Life Scout

Scout Connor Subecz leads members of Troop 35 in clearing the area behind Barrington Presbyterian Church for his Eagle project. (Abel Uribe/Chicago Tribune)

Older Boy Scouts in Chicagoland and around the nation are rebuffing satirist Tom Lehrer's spoof on their "Be Prepared" pledge, which says: "Be prepared to hold your liquor well. Don't write naughty words on walls if you can't spell."

They're shaking off perceptions of scouting as uncool and exclusionary to fulfill stiff requirements, including community service, to become Eagle Scouts. In 2005, 49,895 young men earned Eagle status, scouting's highest rank, by completing at least 21 merit badges and a service project. Five years later, 59,176 climbed to that rank around the country, an increase of more than 8 percent, according to the Boy Scouts of America.

In this region, scouts took on such community projects as sprucing up parks, collecting school supplies and helping to rehabilitate turtles. One scout directed a summer camp on a South Dakota Indian reservation.

With funds tight for many public projects, municipal and social service officials appreciate these efforts while the youths recognize that Eagle status boosts their opportunities for jobs, college admittance and military service.

Ray Piagentini, counselor at Barrington High School and past president of the Illinois School Counselor Association, sees a difference between scouts and other boys.

"They tend to be the compassionate, reflective, respectful kids who know how to look beyond themselves. Some are high achievers academically, some aren't. Some are into sports, some aren't. But like the Navy Seals, they tend to be the rarest of the rare kids," Piagentini said.

Kennady Gee, 16, and Rodney Shelley, 18, both of Chicago, stuck it out to become Eagles against some cultural odds. Gee said he made his dad proud, especially since his father had been a scout but didn't earn his Eagle badge. Shelley said the time management and organizational skills he learned equipped him to start a business selling T-shirts in college.

Scouts, like many youths, have lots of demands on their time, making earning their Eagles an endurance test. For some, high-profile slams on the Boy Scouts of America for barring atheists and homosexuals from serving as troop leaders, with the latter prohibition going all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, may have added a layer of discomfort.

Scouts "have a lot of peer pressure and distractions, like school, sports, and girls. Girls, especially," said Eddie L. Banks Sr., scoutmaster to Gee and Shelley, of Troop 534 in Chicago's Chatham neighborhood. "They tell me, 'Mr. Banks, I'm thinking about quitting.' I tell them, that's fine, after you become an Eagle."

Banks' troop has produced 72 Eagles since 1951, including seven (ages 13 to 18) in 2011. The troop is part of the Chicago Area Council, which serves Chicago proper. It saw an increase in Eagle Scouts over the last five years, to a total of 132 in 2010.

Among other Chicago-area councils that reported increases in Eagles are the Des Plaines Valley Council in LaGrange, Three Fires Council in St. Charles and the Northeast Illinois Council in Highland Park.

Since the program began, 2,099,551 Scouts had earned the rank of Eagle by the end of 2010.

Exactly a century earlier, publishing magnate William D. Boyce started the BSA, prompted, as legend has it, by the goodwill of a British Scout who guided him while he was lost on London's foggy streets, then refused a tip. A plaque outside the Ben Pao Chinese Restaurant on the ground floor of what was once the Boyce Building on Chicago's Illinois Street honors him.

Googling "Scout" images gets you a Norman Rockwell portrait of a white kid. But while scouting is an easier sell among Caucasian families with long histories of involvement, say its leaders, they're trying to cast a wider net.

"To reach the Latino population, we try to make the events more family-oriented. Father-son or kids-only events don't always work," said John Mosby, executive of the BSA's Northeast Illinois Council. "But the whole family comes out for our family fishing derby."

A small army of committed adults keeps Banks' African-American scouts on track.

"The parents make sure the kids stick with it," Banks said. "Merit badge counselors from the community help the boys learn skills like first aid or emergency preparedness. Men who have already become Eagles come back to help. They include doctors, lawyers, business leaders."

The Des Plaines Valley Council added a community outreach coordinator who "builds relationships with groups including Middle Eastern, Hispanic and Asian," said Tony Roth, the council's assistant scout executive. "She understands that one group cannot meet on Sundays, one on Saturdays and one is not accustomed to having women leaders."

Over time, employers, recruiters and officials have come to recognize the determination and value behind the Eagle rank.