At Md. Boys State, values are stressed,apathy is dismissed American Legion program targets leaders of tomorrow

June 19, 1998|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN STAFF

This is the season of soccer camps, outdoor camps, fat camps and computer camps. But at the campus of Western Maryland College in Westminster this week, a group of teen-age boys is having a summer experience unlike any other.

They are polite as butlers, addressing a visitor as "Sir."

They are the definition of order, marching in flawless rows to meals and class.

They will elect a governor and two senators.

This is the American Legion's Maryland Boys State, a week-long program that teaches high school boys the values of democracy, citizenship, public service and, yes, good behavior.

Started in 1934 by members of the Illinois American Legion, Boys State was promoted as a citizen-training program to combat inroads being made by Nazi and Soviet friendship groups in the United States.

Today, the program targets democracy's new enemy: apathy.

Sometimes the battle takes prodding. Six Marines keep the program's 325 boys in line during their stay.

"Oh man, they yell at you. 'Left, right, left. Turn, march!' " said Justin Huet, 17, stepping in place like a foot soldier.

Huet had some second thoughts about Boys State when he was awakened at 4: 45 a.m. Monday for military drills, jumping jacks, push-ups and a few laps around the track.

He envied his classmates at St. James School in Hagerstown, who were relaxing at the beach and probably not lifting an eyelid until noon, he said.

But during the last three days he's grown to enjoy the lessons he's learned about state, local and federal government and the challenges of democracy, he said.

"First, I really didn't like it. I got used to it and now it's lots of fun," he said. "I've realized how bad communism is."

Huet also knows there are some other rewards for waking before dawn.

"It looks really good on a college application," he said.

It should. Alumni of Boys State include newsman Tom Brokaw, talk show host Rush Limbaugh, President Clinton, jazz singer Al Jarreau and astronaut Neil Armstrong. The famous photo of the young Clinton shaking hands with President John F. Kennedy was taken during Boys State in 1963.

Competition for one of the 325 spots in Maryland's Boys State is stiff. High school juniors must be nominated by their schools. Most are overachievers, members of the National Honor Society, student government leaders and varsity athletes.

The American Legion believes these boys are the nation's future leaders.

"They can't just sit back and reap the fruits of democracy. They have a job to do," said Raymond E. Callegary, a Baltimore attorney who volunteers as director of the program.

Part of the job is to appreciate the value of public service and leadership, Callegary said. At the beginning of the week, the boys are separated into mock cities that elect a mayor and council. Later in the week they form a state and elect a governor, senators and representatives.

The boys also attend lectures by local and state government leaders and visit the State House and Naval Academy in Annapolis.

The American Legion sponsors Boys State in every state in the country.

Girls States, sponsored by the American Legion Auxiliary, are also held each year. About 350 young women will attend Maryland Girls State at Washington College in Chestertown next week.

Only a few Boys States have a military component like Maryland's.

Gordon Browning, assistant director of Boys State, said the Marines organize the boys quickly and give them a taste of military life, like the early-morning drills.

"We don't stress them out. Even the heavy kids are able to get by. Even I do it," Browning joked.

For some boys, a disciplined military life is exactly what they're seeking.

Derek Harris, 17, who is one of five boys attending Maryland Boys State from American schools in Germany, hopes to become a fighter pilot someday. His nomination to Boys State topped an already packed resume that includes the National Honor Society, ROTC, cross-country team, debate team, drill team and rifle team.

"It teaches you people skills. You notice how people have to get along," he said.

Others like Myron Wand, 16, of Prince George's County, said the military is not for them. Wand aspires to be a professional chef.

"I'm not a very political person," he said. "But I know that if you don't vote you can't complain."

Many of the boys participating in this week's program said it was difficult to adjust to the early hours, 16-hour days and lack of free time. But the Boys State handbook reminds them that conditions were once harsher.

During the first Boys State held at the Illinois State Fair grounds the boys were quartered in cattle barns and forced to write letters home.

Today, they sleep in dorm rooms and only call home if they like.

And even the military discipline lightens up as the week progresses, Browning said. The Marines drop into the background, allowing the boys to lead the marching on their own.

"There is quite a change from Sunday to Saturday," Browning said. "At the end of the week their parents can't pick them out they're so different."

Pub Date: 6/19/98

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