During his term as student body president at West Virginia University (WVU) over the past year, Blake Humphrey’s office has included mementoes from his time at American Legion Boys State and Boys Nation.
There’s the plaque he received commemorating his three years as a Boys Nation junior counselor, photos of Past National Commander Charles E. Schmidt and Boys Nation legislative director Mike Bredeck, and others.
“I keep these things in my office because of the fact that they mean so much to me. The program helped transform me not only as a leader but as a person, and grow and develop, and I view that very fondly and as an integral part of my leadership journey that in many ways is only just beginning,” Humphrey said.
The American Legion Boys State program has been developing leaders in all walks of life for over 80 years, since the program’s founding in Illinois in 1935.
“What I think is so extraordinary is that Boys State does a phenomenal job in identifying youth talent for leadership and then really making a difference in how they are able to conduct themselves as leaders,” said Joyce McConnell, provost and vice president for academic affairs at WVU. “And of course, we really embrace the model at WVU of the servant-leader, the leader who is really committed with a sense of purpose to what it is he or she is doing and the people who he or she is representing, and Blake is truly phenomenal at that. He really listens to the students, he brings their concerns to us in a way that is fully effective, and he helps us understand things that we would not understand otherwise as leaders. So I truly see Blake as an exemplar of the servant-leader.”
Corey Farris, the dean of students at WVU and himself a Mountaineer Boys State alum, agreed. “He was always a leader from his first days when he stepped foot (on campus),” Farris said of Humphrey.
The roots of that leadership began to grow when Humphrey was selected to attend West Virginia Mountaineer Boys State in 2013.
“I got a call from one of our guidance counselors at Wheeling Park High School back home, and they said they had a wonderful opportunity for me,” Humphrey said. “And I really, thinking back on it now, I couldn’t have ever imagined that the simple conversation I had there with my counselor about this youth leadership program would have led me to truly a remarkable relationship and experience with The American Legion, and with the Boys State and Boys Nation programs.”
Humphrey called his experience at Mountaineer Boys State “transformational.”
“I was class president, I was involved with various clubs and organizations, and I think that the guidance counselor recognized that I had some leadership experience and wanted to give me the opportunity to attend Boys State,” he said.
The word “opportunity” comes up a lot when Humphrey talks about Boys State and Boys Nation.
“Boys State is an opportunity. And I’ve always said that every day, all of us have an opportunity to wake up every morning and do something great. I don’t think we do something great every day, but we have an opportunity to do something great. And there’s something very special about that, and the opportunity to attend Boys State for young people, to me, is an excellent example of an opportunity that can change your life,” he said.
And the opportunity to represent West Virginia at Boys Nation was another life-changing experience.
“I can remember very vividly the moment that they announced my name, that I was going to Boys Nation, when we were at the cattle barn at Jackson’s Mill for West Virginia Boys State,” Humphrey said. “What I remember about that moment, though, was that I had at that point exhausted myself. You know, Boys State and Boys Nation are exhausting programs and they take a lot out of you, but I’ve always thought with programs like this, the more you give, the more you get back in return.
“But it was an exhausting week, my year at Boys State, and I can remember that we were sitting in this cattle barn without air conditioning in the middle of the summer and they were announcing all the names for Boys Nation senator, and they did the first runner-up, first alternate, second alternate, they finally came to, ‘And the first Boys Nation senator for West Virginia 2013 is Blake Humphrey.’ And I looked around the room, and I thought, ‘Is there another Blake Humphrey here, because that couldn’t be me.’ But it was.”
Humphrey acknowledged some anxiety before he went to Boys Nation in Washington, D.C.
“Flying somewhere by yourself to a place where you know nobody, there’s something exciting about that, that opportunity to just expand and explore and to be a part of something that you can start fresh. But beforehand there’s a lot of anxiety, what am I getting myself into, what is this going to be like. But the moment you step off the plane at the airport and you’re there and you’re in Washington, and I’ve seen this both as a delegate and as a counselor for three years, the moment you step off the plane and you’re in Washington, you’re a part of it and it’s go time,” he said
Humphrey would return to Boys State as a counselor and later to Boys Nation as a junior counselor. But he didn’t get there in the conventional way.
“Most of the time, it’s like any prestigious honor, they call you and tell you that you’ve been selected. Well, I called (Boys Nation director of activities Bob) Turner out of the blue after a recommendation from a friend that Mr. Turner had called to ask if he could be a counselor. My friend said he couldn’t but he said he’d pass my name along. And I called Mr. Turner out of the blue, this must have been February or March, and said, ‘Mr. Turner, I just wanted to call you and let you know if you ever need someone to come back as a Boys Nation counselor that I’d love to do it.’ I remember he said on the phone, ‘Oh, that’s nice, we’ll consider that.’ That was his polite and very gentlemanlike way of saying no thanks.
“But I remember it was Wednesday morning in 2015 at (Mountaineer) Boys State, 7 o’clock, I can remember when I got the call, but I was just getting up, I remember I looked down and I’m getting a call from a Georgia number and I said, ‘Who is this?’ So I answered the call and without hesitation, ‘Blake, this is Bob Turner. Listen, I need you to come back to Boys Nation as a junior counselor.’ I thought to myself, ‘It’s June 10. This program is starting in a month. I need to get my affairs in order and see if I can even make it.’ I told him that I need to call my parents and see, he says, ‘I’ll give you five minutes.’ He really did, and I called my mom, we were ecstatic about the opportunity and of course I took it without hesitation.
“I think that in many ways that changed my life. I did things differently to get to Boys Nation as a junior counselor, but I’m always proud of that story because to me the message for everyone, in life, sometimes you’ve just got to take a chance. Opportunities are always out there, sometimes the opportunities won’t come to you, you have to go to them. Take a chance on things. If you want to do something different, try something different. … If you don’t take those chances, you don’t know if you’re ever going to get them.”