On my honor, I will do my best
To do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law;
To help other people at all times;
To keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.
- Boy Scouts of America oath
At the age of 8, Joe Wherry was living in a foster home, finally free from an earlier life of sleeping atop heat vents on Chicago's Skid Row.
It was there he heard of a program called Boy Scouts, where kids went camping, learned archery and other cool stuff.
Wherry wanted to join. But his foster family did not have enough money to buy him a uniform.
Then another family offered him the Cub Scout uniform their son had outgrown.
The year was 1956.
For most of the 54 years since, Wherry, of Elkhorn, has remained in Scouting, serving in 36 positions of leadership and earning 40 awards.
Wherry is the first to admit -- Scouting not only changed his life, it saved his life.
Boy Scouts of America turned 100 this year.
Founded on Feb. 8, 1910 by Chicago publisher William Boyce, Boy Scouts of America was inspired by its British counterpart.
According to legend, Boyce lost his way in a dense London fog. He was helped by a young man known as "the unknown scout." When Boyce tried to tip the young man for his assistance, he refused, and said he was only doing his duty as a Boy Scout.
Over time, the specifics of this legend have been questioned. Janice Petterchak, author of "Lone Scout: W.D. Boyce and American Boy Scouting," says the scout merely helped Boyce across the street to his hotel, that it was not foggy, and that the Chicago newspaperman already may have known about Scouting well before the famed "unknown scout" encounter.
Either way, it was clearly Boyce who duplicated Sir Robert Baden-Powell's British program in America.
"The idea behind the Boy Scouts was that nobody was born with character; it was learned," Sarah Laferla wrote in "Scouting Our Story," a history of Nebraska's Mid-America Council. "This reinforced the Boy Scouts' goal to teach a universally recognized set of values and constants: honesty, compassion, fairness, integrity and respect."
Scouting came to Nebraska in 1915 -- first to Omaha, where the Mid-America Council was started in 1916. In 1919, what is now known as the Cornhusker Council was formed to serve Lincoln and later all of Southeast Nebraska. In 1954, Grand Island and North Platte created separate councils -- Overland Trails and Tri-Trails. In 1994, Tri-Trails merged with Overland Trails.
The Longs Peak Council in Greeley, Colo., serves western Nebraska.
Since its inception, Boy Scouts of America has had more than 114 million youth members and 33.3 million adult volunteers; more than 2 million boys have achieved Eagle Scout status, according to national BSA figures.
Over the decades, Boy Scouting has evolved and expanded to keep current with trends, traditions and technology -- offering career exploration and adventure programs for teen boys and girls; Cubs Scouts, which is for boys in first through fifth grades; and multicultural and special needs programs.
But the core values -- remain unaltered:
- Duty to God and respect for individual beliefs
- Loyalty to country and respect for its laws
- Strength of world friendship and Scouting brotherhood.
- Service to others -- community development
- Voluntary membership
- Volunteer leadership
- Independence from political influence and control
- Outdoor program orientation
- Citizenship, physical and mental development, and character guidance.
Scouting is strong in Nebraska.
And the Cornhusker Council, which serves Lincoln/Lancaster County and 15 other counties in Southeastern Nebraska, has the highest retention rate among the 79 councils in the 13 states making up the Central Region, said Rene Monarez, executive director of the Cornhusker Council.
Currently, 6,000 youth members and 2,000 adult volunteers serve in the council's 210 programs. Three-quarters of boys who join Scouting stay year after year, Monarez said.
And membership is growing.
Monarez credits the growth and retention to several factors: Many members come from families where fathers and grandfathers were Boy Scouts; also, the council has focused on recruiting boys who are the first in their families to join Scouting, as well as boys from immigrant and low-income families with Scouting programs offered through El Centro de las Americas and the Center for People in Need.
"Providing Scouting to the first generation is very important to me," Monarez said. He is of Hispanic descent and is the first in his family to join Boy Scouts.
Today, his young son is a Cub Scout.
Monarez quit Boy Scouts in high school, after his parents recommended he choose between athletics and Boy Scouts.
"If I only knew as a youth what Scouting could have provided me, I would have found a way to do both," he said.
Ironically, Monarez returned to Boy Scouts of America as an adult. Fresh out of college and unemployed, he followed his dad's advice to apply for an internship with the organization.
Halfway through the internship he was hired to work in Denver's inner city. He stayed eight years, before becoming executive director for southeastern Colorado. Last November, he was named executive director of the Cornhusker Council.
"These are our future leaders," he said of today's Scouts.
For many families, Boy Scouting is a family tradition.
Darrell Hart, 81, joined Cub Scouts in 1938 when he was 9 years old.
His father, a World War I veteran, pushed him into it.
"I think he thought I needed discipline," said Hart of Omaha.
