Boys State, Boys Nation transform lives

Boys State, Boys Nation transform lives

Former President Bill Clinton and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker might not agree on many issues, but they share one position that transcends party politics: an admiration for The American Legion’s Boys Nation program.

Walker, who attended Badger Boys State and advanced to Boys Nation in 1985, called the experience “transformational.” His visit to Washington 30 years ago made an impression that remains with him today.

“Seeing those veterans, being at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, being at Arlington, being on the Mall – doing all the different things we did as part of the week of Boys Nation – reinforced to me more than just government and politics, which is obviously part of it, but really the public service,” Walker recently told The American Legion. “Seeing these veterans who were so committed to making sure that patriotism lived on to the next generation was a tremendous inspiration.”

Clinton had a similar experience in 1963. “That week had a profound impact on me,” the 42nd president told the 2013 Boys Nation session.
“I was also deeply inspired to pursue life in public service. Of course, I couldn’t know then what jobs I’d have or when I would be elected or what I would be elected to or whether I would even be elected. I did know that I wanted to spend my life being of service.”

Boys Nation is more than a training ground for future politicians. Other distinguished program alumni include Michael Jordan, Jon Bon Jovi, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Brokaw, Garth Brooks, Neil Armstrong, James Gandolfini, Phil Jackson and Robert Griffin III.

Indeed, the program often described as “a week that shapes a lifetime” has had a remarkable influence on this country since two Illinois Legionnaires established the first Boys State in 1935.

Originally created as a patriotic alternative to the socialism-inspired Young Pioneer Camps of the 1930s, Hayes Kennedy and Harold Card envisioned an environment for young men that would educate them on the importance of our two-party system of government.

That first class of 217 high school boys gathered at the Illinois State Fairgrounds in Springfield to learn how to operate a city, county and state government. They conducted elections and passed laws. In short, they learned the value of good citizenship.

Before long, the program attracted national interest and spread throughout other departments in The American Legion. Today 49 of 50 states operate Boys State programs. The American Legion Auxiliary runs similar Girls State and Girls Nation programs to instill patriotism and leadership in young women. These have a list of impressive graduates, too, including Janet Napolitano, Jane Pauley and Ann Richards.

As national commander, I will have the privilege of meeting the Boys Nation class of 2015 this month. While these young men will no doubt have memorable experiences as they meet members of Congress and tour our nation’s capital, it is not what Boys Nation does for its participants that is most exciting. Rather, it is knowing that we’re part of the forging of the next generation of American leaders.