Scout's Honor

After a three-decade delay, Bill Ehmann finally gets his Eagle medal

August 19, 2008|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,Sun reporter

Since the Boy Scouts of America were founded in 1910, they've been known for a two-word motto - Be Prepared. And while Bill Ehmann, owner of two dozen merit badges, has been a Scout for most of his life, nothing could prepare him for what happened Saturday.

In a ceremony at the Star-Spangled Banner Flag House, Ehmann's mother pinned a silver medal on his chest, making him, at 50, the oldest new Eagle Scout anyone in the Baltimore Area Council could remember.

"I'm overwhelmed," he said, fighting back tears as his parents, Jean and Walter Ehmann, both in their 70s, looked on along with his wife, Paula, and their three grown daughters. "After so much time, it has been kind of shocking."

Ehmann finished the requirements for Scouting's highest accolade 35 years ago. He'd spent eight years building his credentials for the honor, one many studies have found to be a reliable predictor of success.

Why the delay? You'll have to ask someone other than Ehmann, a soft-spoken man who resists dwelling on the past. "There's no point looking back," he says. "When God closes a door, he opens a window somewhere else."

Scouting, devotees say, builds character, knowledge and a sense of teamwork. Only a few make Eagle, fewer still without strong family support. Until his Court of Honor, not even Ehmann fully realized what that meant.

In the 1960s, Perry Hall was a small-town kind of place, where Scouting was just something you did - especially if your family belonged to the St. Joseph Roman Catholic Church, home base of Troop 746. Most of Ehmann's friends had signed up, and his folks were frequent volunteers.

Ehmann was so shy he could barely speak to strangers. Scouting forced him to connect.

"I loved the campouts and stuff," says Ehmann, now a computer-systems expert with the Social Security Administration. "But I loved the camaraderie. ... It helped draw me out of myself."

He knocked off the merit badges - swimming, safety, citizenship, coin collecting. The tiers came and went - Scout, Tenderfoot, Star - as did the father-son banquets and jamborees. In 1973, he made the ultimate pilgrimage, traveling with 11 troopmates to Philmont, the Boy Scouts' 140,000-acre wilderness area in Cimarron, N.M. They camped in the mountains, hiked 60 miles and put their skills to the test.

Later that year, he faced a last big hurdle: The aspiring Eagle must "plan, develop, and give leadership to others in a service project" helpful to a religious institution, a school or the community. Ehmann made slides of the stained-glass windows at St. Joe. He took the slides to the homes of housebound senior citizens, taking younger Scouts along. Some of the shut-ins were fascinated. Others were just happy for company. That was fine with Ehmann, then 15. His requirements were done three years early, and as far as he knew, it was up to a lone Scoutmaster to finish the paperwork. He didn't know how long the wait would be.

Birthday surprise

In the Ehmanns' split-level in Westminster, Ehmann's daughters - Jena, 23, an educator, and twins Rachel and Sarah, 19, students at Stevenson University - fuss over a dog just back from the vet. A placard reads "It's A Wonderful Life." With their dad at work, the young women and their mother are only too happy to recount how they duped him for his own good.

As Ehmann's 50th birthday approached last April, they wanted to plan something he'd never forget.

They ransacked his belongings for ideas. Out fell the baby rattles and yearbooks his mom had packed away - and finally, a theme took shape. A Boy Scout hat fell out. So did a sash and some patches. There were black-and-white photos of Troop 746, the kids' hair long and stringy in the '70s style. A plane ticket said "Destination: Albuquerque."

The more they talked, the more they realized how often Ehmann had mentioned that thing about the Eagle Scouts. "He never griped or said a bad word about Scouting," Sarah says. "It was just, 'Gee, I earned that; I didn't get it, though.' "

Then it hit Rachel: Why not contact the Boy Scouts, tell them the story, and get him named an honorary Eagle as a surprise? They didn't realize what tenderfeet they were.

No such thing

About 110 million boys have registered as Boy Scouts in 98 years, according to Legacy of Honor, a 2007 book by Alvin Townley. Fewer than 2 percent have made Eagle. The 20-plus merit badges, 16 months of troop leadership positions and dozens of hours in service projects weed out the half-hearted. The Ehmann women knew that, or thought they did. In February, they called national headquarters in Irving, Texas.

"There's no such thing as an honorary Eagle Scout," they were told. "You're an Eagle or you're not. But send us what you have." The twins scanned their dad's patches, tossed in some pictures, and sent it all in.

It wasn't enough. National sent them an Eagle application. They told the Ehmanns to contact Jonathan Brown, district director of the Baltimore Area Council.

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