Jay Blackburn of Shelbyville, Tenn., was elected vice president of the 2017 American Legion Boys Nation program. He spoke with The American Legion about his experience at Tennessee Boys State and Boys Nation on Oct. 30 at Middle Tennessee State University, where he’s majoring in business with a minor in political science. The conversation has been edited for clarity.
Q: How did you first hear about American Legion Boys State?
A: The way I first heard about American Legion Boys State was through my guidance counselor. It was junior year, towards the end of junior year, and I actually had never heard of American Legion outside of our post American Legion baseball team. And he came to me and about five other guys, ‘Hey, you guys are top-tier, we’re going to send you off as delegates to American Legion Boys State.’ I was originally the fifth out of five to go, and luckily the top four above me decided at the last minute they didn’t want to go, so me and this other guy were the only kids to go, and we shouldn’t have even been there. It’s kind of a crazy story I even got to go in the first place.
Q: I guess I have to ask the follow-up question: Why should you not have been there?
A: There were definitely guys ahead of me that should have been there. For instance, the guy who finished second in our class, he’s at Harvard right now studying biomolecular engineering or something like that. Model student, great guy, straight 100s in all his classes. I was just doing good if I was making As. And I played sports, which made a little bit of a difference.
I don’t think I didn’t deserve to go, but I just think there were also guys who were more qualified that should have gone.
Q: The fact that you’re not top two or whatever in your class, someone sees this (interview) and thinks, 'Well, I’m not qualified,' how then do you sell them (on going to the program)?
A: I played sports my whole life, and I’m not a very large person, but football was my favorite sport to play. My whole life it’s been about adapting to the situation and figuring out ways to do the same thing that somebody else who’s more suited to the position could do much easier. I was always a good student, and had a good relationship with most of my teachers, but it’s all really just come down to passion. Once I got there, we learned a lot about our local and state government, and it was just something inside of me sparked, like this is something I’m really passionate about and I really cared for it. So I ran for our city’s court, and actually was elected, and after that was elected to the Supreme Court of our Boys State. After that, they took a delegate from each of the cities as well as the governor from Boys State, and they did an interview. During the interview, all the heart and passion that I had been putting together that whole week, American politics is something I really care about and I could see myself doing in the future, it just came out in that interview and I was able to snag the first delegate position to go to Boys Nation.
Q: What made you want to go to Boys Nation?
A: My dad was an alternate to go to Boys State, that was back in ’88. He had never talked to me about it before until I came home one day and told him, ‘Hey, I’m an alternate to go to Boys State this year. Do you know what that is?’ And he started talking about this guy who went, stuff like that, and he was real bummed out that he didn’t get to go, and he told me from Day One, ‘If you get a chance, you need to do this.’ So whenever the guys that were supposed to go in front of me ended up dropping out and I got the chance to go, I took it. I didn’t hesitate.
On the last day there, whenever they have everybody’s families and all the delegates that were at Boys State and they announced the two delegates that were going to go to Boys Nation, he unfortunately wasn’t able to be there because my little sister had some other stuff going on. But I came home that day, and the first thing he asked me was ‘What did you do? How was it?’ Spent the next two days just talking about Boys State, Boys State, Boys State, and then I told him 'I’m a delegate to go to Boys Nation, what do you think I should do?' Because it was (scheduled) the first week of school for my senior year, and I played football and we had our first district game, and there was a whole bunch of stuff going on. Without hesitation, he was just like, ‘You gotta go. You can’t miss out, this is an opportunity that you don’t want to pass up.’ And I didn’t regret it at all. I missed a whole week of practice, almost missed a game, missed the first week of senior year, and honestly wouldn’t have traded it for anything. I made connections and friendships there that no amount of high school could ever replace.
Q: Why did you decide to run for vice president at Boys Nation?
