"A week that shapes a lifetime" are the simple, yet powerful, words that illustrate the significant value of The American Legion Boys State program. For the past 75 years, these six words have positively affected the lives of more than a million high school boys, including famous alumni Tom Brokaw, Bill Clinton, Neil Armstrong, Michael Jordan and many more.
The history of Boys State is deeply reflected upon this June as the summer month marks the program's 75th anniversary of its founding by two Legionnaires from the Midwest.
During the 1930s, socialism-inspired Young Pioneer Camps taught high school boys that democracy should be replaced by Communism. However, two Illinois Legionnaires, Hayes Kennedy and Harold Card, found it imperative to counter the teachings in effort to stress the importance of America's two-party system of government. To make their opposition clear, Hayes and Card established Boys State, a program that gives young men a participatory view of a democratic government and builds appreciation for the rights of citizens.
The first Boys State convened at the Springfield, Illinois State Fairgrounds in June 1935 with 217 high school boys in attendance. Card and Kennedy's format for the program entitled the students to become a leader in the operation of their local, county and state government - an idea that was shaped from a method that Card, who at the time was the Illinois Department Boy Scout chairman, created during a Boy Scout camp. As a result of being short on staff, Card authorized the Scouts to govern themselves, hold an election and elect a mayor and a city council. In the end, he discovered that the boys were enthusiastic about taking ownership of the elections and enhancing their leadership skills.
Thus, with a set format and the structure of America's government system in mind, the 217 young men were assigned to one of two political parties - Nationalists or Federalists - that by no means reflected the major political parties in American government then and still today. Once the boys formed the two political parties, they held party caucuses and selected candidates for state governor, legislature and county and municipal offices. Afterward, they passed laws for governing the state, which completed the first Boys State program - a program that sparked an interest from The American Legion National Headquarters.
In July 1935, the Legion became aware of Boys State during an Americanism meeting in Ohio and immediately adopted the program from The American Legion Department of Illinois. Today, Boys State participants follow the same format that was established in 1935, as well as partake in various other activities such as legislative sessions, court proceedings, law-enforcement presentations, assemblies and recreational activities. Moreover, each student is afforded the opportunity to enhance their public speaking and leadership skills, as well as acquire knowledge on all phases of creating and running a working government.
To be considered for the program, each young man must illustrate specific qualities such as leadership, loyalty, and community and school service, and he must have completed his high school junior year. Local Legion post are the ones who select a candidate to attend Boys State, which currently exists in all Legion departments (except Hawaii) as the program's popularity expanded quickly over the years - from 18 states in 1938 to 49 states today. And due to its popularity, The American Legion Auxiliary now sponsors a Girls State program which adheres to a similar format as Boys State with one major difference. At the end of Boys State's week-long program, two of the top delegates from each state attends Boys Nation in Washington, D.C. During Boys Nation, the delegates represent their state while receiving skilled information on the structure and function of the federal government.
Overall, the young men who attend Boys State are granted the chance to experience a week that will shape their life forever.
"I truly valued the lessons and experiences that I gathered from Boys State," said Jonathan Shih, a second lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps and a 2004 Boys State participant sponsored by Legion Post 339 of Ventura, Calif. "Boys State gave me the tools necessary to take on the challenging feats that awaited me later in my career as an officer and a servicemember."
For more information regarding Boys State, click here.