A first-person account from off the beaten track, as told to Anne Ford.
"When I was growing up, scouting was considered a very nerdy thing, so I never did it. What happened was, my oldest son came to me one day. There had been a presentation on Cub Scouts at his school, and he was interested. There's an old joke in scouting: 'How would you like to spend an hour a week helping us out?' I fell for that. I became a den leader, and then a cubmaster, and when my sons were all old enough to be Boy Scouts, I became a scoutmaster.
"I have the most diverse troop in our council from a racial/ethnic standpoint. We're one-third Hispanic, one-third African-American, and one-third white and everything else. I have a couple boys who are very, very introverted. They tend to be the boys that have some challenges at home. That's why you want to keep these kids in the program, because it gives them some stability.
"One young man had some real serious issues—constant fighting, lashing out. Once on a campout, he pulled a knife on another boy. It was a Scout knife, probably three inches. We got the knife away from him, but he was truly out of control. I said, 'I'm calling your mom to pick you up.' He said, 'Well, you can call her, but she's not gonna come.' Mom showed up with grandma at one o'clock in the morning.
"We had a long talk when we got back. It was almost disturbing. He said, 'I know you hate me, Mr. Herman, because I'm black.' I said, 'What?' He said, 'Yeah.' I said, 'If I hated you for any reason, you would have been gone a long time ago. It's not the color of your skin, OK, that I care about. It's what's in your heart and what's in your head. That's what I care about.' And he kind of sat back for a minute.
"About three weeks later, we were driving him home, and he looked at me, and he said, 'You know, Mr. Herman, I wish you were my father.' I was stunned. How do you answer that? I thought about that a lot over the next few years.
"Then he decided: 'Mr. Herman, I'm gonna do my Eagle Scout project.' Now, this is a big deal. Becoming an Eagle Scout is the highest honor possible for a Boy Scout. I thought he was biting off more than he could chew, but he belonged to the Boys & Girls Club of Waukegan, and they had a library that was really in disarray. He got the library organized, and he had 1,100 books donated. New books. And somehow he got software donated to catalog all the books. This was amazing.
"So we had his Eagle Court of Honor ceremony. The mayor of North Chicago and the mayor of Waukegan were there. I was giving my speech, and I told him, and I meant this very sincerely: 'I couldn't be more proud of you if you were my own child. You have been with me all these years, and you grew up in this troop, and you once said to me that you wished that I was part of your family.' I looked at him and said, 'I am part of your family. And so is everyone else here, and we will always be part of your family.'"