Alvin Townley was a 20-something rising star in an international consulting firm when he reconnected with a boyhood friend and conversation turned to their youthful involvement with the Boy Scouts of America. Over a pizza, Townley's fellow Eagle Scout said his politics had turned decidedly liberal and he planned to return his Eagle award to protest Scouts' positions favoring duty to God and opposing homosexuality.
Townley was stunned. Though he remained proud of his accomplishment, he nonetheless started thinking what that Eagle award, and Scouting, really mean-and not just to him, but to America.
The fruit of that thinking became Legacy of Honor: The Values and Influence of America's Eagle Scouts (St. Martin's Press, 304 pages, 2007), an elegant and forceful case for Scouting's positive and unique role in the shaping of 20th century America.
Townley took a year off from his career, depleted his savings, and traveled more than 40,000 miles to interview Eagle Scouts for this book. He profiles famous Eagles such as Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, billionaire New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and astronaut Jim Lovell. He also includes the lesser-known Mitchel Paige and Jimmie Dyess, who during World War II stepped into U.S. Marine uniforms and earned Medals of Honor.
Such stories are inspiring, but Townley wants us to understand that the path to Eagle is not about success, but character. South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford makes the point plainly. "What's unique about Scouting," Sanford told Townley, "is that the Scouting program is a value-based leadership program. There are plenty of people out there chasing success, but they're missing how you get to significance and this is by living a life tied to those core values and principles."
The interview with Sanford became a turning point in Townley's story-telling strategy. Legacy of Honor, he decided, would focus on the sometimes dark but nonetheless defining moments of modern American history-World War II, the Civil Rights movement, 9/11, and Hurricane Katrina.
These difficult times reminded us that the American experiment in liberty is fragile, and that its real strength is not the celebrity leader. Townley says that each of the 100 million boys who have worn the Scout uniform and the 2 million young men who have achieved the rank of Eagle are indispensable threads in the American fabric. Townley also believes something changes in a boy when he is required to memorize-and repeat week after week-the steely words of the Scout Oath, which begins: "On my honor, I will do my best, to do my duty, to God and my country. . . ."
Alexis de Tocqueville, in Democracy in America, noted that the American genius for association was an essential part of America's greatness. Associations, societies, clubs, and small businesses gave even the tradesman or the yeoman the experience of leadership, and thereby made America a nation of leaders. Scouting, Townley suggests, is the logical end of that genius. Scout troops in church basements across America prepare boys to take their places in this leadership matrix. No other organization has the same broad reach and intentional focus.
"Lord Baden-Powell understood that reality a century ago when he founded the Scouting movement," Townley writes. "By instilling common values in . . . young men, Baden-Powell truly influenced the path of world events."
Legacy of Honor successfully tells of the confluence of Scouting and world events, and also writes a new chapter in the story de Tocqueville began-the story of what makes America great. It's the story, too, of why even Townley's liberal friend could not ultimately bring himself to return his Eagle award.
-Warren Smith is an Eagle Scout and the publisher of The Evangelical Press News Service