One hundred years ago on Aug. 1, Arthur Eldred, a 17-year-old Boy Scout from Long Island, became the first person to earn the Eagle Scout rank. Eldred, tall, quiet and with a shock of dark hair, had joined scouting largely at the behest of his widowed mother, who hoped it would give some structure to his life. Yet as Eagle Scouts would continue to do throughout the next century, Eldred caught the scouting world by surprise. He was the first of an extraordinary new cohort of young men who were to prove very different from the classic 13-year-old Boy Scout in short pants.
Eldred's initial accomplishment was to complete the requirements for the rank of Eagle Scout only six months after that supreme award in American scouting was announced in April 1912. The leaders of the Boy Scouts of America (BSA), assuming it would take several years for any boy to earn the required 21 merit badges, hadn't yet devised a final review system for Eagle candidates; they hadn't even settled on a design for the medal.
Unsure how to proceed after Eldred qualified for all the badges, the BSA ordered him to come down to its headquarters in Manhattan and put him through what had to be the most intimidating board of review in scouting history — led by the BSA's founders themselves. Eldred apparently passed with ease. And then, as an indication of what kind of remarkable person scouting would now have, while awaiting his award that summer Eldred saved two of his fellow Scouts from drowning.
Out of the more than 115 million boys who have passed through the Boy Scouts of America in the last 102 years, approximately 2 million have become Eagle Scouts, a 2 percent rate that has climbed to about 4 percent of all scouts in recent years. Some may have excelled in outdoor challenges and troop leadership, or while earning merit badges for oceanography and entrepreneurship. Yet all have been changed by the experience of what has been come to be called "the Ph.D. of Boyhood." And these Eagles in turn have changed the face of American culture in ways both obvious and unexpected.