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Warren G. Harding
US President Warren G. Harding (1865 - 1923) receives a group of Eagle Boy Scouts at the White House, Washington, D.C., March 16, 1921.  FPG / Getty Images

How Eagle Scouts Have Made Their Mark on America

Sep 02, 2015

Arthur Eldred might have been a Wolf Scout if leaders of the Boy Scouts of America hadn’t changed their minds about the youth program’s top merit badge. They turned the wolf into an eagle, which seemed more American, according to Scouting magazine, and on this day, Sept. 2, in 1912, 17-year-old Eldred became the nation’s first Eagle Scout.

The Long Island teen demonstrated a wide range of talents, specializing in “handicraft, poultry farming, painting, horsemanship, dairying, bicycling, cooking, chemistry, electricity, gardening, pathfinding, and swimming,” according to the 1912 announcement in the New York Times.

“His left coat sleeve is so covered with medals that there is scarcely room for another one,” the Times noted. “He is, the judges decided, a 100 percent scout.”

The Boy Scouts of America is itself a 100 percent American institution, incorporated in 1916 via Congressional charter, as are a handful of other “patriotic and national organizations,” including the American Legion, Future Farmers of America, Little League Baseball and the Girl Scouts.

And although, 50 years after its founding, TIME noted that “contemporary cynics” regarded scouts as “a rustic army of bug-eyed idealists,” some of those idealists have gone on to make history — especially from among the elite group, who, like Eldred, earned the 21 merit badges required to achieve scouting’s top honor.

Other notable Eagle Scouts have included:

  • The most successful Eagle Scout (by net worth): Sam Walton, founder of Wal-Mart, according to Business Insider’s calculations. Although the list names Bill Gates as America’s most successful former Boy Scout, it notes that he topped out at the rank of Life Scout, just below Eagle. Gates has acknowledged that he didn’t excel at hiking or feats of outdoorsmanship, although he shone at basket weaving and woodcarving. It was his extensive philanthropic work, however, not his basket weaving, which earned him the Boy Scouts’ highest honor, the Silver Buffalo, in 2010.
  • First Eagle Scout to become a U.S. President: Gerald Ford, who earned the Scouter of the Year Award in 1974 — while he was president. JFK was the first Boy Scout — but not Eagle Scout — to hold the nation’s top office; Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were both Scouts, too, but never advanced beyond Cub.
  • First Eagle Scout to found a religion: L. Ron Hubbard, creator of the Church of Scientology, which offers as proof of his remarkability that he was “the nation’s youngest Eagle Scout at the age of 13.” However, that assertion is difficult to fact-check.
  • Oscar-winningest Eagle Scout: Steven Spielberg, who kicked off his filmmaking career in the Boy Scouts. As an 11-year-old scout, according to the Daily Beast, he used his father’s 8 mm movie camera to film a nine-minute Western called “The Last Gunfight.” It earned him a merit badge for photography. (There was no merit badge, apparently, for cinematography.) Spielberg ended a long affiliation with the scouts when he stepped down from their advisory board, according to Business Insider, over the organization’s anti-gay policy.
  • First openly gay Eagle Scout: Pascal Tessier, a Maryland teenager who earned the rank in 2014 after the Boy Scouts voted to allow gay youths — but not adults. He became officially unwelcome later that year, when he turned 18. This April, however, the Boy Scouts’ New York chapter hired him as a summer camp counselor — defying the national organization’s stated rules.

Read a 1937 cover story about the Boy Scouts, here in the TIME archives: Scouts: National Jamboree

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The First Girl Scout: Portraits of Daisy Gordon Lawrence

The First American Girl Scout Daisy Gordon Lawrence in 1948
"The first Girl Scout," Daisy Gordon Lawrence (rear), with a young Scout in 1948.Francis Miller—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
The First American Girl Scout Daisy Gordon Lawrence in 1948
The First American Girl Scout Daisy Gordon Lawrence in 1948
The First American Girl Scout Daisy Gordon Lawrence in 1948
The First American Girl Scout Daisy Gordon Lawrence in 1948
The First American Girl Scout Daisy Gordon Lawrence in 1948
The First American Girl Scout Daisy Gordon Lawrence in 1948
The First American Girl Scout Daisy Gordon Lawrence in 1948
The First American Girl Scout Daisy Gordon Lawrence in 1948
The First American Girl Scout Daisy Gordon Lawrence in 1948
The First American Girl Scout Daisy Gordon Lawrence in 1948
The First American Girl Scout Daisy Gordon Lawrence in 1948
The First American Girl Scout Daisy Gordon Lawrence in 1948
The First American Girl Scout Daisy Gordon Lawrence in 1948
"The first Girl Scout," Daisy Gordon Lawrence (rear), with a young Scout in 1948.
Francis Miller—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
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