Hart and his buddies all thought it would be fun. And it was, he said, recalling putting on skits in the meeting room above the Wayne Fire Station and camping under the stars.
"We didn't used to have wooden floors in our tents," he said, referring to today's Scout camping.
In the beginning, Scouting was all about the camping, swimming and hiking, Hart recalled.
"Now it incorporates all sorts of modern things," he said -- especially energy and conservation.
To his regret, Hart never earned Eagle Scout status -- but his son did.
"I couldn't swim well enough to be an Eagle," he confessed. "In those days that was a requirement. Now you can get your Eagle without swimming or lifesaving."
After 70 years in Boy Scouts, he is still active in the organization, serving commissions, committees and council appointments. His wife, Caroline, also has been involved in Boy Scouts since they married in 1963.
"I got in by osmosis," she joked.
Willis Lucht, 74, was a mere boy when he joined Boy Scouts in Columbus.
He had to quit after four years because his family traveled a lot.
It wasn't until Lucht had a family of his own, that he rejoined.
An active member for the 30 years since, he sits on the board of review for Eagle Scouts.
"I really enjoy Scouting and watching young guys grow up to be Eagles," he said.
With a grandson now a Scout, he has all the more reason to stay involved.
"Scouting to me is where you can go out and act like a kid again, and nobody pays any attention to it," Lucht said.
Kids join Scouts for the fun -- camping, hiking, archery, Pinewood derby races, swimming and construction projects, said Monarez.
But the real lessons -- the lifelong lessons -- are about building character, integrity, responsibility and compassion.
Joseph Wherry's life story epitomizes that.
He was found at the age of 4, when street people living on Chicago's infamous skid row pointed him out to child welfare workers. He had run away from a foster home and was living on the streets by day, and seeking refuge on giant heating vents at night.
He was placed with a foster family and stayed until he was 11, when his foster father died, and Wherry was sent to Omaha's Boys Town.
"It was the best thing I ever had," he said.
While there, he joined Troop 249 -- one of two troops serving 200 Boys Town boys.
He graduated in 1966, joined the U.S. Navy and ended up in Vietnam. He served two years, was wounded and sent home.
In the states, Wherry and his late wife returned to Boys Town, where they served as family teachers for a time. While there, he resurrected the Boy Scouting program that had made such a difference in his life.
Five boys, who had never heard of Scouting, joined. Between them they earned 17 merit badges and increased rank, Wherry recalled.
"It was an opportunity for them to learn a different way of doing things. To take charge of themselves. It was a chance to camp, live in nature and find out what it means to survive in nature. They had an opportunity to do things they would never see in a concrete world."
In 1991 his wife died, leaving him with four children to raise. The bottom fell out of his world. Wherry sought solace in a bottle.
A friend took him to Alcoholics Anonymous. The friend was a Scoutmaster.
Wherry remembered the Boy Scout oath he had taken many years before. He remembered the Scout Law:
A Scout is:
Trustworthy, Loyal, Helpful,
Friendly, Courteous, Kind,
Obedient, Cheerful, Thrifty,
Brave, Clean, Reverent.
He got involved with the Catholic Church. He visited the elderly and the sick. He grew stronger -- strong enough to share his convictions with young people. He started a Cub Scout pack in the church.
Like his young Scouts, Wherry's rank increased. He watched his Scouts rise to Eagle Scouts.
When his own health failed, due to exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam, he saw firsthand how people seemed to assume that
disabled people don't have anything to share and how it destroys the psyche. He initiated a special needs Boy Scout program in Omaha -- one of the first in Nebraska, he said.
He's received numerous recognitions for his work in Boy Scouts -- including a letter from former First Lady Laura Bush, the Silver Beaver Award, Award of Merit, the Commissioner's Key, the 2008 United Way Leader for Youth Services, and most recently the Doctorate of Commissioner Science Knot Award from the Boy Scouts of America.
And Wherry shows no signs of slowing down.
Boy Scouting is a way of life.
Darrell Hart says Scouting's principles have made him a different person.
"I'm more outgoing. Probably a little more compassionate. If someone is hurt or has a problem, I seem to have a magnet they come to. ... That's OK, I don't mind it at all," Hart said.
However, "I still slip and swear once in a while," he confessed.
And just last week, Monarez turned to his inner Boy Scout. He was driving down the street when he saw an elderly man trying to flag down a motorist. The man's electric wheelchair had broken down. Monarez turned the car around, stopped and gave the man a ride home.
"Whether we are adults or youth, we want to continue doing a good turn for people," he said.
"If every youth and adult were to live by the 12 points of Scout Law, what a different world this would be," Monarez said.
Reach Erin Andersen at 402-473-7217 or firstname.lastname@example.org.