A: My roommate (at Boys Nation) was from West Virginia, and our first night there we all went to this little common area and were introducing ourselves and talking to each other, 'this is what I like to do for fun, I’m from Tennessee but I don’t get out on a tractor,' breaking the stereotypes and stuff like that. I remember sitting in my dorm room that first night and my roommate was talking about how he wanted to run for party chairman for our party. I was like, ‘That’s great, that’s awesome, I’ll back you the whole way.’ But I had no intentions of doing anything, because just sitting there talking to everybody that was there, they’re so qualified and they know so much about politics and the issues facing America right now. It came back to that whole, I don’t think I’m as qualified, I do enough to be here but I definitely shouldn’t be on top. And he sat there and said, ‘You need to run for something.’
I don’t necessarily think of myself as a people person. Like, I’m a friendly guy; if you come talk to me I’ll talk to you back. But he told me, ‘You’ve just got something about you that people want to like you.’ I didn’t really think anything about it, but later on in the week when we had the vice presidential nominations, I was still kind of on the fence about it. I called my dad the night before: ‘Hey, I’m thinking about running for vice president.’ And he’s like, ‘Are you sure?’ I was like, ‘I’m not sure if I’m going to run for president or vice president or what I want to do.’ And he said, ‘Well, why don’t you think about it and pray about it,’ and I did, I called him the next morning and said, ‘I think I’m going to run for vice president today.’ And he was like, ‘That’s awesome. Whatever happens, happens. The worst thing that can happen is you don’t win, the best thing that can happen is you do win.’
It was one of those things, if I’m here, I might as well try it because I did have that passion, I did have that burning inside me, I feel like I could make a difference if I’m in that position. I ended up running and won the party nomination out of about four guys, and after that, had the debate between me and this guy named Decker Paulmeier from South Carolina. I went in thinking, there’s no way I’m going to beat this guy. The first question we had during our debate was about the opioid epidemic. I have no idea what I’m going to say about this, and he just started listing off facts and numbers and stuff like that. Somehow, someway I managed to get through the debate, and in our closing speeches, I told everyone, ‘I’m not the most qualified, but I have that burning passion inside of me. The position that I’m running for is not a position that relates back to my beliefs, it relates back to, I’m going to be a representation or an extension of you and your beliefs.’ During the actual election, I ended up voting for Decker Paulmeier, because he was the more qualified candidate in my opinion. But I ended up winning by like five or six votes.
Just had a great time.
Q: You still keep in touch with guys from your Boys Nation class?
A: Absolutely. I keep in touch with everyone that was in my section, the Washington Section, and we talk at least on a daily basis. It’s just interesting to see where everybody’s at. I think in my (thank-you) speech I said something like I can’t wait to see what everybody does with their lives, whether it’s through law or politics or whatever they choose. Here it is a year later, I’m finally starting to see where everybody’s going, so that’s really cool.
Q: You said going through this experience helped influence what you went to college for.
A: Going into my junior year, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I kind of thought I wanted to be a lawyer, I kind of thought I wanted to go into marketing; I was a part of a club called FBLA and we learned a lot about business and stuff like that. So I knew I wanted to be in business but I didn’t know what I wanted to do as far as an actual job once I got out of college. Junior year came around, and I was fortunate enough to go to Boys State, and sitting there the whole week, learning about local government, and being fortunate enough a couple months later to go to Boys Nation, and sitting there and running and being elected vice president, being able to see the parliamentary procedure that goes on and everything that goes into passing a bill and a piece of legislation, it just kind of changed my whole focal point. I still wanted to be business whatever, but I knew I had to be involved in politics in some fashion. So American Legion Boys Nation definitely changed my aspect as far as what I want to do with my life. … After I left there, I’m still not 100 percent sure what I want to do, but it’s got to be in politics. I don’t care if it’s on a local level, or a national level, I need to be involved.
When I was there, I got to meet Sen. Lamar Alexander from Tennessee, and (Sen.) Bob Corker. I was actually able to hash things out with them and talk about their pieces of legislation and their beliefs. It’s just so cool to think, they’re human beings just like I am, and at one point in their life they’re probably sitting just like I am, (thinking) ‘I don’t know what I want to do.’ It definitely changed my viewpoint from ‘I don’t know what I want to do’ to ‘I have to be in politics.’ So once I got to MTSU, my dad told me, ‘Just to be safe, you ought to pick a broader major just so you can get a job no matter what you end up deciding to do with your life.’ I need to do politics, so I’m minoring in political science right now.