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The Legacy of the Unknown Scout

February 8, 2010

The Boy Scouts of America is celebrating a birthday – 100 years of scouting. The story of its founding has been told around campfires from the beginning.

William D. Boyce was born on a farm in Pennsylvania in 1858. While still in his teens, he worked in a coal mine. After attending Wooster Academy, a preparatory school in Ohio, for three years, he became a schoolteacher.

In 188l, Boyce went to Chicago and took a job selling advertising for a monthly magazine. Within a few months he became publisher of a weekly called The Commercial in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. A year later he worked as a newspaper reporter in Fargo, North Dakota. He soon started his own weekly, the Dakota Clipper.

In January 1885, Boyce sold the Clipper and moved back to Chicago where he established a syndicated service that provided stories for newspapers. A year later he sold that service. In 1887, at the age of 29, Boyce began publishing a weekly paper, the Saturday Blade. His new publication soon achieved a national circulation.

The Blade carried sensational accounts of expeditions to Africa, Alaska, and Mexico. Often these adventures were organized and led by. Boyce. In 1891, he bought the Chicago Ledger. Eventually the weekly circulation of the two papers was more than two million.

William D. Boyce had become wealthy through his publishing enterprises. One of his innovative ideas was using boys to sell his papers across the country. At the height of his success, he employed 30,000 youngsters as sales agents.

Boyce lived in a mansion in Ottawa, Illinois. He also had he had a penthouse apartment in his 12-story Boyce Building in Chicago.

In August 1909, Boyce organized a photographic expedition to East Africa. He met with safari organizers and outfitters in London to make provision for his expedition. While he was in London preparing for the safari, Boyce became lost in thick fog. A boy in uniform approached and asked if he could help. The boy guided the American safely to his hotel. When Boyce offered a tip, the boy declined, explaining that he was a Scout doing his daily Good Turn.

Boyce, who employed many newsboys, was so impressed by the Scout that he decided to investigate further. He asked the Scout for directions to Scout Headquarters. There he obtained a handbook, Scouting for Boys. While on his safari, Boyce studied the Boy Scout manual. The publisher was so impressed with scouting that instead of making his return to America into an around-the-world trip via San Francisco, he returned to the Scout headquarters in London. He met with Lord Robert Baden-Powell and volunteered to organize Scouting in America. Boyce was given permission to use the British Scout handbook.

On February 8, 1910, W. D. Boyce incorporated the Boy Scouts of America. This week the B.S.A celebrates its 100th Anniversary.

What happened to the Unknown Scout who helped Boyce find his way in the fog?  No one knows. He neither asked for money nor gave his name. He is simply called the Unknown Scout. That young man will never be forgotten. His Good Turn helped bring the scouting movement to our country. Every Tenderfoot learns the Boy Scout slogan, Do A Good Turn Daily. The legacy of the Unknown Scout is that all scouts are to follow his example.

It was William Boyce who suggested inviting other scout programs like the Woodcraft Indians and the Sons of Daniel Boone to merge with the BSA. Edgar M. Robinson, an officer of the Young Men’s Christian Association’s International Committee, assumed administrative oversight of the organization for the first year. James West was hired to be the administrative head of the BSA, agreeing to serve for six months. He retired in 1943 after serving more than 30 years.

Boyce continued to support the BSA financially. He gave $1,000 per month for operating expenses, provided that boys of all races and creeds be included.

The Silver Buffalo Award is the national distinguished service award of the Boy

Scouts of America. It is presented for noteworthy service to youth on a national level.    During the first presentation in 1926, three awards were presented. The first Silver Buffalo was conferred upon Lord Baden-Powell, founder of the Scouting movement and Chief Scout of the World.

The second went to the Unknown Scout who inspired William D. Boyce to form the BSA. In addition to the award, a statue of a buffalo was presented with a plaque, inscribed: “To the Unknown Scout Whose Faithfulness in the Performance of the Daily Good Turn Brought the Scout Movement to the United States of America.” The statue stands at the Gilwell Park Training Center near London.

William D. Boyce received the third Award.

The Boy Scouts of America cherishes the memory of the founders.  Significant contributions were made by Lord Robert Baden-Powell in England, and, in the United States, by Ernest Thompson Seton, Daniel Carter Beard, and James E. West. William Boyce was the man who brought the movement to the United States. His vision and financial support sustained Scouting in the early years. But it was a young boy who offered a helping hand in a London fog who was the catalyst for it all.

In these 100 years, more than 100 million boys have been members of the Boy Scouts of America. That is the legacy of the Unknown Scout.

Kirk H. Neely
© February 2010

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