Nine alumni from the Boys Nation Class of 1963 visited Marymount University on July 19 to share their thoughts with senators from the 2014 class: Pete Johnson and Michael Simpson of Alabama; Michael Kelly of Colorado; Dave Whitson of Pennsylvania; Mike Fleming of Michigan; Dave Diedrichsen of Nevada; Larry Taunton of Arkansas; Jim Rhodes of Wyoming; and Rich Stratton of Illinois, who was elected Class of ’63 president.
The most famous member of the 1963 class, former President Bill Clinton, was unable to attend because of prior engagements in Asia. But he addressed the 98 senators in a letter that was read to them by Michael Simpson.
In part, Clinton wrote, “To you, the Class of 2014, I hope your time at Boys Nation will be deeply educating and most inspiring. I encourage each of you to use the knowledge you gain this week to better serve your state, your nation, and the world, for truly we are global. Think about the issues that matter most to you, the nation, and the world … and strive to be a champion of change within your community."
Simpson was elected governor of Boys State in Alabama on June 11, 1963. That was the same day that Gov. George Wallace stood in the doorway of the University of Alabama, refusing to segregate the school. The Boys State convention had been moved from the university to Montgomery, Ala., because of the turmoil caused by that event.
Simpson, who ended up working for the U.S. Senate in Washington, D.C., said, “One of you could very well be president a few years from now, or something – and the ‘something’ is, whatever you do, make a difference.”
Michael Kelly mentioned that ABC News produced a Nightline segment in 1998 that featured the Class of 1963’s reunion with President Clinton at the White House in 1993. “You should see it. I think it speaks volumes to what you are experiencing now. We met people – some of them are on the stage with me today – who I still know and have learned from all my life. You’ll make memories here, you’ll make friends here, that will sustain you throughout your lives.”
A “poor guy” from northeastern Pennsylvania, Dave Whitson didn’t know what it was like to be on an airplane until he made the trip to Boys Nation. “I had absolutely no idea the impact this week would have on me 51 years ago," said Whitson, a family physician for more than 40 years. “You are intelligent young men. If you do not participate in your communities, in your government and in your world, then your world will be far less intelligent.”
“If you look to your left and your right,” Mike Fleming told the senators, “one of you may be president. We didn’t know it at the time, and I don’t think Bill Clinton knew it at the time.” A Marine Corps combat veteran in the Vietnam War, Fleming said, “You never know where life is going to take you, but these experiences will be foundational for you as you approach these next phases of your life. You’ll never forget it – we’ve never forgotten it.”
When he first arrived to Boys Nation in 1963, Dave Diedrichsen remembered thinking to himself that maybe he didn’t belong there, “but on the second or third day, you realize that you do belong here. At the end of the week, you probably will see some people who are noticeably head and shoulders above the rest. But right now, you will hopefully realize that you are an important part, that you can discuss issues, avoid polarization and carry on. I trust that this week will be as life-changing for you as it has been for all of us.”
Bill Clinton’s fellow senator from Arkansas, Larry Taunton, reminded the audience that 1963 was a tense year in U.S. history. “Civil rights was a large concern," he said. "The Soviet threat was real, palpable. You must understand that we were less than a year away from the Cuban Missile Crisis and there was genuine fear.” But at Boys Nation, there was an atmosphere of candor, not suspicion, in discussions of such issues. “Truth prevailed at this point. You could talk to people from the North and the South.”
Taunton said the country was still largely provincial in the 1960s, and that advances in electronic communications and the ease of air travel had changed things. “Bill (Clinton’s) and my first airplane ride was on the flight from Little Rock. We’d never been on an airplane before. We were not people with means. My father was a plumbing contractor, Bill’s mom was an anesthetist in Hot Springs.”
Telling the senators he was “immensely proud” of them, Taunton said he was “profoundly grateful to The American Legion for enabling us – for Bill and me – to come up here in that year.”
Living in Tokyo, Japan, for the past 27 years, Jim Rhodes said his trip to Washington was “a real shocker” for a high school student then living in rural Wyoming. “The lessons I learned here from the Legionnaires and others who taught us here really affected my life.”
An Army veteran, Rhodes served as an infantry officer in the Vietnam War. He said he “couldn’t have survived” there without the leadership training he had received at Boys Nation.
“I was a lieutenant trying to lead a group of disgruntled people who didn’t want to be in Vietnam in 1970, when we already knew we were pulling out,” Rhodes said. “It was difficult. But we did it, thanks to motivational teachers like I experienced here at Boys Nation.”
Rhodes is now the first foreign vice president of a Japanese national university, and he has traveled throughout Asia, Africa and the Middle East, looking for future leaders “and applying the lessons I learned here, by seeing how the Legion did it.”
Boys Nation president in 1963, Rich Stratton was from a small high school in northeastern Illinois. “Our class is something of a magical group, and I hope that you will one day be the same. We’re magical, in part, because the first Boys Nation began in 1946, right after World War II. That’s the year most of us were born. So Boys Nation is 68 years old and so are we, although we still think of ourselves as very young."
Recalling the time when he and his fellow alumni met President John F. Kennedy, Stratton said what JFK told them that day in the Rose Garden “really did change our lives. He asked us to go home and get involved. Don’t just sit there and read the newspaper, but be a part of the action.
“I would echo that wonderful advice to all of you,” Stratton said. “All of us can be involved, and all of us need to be involved. All of you can go home to your communities, to your high schools, and you can do a lot, and you will do more and more as the years go by.”