.” Scouting emphasizes duty to God, reverence for sacred things, observance of the Sabbath, maintenance of the standards of the Church with which the boy is affiliated. As each boy repeats that pledge, usually at every Scout meeting or function, he says aloud in the presence of those whose friendship he values most highly, “On my honor, I will do my best to do my duty to God.” It cannot help but make a deep and lasting impression upon him. It becomes the foundation upon which a noble character is built. The oath also pledges duty to country, and that too is basically spiritual.

    Scouting stresses service to others, and again this has a spiritual base. The Scout pledges to help other people at all times. Was it not the Master who said, “Whosoever will be chief among you; let him be your servant?” The slogan “Do a Good Turn Daily” has become emblazoned upon men’s lives far beyond its place of origin in the Boy Scout movement. Scouting also emphasizes duty to self. How charged with spiritual meaning are the words “to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight!”

    There is a tendency to think of fitness solely in terms of the physical, in terms of bodily strength. But to be truly fit, truly equal to the demands of life, requires much more than bodily strength. It involves the mind and the training of the mind, the emotions and their use and control. Yes, and it involves the soul and the spiritual growth too. And that is why Scouting challenges our youth to be physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.

    It seems to me that the most successful program of complete youth fitness ever known to man was described in 14 words. They are the words of the beloved disciple Luke in the New Testament. He uses just one sentence to cover a period of 18 years—the 18 years in which the Savior of the world, after returning to Nazareth from Jerusalem, prepared himself for his public life: “And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and man.” There is the ideal of any program of youth fitness, to help our youth increase in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and man. It covers everything: physical fitness, mental fitness, social fitness, emotional fitness, spiritual fitness.

    The Scout Law is fundamentally spiritual. The points of the law are expressions of virtues, of ideals; they are the basis of sound character. These virtues of trustworthiness, loyalty, bravery, helpfulness, kindness, obedience, cleanliness, reverence, and all the rest are what the past progress of the world is built upon.

    Sometimes we forget this great truth in the hurly-burly of living. Let us recall a few historic instances showing the importance of the virtues exemplified in the Scout Law. There are many others. I have selected only three or four.

    Four hundred and eighty-three years ago, Christopher Columbus set sail from Spain in three small ships with 87 men. For 70 days they sailed across the uncharted sea. As early as the 17th day the men began to murmur in fear. From the 20th day on, Columbus was hard put to restrain them from mutiny, but when we read the log that Columbus kept, we are struck by the force of three words appearing again and again at the end of the day’s events; these are the words: “We sailed on.” What courage, what trustworthiness, what faith these words reveal!

    Some four and a half centuries after Columbus, Admiral Richard Byrd displayed these same qualities in the exploration of the North and South Poles. In March 1934, only 40 years ago, Admiral Byrd isolated himself in the wastes of Antarctica in a little 9-by-13-foot hut buried in the snow. There he planned to remain during the six-month-long night, making weather observations. He took this task on himself. He would not order any of his men to do it. On May 28, fumes from the stove nearly killed him. Though he was critically sick, he refused to send an SOS to the main camp at Little America, 123 miles away. He preferred to die rather than call any of the men to make the dangerous journey during that treacherous season of constant night. But this was not his closest call to death.

    That came one day when he went outside to check the instruments in the midst of a raging blizzard. When he tried to get back inside the hut, he found the trap door frozen. He pulled and yanked, exerting all his strength. It was like trying to pull open a locked bank vault. The door was frozen solid. He tried to scrape off some of the snow around the edges. He threw himself on the door, trying to break the ice by the pressure of his body. He pulled, tugged, pushed, and pounded until he was worn out: Then he was terribly cold, even through his heavy clothing. His fingers were numb, losing feeling. He was alone in the vast Antarctica, the frozen, wild wastelands.

    The wind tore at him, screaming like 10,000 triumphant devils. He was about to panic. Ten minutes more in the cold and it would be too late! With the mighty effort of his will, he resisted panic; he prayed. He forced himself to rest quietly, to think, to concentrate. Suddenly he remembered—a shovel! The other day when he had been checking the instruments, he had left a shovel outside. He crawled around. It had snowed a great deal in the past two days. Where was the shovel? He slipped and fell, and as he crashed, he struck something hard. He seized it; he had the shovel!

