Both the LDS Church and its most distinguished Scouter, President Ezra Taft Benson, were saluted in a special fireside Sunday, Feb. 14, in the Tabernacle, commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Church's official association with the Boy Scouts of America.
The gathering was a color 90-minute collage of flags, speakers, music, uniforms . . . and memories of Scouting days gone by. Most of those memories centered around President Benson, whose service to the Boy Scouts spans the organization's entire 75-year history in the Church.President Benson gave an anecdote-filled concluding address at the fireside, conducted by President Gordon B. Hinckley, first counselor in the First Presidency. Other speakers were President Thomas S. Monson, second counselor in the First Presidency; Elder Vaughn J. Featherstone of the First Quorum of the Seventy; Dwan J. Young, general primary president; Ben H. Love, chief Scout executive; Charles Pigott, national president of the Boy Scouts of America; and Sean Snow, an Explorer Scout from Sandy, Utah.
The fireside was beamed by satellite to 1,800 stake centers throughout the United States and Canada.
In the fireside's most poignant moment, President Monson introduced members of the Whitney (Idaho) Ward Scout troop of which President Benson was called to be Scoutmaster nearly 70 years ago. The prophet beamed and gestured triumphantly as several members of the troop, now men in their 70s and 80s, stood in the congregation to acknowledge their former Scoutmaster.
President Monson presented President Benson with a plaque on behalf of the people of his small southern Idaho hometown, which read: "WHITNEY – BIRTHPLACE – EZRA TAFT BENSON." Members of the present-day Whitney Ward Scout troop, 17 of whom will receive their eagle award Feb. 26, were also introduced to the man who helped begin their town's Scouting tradition.
President Monson then asked all who were participating in the fireside to stand and give their prophet a "Scout salute." Among those saluting President Benson in the Tabernacle were the chief Scout executive and the national president of the Boy Scouts of America, both of whom represented the organization at the fireside.
President Benson was also presented a "President's Award" plaque from the Boy Scouts of America and a bronze sculpture of a Scout in uniform made by Peter Fillerup of Cody, Wyo. President Monson also made these presentations.
It was a memory-filled evening for President Benson, and his voice occasionally choked with emotion as he recalled highlights of his years as a Scoutmaster in the Whitney Ward.
"This was a great group of young men with a lot of musical talent," President Benson said of the 24 younths he led beginning in 1918. He related how a young men's chorus from his ward, representing a "little community of 50 families," won first place in singing competitions at stake and regional levels.
"At the first Scout meeting following our (regional) victory," President Benson said, "those boys, never forgetting anything, reminded me that, in a moment of anxiety, I had promised them that if they won in Logan, (Utah) I would take them all on a hike over the mountain 35 miles to Bear Lake Valley. Since a promise made is a debt unpaid, we began planning our hike."
Later during that same meeting, one of the 12-year-old Scouts proposed that everyone "clip their hair off" so as not to be bothered everyone "clip their hair off" so as not to be bothered with combs and brushes during the trip. The motion carried – everyone would cut their hair short for the trip.
"Then, true to form, never forgetting anything," President Benson continued, "one of the older Scouts said, `How about the Scoutmasters?'
"The following Saturday . . . two Scoutmasters took their places in the barber chair, while the barber, very gleefully, went over each head with the clippers."
The barber then offered to cut all the boys' hair for free if the two Scout leaders would allow him to shave their heads. "We left on that great 35-mile Scout trip, which I had made a commitment to . . . with 24 boys with heads clipped and two Scoutmasters with heads shaven," President Benson concluded, to rousing laughter from the congregation.
With this sort of devotion and rapport with the young men, it's not surprising that the relationship between President Benson and his Scouts remained strong through the years.
"I am proud of them," President Benson said, his voice again breaking with emotion. "I have made an effort to keep in touch with these boys."
Many years after his stint as Scoutmaster, President Benson returned to visit the Whitney Ward one Sunday. To his joy, one of his former Scouts was the bishop. Others served as a counselor in the bishopric, ward clerk, high councilor, Scoutmaster and gospel doctrine teacher.
He met with his former Scouts after Church, "and we could account for each of the boys but two. No one seemed to know where they were or what they were doing."
President Benson then related how he found those last two "boys" – in southern Arizona and another part of Idaho – and how he saw them return to activity in the Church. Eventually, President Benson was able to seal the men and their families in the temple.
"So far as we know," President Benson said, "these were the last of the 24 to be married in the temple. Some of them have gone now, up above, but we have good reason to suppose each one did a good job in life.
