130 Eagle Scouts gather to honor charismatic leader

March 20, 1994|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Sun Staff Writer

They gathered from as far away as Florida and Hawaii last night to pay tribute to the man who challenged them.

Carl A. Zapffe is a physicist, engineer, chemist and metallurgist of international renown, inventor of fractography (how materials fracture) and the author of standard texts on stainless steels -- to list just a few of his professional accomplishments.

But for the approximately 130 Eagle Scouts who were reunited in the Constellation Room of the World Trade Center downtown yesterday, just one of Dr. Zapffe's titles mattered: Troop 35 Scoutmaster.

"Carl Zapffe, what you have given Troop 35 is most deeply and affectionately appreciated," Jed Onnen, 35, of Towson, told the 81-year-old Ruxton resident in a moving keynote address. "In the future, we will continue onward in the light of such a strong, wise and compassionate man."

Sponsored by Church of the Redeemer in Homeland, Troop 35 is not a typical Boy Scout troop. Organizers believe it has produced more Eagle Scouts -- the top rank of Scouting -- than any other troop in the country.

An alumni directory of the 242 Eagle Scouts from Troop 35 reads like an edition of "Who's Who." It includes college professors, a leading cancer researcher, engineers, lawyers and stockbrokers.

The key to that success, the Scouts agree, was this extraordinary man who can lecture one moment on the faults in Einstein's Theory of Relativity and in the next talk about reincarnation and mysticism.

"He taught you if you start a job, you get it done," said Lee Burbage, 33, of Bolton Hill who achieved the Eagle rank in 1978. "He's a very charismatic person."

With his booming voice, hearty laugh and snow-white beard and hair, Dr. Zapffe seems larger than life. Lenna Kennedy of Rodgers Forge, a former assistant Scoutmaster, insists that Dr. Zapffe resembles "Charlton Heston as Moses in 'The 10 Commandments' parting the Red Sea."

An Eagle Scout, Dr. Zapffe began his career at Troop 35 in 1944 when the native Minnesotan moved to Baltimore and chaired a committee that oversaw the unit. But it was not until 1955 that his work really began, when he was recruited to be Scoutmaster by his wife, Denise.

"She told me, 'But you'd make such a good Scoutmaster,' " recalled Dr. Zapffe. "I told her what a good streetcar conductor I'd make or a garbage collector. Anything but a Scoutmaster."

What turned into a one-year assignment soon became a permanent avocation. A portion of the laboratory in his rambling estate -- a basement hideaway where the secrets of Cold War Soviet science were once plumbed -- soon became "Cazlab," an after-school workshop for Scouts.

Dr. Zapffe never played by the rules. He abstained from the militaristic qualities of Scouting -- tough uniform codes and competitions -- but held his boys to higher standards than other troops.

His Eagle Scouts had to earn five more merit badges than the Boy Scouts of America requires. Each year, he took his troop on a 40-mile hike, twice the length of the longest hike required of most Scouts.

"He believes people don't learn through competition, but through cooperation," said Mr. Onnen, a 1974 Eagle Scout now a customs broker. "He taught us that the only worthwhile competition was with oneself."

In a bound volume presented to Dr. Zapffe last night, the Eagles shared their favorite memories of Scouting. Many recalled the 40-milers, a tradition born in 1963 of President John F. Kennedy's criticisms of youth physical fitness.

"This man can motivate anyone to do anything," wrote Scott Wood, a 1988 Eagle Scout and now an actor in New York.

One of Dr. Zapffe's most successful programs has been the Dad-Boy contract. Worried that the troop could become a baby-sitting service, he signs every father (or mother) up as a volunteer.

The Scouts acknowledge that their success has come at a price paid by Dr. Zapffe's career. Even Dr. Zapffe admits his work with Troop 35 probably cost him seven to 10 years of professional accomplishments.

"You can look at it philosophically and say the most important thing I did in my life was Scouting -- if I did them any good," Dr. Zapffe said. "But how do you measure something like that?"

Last night, it was measured by 130 men whom Dr. Zapffe dared to be more than they thought they could be.

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