WV Boys State: 'They're pretty good at it'

For exactly 80 years, the Department of West Virginia American Legion’s Mountaineer Boys State program has provided leadership training and an insight into the political process for more than 30,000 young men.

But for Noah Zachwieja, the program has meant a bit more. His father, Mark, was elected Boys State governor in 1980, volunteered at Boys State for more than 30 years and was the Boys Nation staff photographer for seven years, while his older brother Todd served as speaker and was selected to go to Boys Nation in 2007.

“I’ve been coming up (to Mountaineer Boys State) every year, except the past four years, since I was in diapers,” said Zachwieja, who will be a senior at Charleston Catholic High School. “I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the program. My father met my mother at the pool here; she was the lifeguard. That’s how they met, and what I kind of owe my life to.

“Since I was a young kid, this is something I’ve always wanted to do. It’s a really important program for our state. It gets a lot of different kids involved in a lot of different areas. The experiences that people are going to take away this week are going to be some of the best of their lives.”

Located for all 80 years on historic Jackson’s Mill State 4-H Campground – the boyhood home of Gen. Stonewall Jackson and now on the National Register of Historic Places – Mountaineer Boys State is the second-oldest Boys State program in the nation. Ben Merzouk, a 2017 attendee, said he can see the results of decades of conducting the program.

“Obviously they’re pretty good at it, being around for 80 years,” Merzouk said. “I’d say it’s very developed because of that. They know how this is going to work. They understand how we’re going to emotionally deal with this, how we’re physically going to be.

“They’re always prepared. (Staff) tells us things beforehand, and we’re like, ‘nah, it’s not going to happen.’ Then it does, but you’re prepared for it because they’ve already told you about it.”

For 15 years, Legionnaire Jim Davis has volunteered at Mountaineer Boys State and has spent the past five as director. A member of Post 46 in Benwood, Davis said it’s the young men who go through the program, and those who assist him, that keep him coming back year after year.

“Once you … deal with the 300, 400, 500 of the best boys in the state … how much they enjoy it and what they end up giving back to the program once they leave is what got me hooked on it,” Davis said. “Just last week, we got an email from a boy that attended last year. He said he didn’t know what he wanted to do when he came to Boys State … when he got there, by Wednesday he was ready to decide he was going to go to a military academy. Now he’s being enrolled in a military academy. That’s the type of student you end up having.”

Technology Coordinator Jacob McCarty, a member of Martinsburg Post 14’s Sons of The American Legion Squadron and a 1999 Boys State graduate, thought so much of the program – and those who run it – that he’s volunteered with it for 18 years.

“I’m a member of the (SAL) under my grandfather, who served in the Korean War,” McCarty said. “He passed away when I was 10 years old, so I didn’t get to build that relationship with him. This program is what lets me have that relationship with my grandfather. Every year, it keeps that alive. That’s the key thing that keeps bringing me back.”

McCarty has served in various capacities with the program and now is the technology coordinator. He’s helped oversee developing a strong Web presence and live-streaming of some of the program’s events.

“Our goal is to get what the kids attending the program want to see changed in the state out in our public’s hands,” McCarty said. “Right now, (the state) is in a special session to try to pass a budget. Why shouldn’t our (Boys State participants) help influence what’s going on in the budget process in the real state of West Virginia? I just try to provide the tools and the ability to get that information to the public.”

Assistant Director Dave “Robbie” Robinson, also in his 15th year, had no idea what to expect when he began volunteering at Boys State in 2003. His impression after his first session? “It’s something that is needed,” he said. “It’s something I enjoy: passing on experiences … to the boys.

“It’s a great program. In this day and age, I think we need people to guide our youth to a better way. I think this is one of the avenues to do so.”

Robinson said he enjoys when he encounters a Boys State alum outside of the program. “It always makes you really proud that you were part of it when you have a kid who comes back and says, ‘You know, I never heard of that until I went to Boys State, and I’ve used that ever since I was at Boys State,'” said Robinson, a dual Legion-SAL member of Post 14. “It’s amazing to see that. From here, we’ve had people go on to be congressmen, heads of business … a lot of people don’t know that (NBA Hall of Famer) Jerry West was a graduate of here and went to this same place.”

Mountaineer Boys State’s reputation is why students attend. Maguire Glass was told by fellow Wheeling Park High School students that Boys State was a great opportunity. “I’m looking to be a leader in whatever I do after high school, so I thought this would be a perfect opportunity to come down and check it all out,” he said. “(My friends) all said the same thing: They joined into it to learn about politics and to look good on their college applications.

“They said going down here it’s more than just about college. It’s more than just looking good on a résumé. They said there were a lot of opportunities to meet new people. It really challenged what they wanted to do. It gave them a wake-up call for how the real world works.”

The diversity is one thing that attracted Maguire to Boys State. “I’m more of a theater kind of guy, so it’s a little selective in the male friends I can make,” he said. “I knew that coming down here would be a good chance for … stepping out of my comfort zone.”

Providing a well-rounded program, speakers this year included West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner, West Virginia University President E. Gordon Gee and U.S Rep. Evan Jenkins. The citizens also learned from experts in banking, law enforcement and media, producing live broadcasts and a daily newspaper. Citizens also participate in sports such as one-pitch softball, volleyball, basketball and Frisbee football.

Mountaineer Boys State Athletics Director Todd Morgan, who went through the program in 1979 and has volunteered for years there – and now is joined by his son, Tyler, another Boys State alum – believes in what the program offers to its participants. “I think it gives integrity to young boys,” he said. “I think it’s a good program that helps them later in life even.”

Maguire said that after just two days he already was surprised by how much goes on at Mountaineer Boys State. He’s also developed an even stronger appreciation for those who make the program possible.

“I am extremely thankful that this is available to me,” he said. Everything we do here seems so important. These are all volunteers, and these are all real veterans and (SAL members). It’s really honorable for them to come out and help 400 kids just learn how to be good leaders and do well … in their futures. I think it’s really incredible that they have this opportunity for us."