    Now, back to the trap door of the hut! Somehow he got back. Somehow he wedged the handle of the shovel under the handle of the trap door. His hands were almost useless by this time. He threw his body across the handle of the shovel and, God be praised, the ice cracked and the door opened. With the last of his dwindling strength he forced it open enough for him to tumble through the opening and down inside the hut. This was the bravery, the trustworthiness, the faith of the explorer.

    That same bravery, trustworthiness, and faith will be needed in our time by those who will explore the space age. Scouting teaches these virtues. “A Scout is kind: A Scout is helpful.” Do we ourselves sometimes forget what these virtues have meant to all mankind?

    There was born in France in 1822 a boy described by his teacher as “the meekest, smallest, and least promising pupil in my class.” But he gave to mankind some of its greatest boons because he was helpful. He became a chemist. When a mysterious disease attacked the silkworms of France and threatened the silk business with ruin, he was invited to investigate.

    Meantime, tragedy struck his family. One of his children died; then another; then a third. Working 18 hours a day, he drained his strength and suffered a stroke. His powers of speech were paralyzed, but even as he lay there, paralyzed in body but active in mind, the solution to the silkworm disease suddenly came to him.

    He fought his way back. He regained his power to speak, learning to talk all over again. Eventually his research saved the silk industry, not only in France, but in all the silk-producing countries. He saved another industry by discovering that heat would kill bacteria without spoiling the product. Thus pasteurization was born, a process in daily use all over the world. Louis Pasteur’s primary objective in life was to serve God through serving mankind. His name is great in agriculture. He developed a vaccine for anthrax—a fatal disease of cattle—and also for chicken cholera. His germ theory revolutionized surgery, which in those days was usually fatal. Pasteur discovered that this was because of microbes getting into the open wounds. Some doctors scoffed, “What does the chemist know about medicine?” But after two years of applying the germ theory in a hospital, postsurgery fatalities dropped from 90 percent to 15 percent.

    And he conquered hydrophobia. Once, in order to get material for his experiment, it was necessary for Pasteur to suck saliva through a tube from the threatening jaws of a mad dog. Calmly he faced a possible, horrible death. Then he said, “Well, gentlemen, we can now proceed with the experiment.” What a noble soul and what a truly great example!

    Here is another example from recent times. In a southern community a baby fell into a wellhole. The hole was 60 feet deep and only 13 inches across. A boy could go down, a man could not. Elbert Gray, a black boy, volunteered. He was let down on the end of a rope. Sharp rocks cut his face and his bare feet. He reached the baby and managed to grab its shirt, but the cramped position kept him from getting a good hold. They pulled him up, and he volunteered to go down again; this time head first so he could take hold of the child with both hands. Shaking with cold, blood pouring from his numerous cuts, he brought the baby back. He was awarded a bronze medal, symbol for heroism, by the Carnegie Fund Hero Commission.

    There are many examples in the great program of Scouting of boys who have exhibited the same spirit of helpfulness and service.

    We need to develop qualities of leadership. Young people need to learn the value of staying power—stick-to-itiveness. You need to learn devotion to duty—the devotion to duty that keeps a good doctor on the job right around the clock in an emergency—the devotion to duty that leads a scientist or a teacher to persevere in a low paying position in the public service because that is where his or her maximum contribution can be made.

    You need to learn to be tolerant of people, but intolerant of untruth, of laziness, of immorality. There is a type of broadmindedness prevalent today that tolerates just about anything short of outright murder. It isn’t broadmindedness at all—it’s moral apathy, or maybe moral cowardice.

    Yes, what examples we have to follow, what models to imitate! Whether one studies the Scout Oath, the Scout Law, the Scout Motto, or the Scout Slogan, “Do a Good Turn Daily,” they all add up to our finest character-building program.

    How fortunate are those who may participate in it and have their lives enriched thereby—boys and men alike. The boys and men with whom Scouting is concerned are made of eternal stuff; theirs is a divine destiny. Godlike men, men of character, men of truth, men of courage, men of goodwill—there, then, is our challenge.

    Illustrated by Preston Heiselt