How Boys State affected me
Boys State was created in 1935 to counteract a project underway in the 1930's called Young Pioneer Camps, which were promoted by the Fascist party to attract high school students. At these camps the Fascist Part would advocate the virtues of the Fascist system and the uselessness of Democracy. Hayes Kennedy, the Americanism Chairman of the Illinois Department of the American Legion, felt that a counter movement had to be started among the ranks of the nation's youth to stress the importance and value of a Democratic form of government and maintain an effort to preserve and perpetuate it. The Illinois Department of the American Legion approved Kenney's project and in the summer of that year, the first Boys State in the nation was held on the grounds of the Illinois State Fair and eventually spread nationwide.
Only juniors in high school are eligible to be citizens of Boys State and leadership, character, scholarship, loyalty and service to their schools and community are prerequisites for acceptance into the program. Some of the nationally known personalities that were delegates are Tom Brokaw, Mike Huckabee, Michael Jordan and Bill Clinton.
Clinton's story is famous because in addition to being a Boys State delegate, he was also elected to attend Boys Nation in 1963 where the photo of him shaking President John F. Kennedy's hand has been printed and published many times in the following years. Clinton says that was the deciding factor in him deciding to devote his life to politics. Kennedy was assassinated six months later in Dallas, Texas. Clinton went on to become Attorney General for the state of Arkansas, Governor and was twice elected President of the United States.
I was selected to attend Boys State a year before Clinton went. At the time, it was being held at an abandoned air force base outside Jacksonville, Arkansas. I was elected the mayor of a fictitious place called Commerce City and was also nominated for Boys Nation, although I didn't win. It was one of the most memorable weeks of my life. After brisk physical exercise in the morning, we spent the rest of the day learning about politics and service from the inside out. Anybody who was anybody in Arkansas politics came and spoke to us and I learned much more about how the system worked in that week than in any history or political science class I later took in college. Arkansas was an overwhelmingly Democrat state back then which was a couple of years before President Lyndon Johnson pushed through the Civil Rights Act that eventually drove almost all of the southern states to the Republican Party.
Attending Boys State focused my interests on politics too and for several years after that, I was intimately involved with it. When I was attending the University of Arkansas, I was the youth campaign director for Dale Alford, a former Congressman who was running for Governor. We lost that election and the agony of defeat stayed with me for a long time. I had worked daily in campaign headquarters with adults who had given up their jobs and practically everything else to help elect Alford Governor and the sense of loss I felt was magnified a hundred times by their loss. I was going back to college but many of them were having to start their lives all over again because of their allegiance to a man and his principles and that act of service has been a part of me ever since.
A few years later in 1979, when I was a professor at St. Mary's College in Dodge City Kansas, I became the western Kansas coordinator for John Carlin, who was making a run to unseat the Republican incumbent. We succeeded in that election and he became the youngest Kansas governor in the 20th century to take office. But once again, it was the commitment of his core supporters that made the biggest impression on me.
But those days are long gone and we may never see them again. As you know by reading this column, I've become sick of debating politics in the public arena because it has turned so vicious and personal. It's almost impossible to have a constructive debate anymore because of the name-calling and the vilification of candidates done by others. I'm still fiercely political but these days I try my hardest to keep my politics to myself.
But I'll always fondly remember my days at Boys State that continue to serve as a reminder of the way things used to be in a kinder, gentler world.