"One of the choicest experiences in my life was to serve in and participate in Scouting. I shall always be grateful to the bishop of that little country ward for inviting me to serve as Scoutmaster."
President Benson concluded with a charge for young men of the Church: "As I have said many times, I would hope that every young man would become an Eagle Scout, and not settle for mediocrity."
This was the tone of President Monson's challenge to Scout leaders – to not settle for mediocrity in service to youth. "It is a far better thing to build boys than to mend men," he reminded leaders.
After re-emphasizing the Church's commitment to Scouting, President Monson commended those involved in "the building of boys," and suggested a "Scouter's Standard" for leaders to live by: "I will learn, I will love, I will serve."
About learning: "Let each of us learn the Scout Oath and live it," President Monson began. "Let us learn the Scout Law and honor it."
About love: "We may never open the gates to cities or the doors of palaces, but we shall have a comfortable feeling in our hearts if we have gained entrance into the heart of a boy."
About service: "Let us serve willingly, and let us serve faithfully, and let us serve prayerfully."
President Monson continued: "I hope there shall never come from the lips of any one of us, `I don't have sufficient time for Scouting, or for boys.' Time is precious, I understand, but boys are priceless. When we serve faithfully, we eliminate the weakness of a boy standing alone, and we substitute the strength of men and women and boys serving and working together.
"The product which we build is larger than ourselves," President Monson continued. "These boys have been created in the image of God and deserve the best we're capable of giving them."
President Monson concluded with a tribute to President Benson: "Service to youth has always been a hallmark of President Benson's life. He has hiked the Scouter's trail. He has reached the pinacles of the highest peaks, and he has taken boys with him."
Elder Featherstone, general president of the Young Men and chairman of the Church's General Scouting Committee, also offered a tribute to President Benson in his remarks.
"His (President Benson's) character and integrity have been tested beyond belief," Elder Featherstone began. "I think President Lee would have described him as a man with about 10 yards of concrete down his backbone. . . . To my knowledge he has never once bowed before any power or force that would have compromised him. What a marvelous, sterling example of greatness in manhood."
President Benson, Elder Featherstone continued, "has put his life's blood into his family, his Church and this great nation. He has championed the youth of the Church and the world."
Sister Young spoke concerning the Primary-aged boys just starting on the road to Eagle – Cub Scouts. "It is important for our boys to begin their Scouting experience when they are young, because at that time they are the most responsive and teachable," she said.
"As these boys repeat aloud the Cub Scout motto, `Do Your Best,' it cannot help but influence them in other areas of their lives," Sister Young continued. "These years are crucial as they strive to keep their baptismal covenant and prepare to receive the Aaronic Priesthood."
Seventeen-year-old Snow, one of those holders of the Aaronic Priesthood, expressed his feelings about Scouting in brief remarks. "I know that the Aaronic Priesthood programs, including Scouting, are helping me beter prepare for the great days that lie ahead."
Concerning his Church and Scouting experiences, Snow, of the Union 15th Ward, Sandy Utah Willow Creek Stake, said: "I may not remember everything that is said or done, but I know how I feel as a result of those experiences."
The two national Scouting leaders in attendance, both of whom are not members of the Church, also offered brief remarks at the fireside.
Chief Scout Executive Love commended the Church for its unprecedented 75-year relationship with Scouting, pointing out that it now sponsors more units (more than 22,000) than any other religious organization.
Love listed several ways in which the Church and Scouting mutually benefit each other, concluding, "Many of your bishops, stake presidents and higher authorities had their first experience in leadership when they were called to be a Scout leader."
Pigott, as national president of Boy Scouts of America, is the chief volunteer Scouter in the United States. He is also chief executive officer of PACCAR, a manufacturer of heavy machinery. Pigott also paid tribute to President Benson in his remarks.
"We thank God for your dedicated leadership and pray His richest blessings on you and the great Church which you lead," Pigott said. "May the next 75 years of Scouting produce generations of Scouts who will carry forward the banner of duty to God and country, just as you have."
Colorful flag ceremonies, with more than 100 Scouts from the Great Salt Lake Council participating, opened and closed the fireside. A choir of white-shirted Scouts and leaders from the Hunter Utah Region performed four musical numbers. Opening and closing prayers were offered by two young men – Eagle Scout Shandell Smoot of the Centerville 21st Ward, Centerville Utah North Stake; and 9-year-old Cub Scout David Clegg of the Granite 8th Ward, Sandy Utah Granite South Stake.