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Life Lessons From 48 Years as a Scoutmaster

Bill Shaffer has learned far more than just teaching knot-tying


When Bill Shaffer returned to Tulsa from military school in 1969, his pastor asked him to take over as Scoutmaster of his old Boy Scout troop. “Sure,” he thought. “I can do anything for a couple of years.” Forty-eight years later, at 72, he’s still leading Troop 26, sometimes working with the grandsons of his early Boy Scouts.

Along the way, Shaffer has learned far more than how to teach Scouts knot-tying and fire-building. He has also picked up knowledge of how to grow old in a volunteer role without growing stale and how to relate to a generation that many older Americans find incomprehensible.

Working With 3 Generations of Boy Scouts

Over the decades, Shaffer has worked with Scouts from three generations: boomers, Millennials and now Generation Z. But scratch the surface, he says, and kids today are the same as kids a half-century ago. “They just want to play and have a good time,” Shaffer says. “They want to see the sky and the water and feel the rain on their face.”

In fact, he believes programs like Scouting offer young people a respite from increasingly competitive sports and academic activities where they are often being timed, scored and judged.

Shaffer says he doesn’t really feel old these days and credits Scouting for that. 'I think the contact with kids keeps you young,' he says.

“There’s a time and a place for competition, and in Scouting, too, we have competitive stuff. But for the most part, we just want kids to have a great time in the outdoors,” Shaffer says. “That hasn’t changed from the way it was when I was in the troop.”

How Kids Haven’t Changed

Despite today’s throwaway culture, where trends and technology seem to change daily, Shaffer thinks kids crave tradition. For example, at awards ceremonies, Troop 26 sets up a troop museum filled with photos and artifacts dating back to the 1950s. “When kids see their dads as 10-year-olds and their granddads doing the same things they’re doing now, they have a tendency to feel that they’re a part of something bigger than themselves,” he says.

Kids today also crave authenticity, Shaffer says. They respond better to adults who are real, rather than ones trying to be young and hip. “They see right through people who are trying to pretend to be something they’re not,” he says.

Ultimately, Shaffer says, kids are still looking for consistency in programs like Scouting — a home base for the turbulent teenage years. “When they’re not good enough to play football and they’re not good enough to be first-chair clarinet, that’s when we want to be there for them,” he says. “We want them to have that solid activity when other things start to fail them.”

From 12 Boy Scouts to 175

When Shaffer took over as Scoutmaster, he had 12 Scouts, a couple of other leaders assisting him and little in the way of uniforms and equipment. The young prospects weren’t impressed, so Shaffer felt compelled to fix everything at once. Fortunately, his predecessor stayed around to help. “He was a really big part of telling me that things needed to go in stages, says Shaffer.

But Shaffer didn’t go it alone. “When I took my very first training course to be an adult leader, the guy that taught it had us all get out a piece of paper,” Shaffer says. “He said: ‘Write down everything that you would like to do for your troop.’ We did that. Then he said: ‘Look at the list you have and circle the things that you can’t do. That’s where you get your assistants.’”

Shaffer took that advice, which helped him gradually grow the troop to about 175 Scouts and 90 adult leaders today. Most of his adult leaders have completed — or taught — advanced leader training, and many have received awards for their service.

Another leadership lesson Shaffer has learned as Scoutmaster that he’s happy to offer: “When you share responsibilities with other people and make them part of your team, it makes your program stronger,” he says. “The more people I have, the easier it makes my role. I can concentrate on the things I like to do, which is to work with my senior patrol leader (the troop’s top youth leader) and his staff.”

How Volunteering Keeps Him Young

Shaffer says he doesn’t really feel old these days and credits Scouting for that. “I think the contact with kids keeps you young. It just does, because you’re more tuned in to what’s going on daily,” he says. (You can also find other ways to volunteer with kids through the Encore.org Generation to Generation initiative which matches up people over 50 with young Americans who could benefit by having mentors and guidance.)

On a recent Friday, Shaffer got sent home early from work at his job at a technical staffing firm, in part because it was his birthday and in part because his phone kept going off. “Before I left work, I got about 150 dings on my phone from people wanting to wish me a happy birthday; 96 or 97 percent of them were former Scouts who were checking in,” he says.

Birthday messages like those are just one benefit of being involved as a volunteer for so long.

When you’ve been part of Scouting for decades, Shaffer says, “you see the impact that you’ve had on lives — and not just the life of the one kid who joined your troop, but the life of his family, the life of the family he builds and the lives of the sons he brings back to the troop when they turn 10-years-old. It’s crazy. It’s really crazy. But it sure is a lot of fun.”

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By Mark Ray
Mark Ray is a freelance writer who has written for Scouting, Eagles’ Call, Presbyterians Today, Kentucky Homes & Gardens and other publications. He has also written, edited and/or contributed to a dozen books for the Boy Scouts and the Presbyterian and United Methodist churches.

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