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Remembering John F. Kennedy, the first president to have been a Boy Scout

When he was 12 years old, John F. Kennedy asked for a raise.

The year was 1929, and Kennedy was a new member of Troop 2 in Bronxville, N.Y. Now that he had reached Scout age, Kennedy reasoned, it was time for his allowance to match his new Boy Scout-level maturity.

With that in mind, he penned this letter to his father:

My recent allowance is 40 cents. This I used for aeroplanes and other playthings of childhood, but now I am a Scout and I put away my childish things. Before I would spend 20 cents of my 40 cents allowance, and in five minutes I would have empty pockets and nothing to gain and 20 cents to lose.

When I am a Scout I have to buy canteens, haversacks, blankets, searchlights, a poncho — things that will last for years and I can always use while I can’t use chocolate marshmallow sundae ice cream, and so I put in my plea for a raise of 30 cents for me to buy Scout things and pay my own way around …

Kennedy dreamed differently throughout his life, and this letter proves that his uniqueness started as a Scout. In fact, he was the first president to have been a Boy Scout. And like all presidents from William Howard Taft to Barack Obama, he served as Honorary President of the Boy Scouts of America.

And so on the 50th anniversary of his death, let’s look back on the life of the man who led our nation and was a strong advocate for Scouting. Find Scouting-related photos, the condolence telegram the BSA sent Jacqueline Kennedy and much more after the jump.

Condolence telegram from BSA to Jacqueline Kennedy

In late 1963, BSA President Ellsworth H. Augustus and Chief Scout Executive Joseph A. Brunton Jr. wrote this telegram to Jacqueline Kennedy:

The hearts of five and a half million Scouts and Scouters are saddened by the tragic death of their nation’s leader and their Honorary President. Throughout his life he carried out the Oath he took as a Boy Scout — on his honor to do his best to do his duty to God and his country. The strength and vigor of his leadership … will always be an inspiration to Scout leaders and boys alike as we strive to build for the future on the heritage for which President Kennedy gave his all.

Kennedy’s remarks to Scouts and Explorers in 1961

JFKWHP-AR6331-CDuring a White House visit by Scouts and Explorers in 1961 (pictured at right), Kennedy shared how Scouts “learn the qualities of perseverance … you come to understand something about nature and something about our country.”

“After years of observation,” he continued, “I really believe that the experience you have … is the best possible training you can have to equip you for later life.”

“What you are doing now will prepare you to play a significant and responsible role in maintaining the freedom of the United States.”

Kennedy praises Scouting in 1962

kennedy-scouting-2A year after those warm words for Scouts at his presidential office, Kennedy told Scouting’s “Family of the Year” that “I strongly believe in Scouting. … It’s a source of great strength to us. I’m very appreciative to all the adults who give leadership.”

And this tremendous line that should be repeated today: “I would recommend [Scouting] to sons and daughters of every American family.”

Scouting magazine’s February 1964 issue

Kennedy-Feb-1964-Scouting-fullThese quotes came from Scouting magazine’s February 1964 issue, the full scan of which you can see here (click to enlarge).

Speaking of, all of Scouting magazine’s back issues are available for you to browse in our digital archives.

More photos of Kennedy and Scouting

JFKWHP-AR6331-A JFKWHP-AR6331-B JFKWHP-AR6331-C JFKWHP-AR7030-A KN-C20116 KN-C20117 JFKWHP-ST-207-2-61 JFKWHP-ST-207-3-61 JFKWHP-ST-207-4-61 JFKWHP-ST-207-5-61 kennedy-scouting-1 kennedy-scouting-2 kennedy-scouting-3 kennedy-scouting-4

Photos from the JFK Library

Final thoughts

On this day of remembrance, I’d love to hear your memories that relate to President Kennedy and his Scouting ties. Please leave a comment below.

24 thoughts on “Remembering John F. Kennedy, the first president to have been a Boy Scout

  1. Kennedy’s death was tragic; however, as history has proven, he was just another man with serious, personal moral problems. From his behavior as an adult, it does not appear that Scouting had much influence on him as a child. Remember, Bryan, a Scout is trustworthy? Bryan, you should aspire to be more that Scouting’s “chief hagiographer.”

    • Most of John Kennedy’s behaviors as an adult were exemplary. The entire world lives, and lives better, for the work he did. As are all humans, he was flawed — but an accurate recounting of history is not hagiography.

      It does us good to remember that 12-year-old boy planning his finances, and thinking ahead to the great advantages membership in the Boy Scouts could bring.

      Kennedy’s great support for outdoor recreation, his outstanding work for conservation, his appreciation for people of other lands and their wish to live normal lives, probably is rooted more in his Scouting experience than anything else.

      I’ve known and known of Eagle Scouts late convicted of felonies. In no case of which I have personal knowledge would I say accurately that Scouting did not improve the man. I know a bunch of other Eagle Scouts who, in my opinion, were saved from being felons by their Scouting. I prefer to seek the light and improve it, rather than dwell on and in the shadows.

  2. If you can get your hands on a copy of the Fit for Tomorrow book, it’s worth having in your library. They’re on eBay for reasonable prices pretty regularly; there’s an abundance b/c National mailed a copy to every unit in the nation. The introduction is a real historical gem, a diatribe on the pitfalls of our increasingly sedentary lifestyles and the influence of video games that could have been written yesterday.
    “Greenbar” Bill Hillcourt wrote a companion piece in Boys’ Life for the launch of the program http://boyslife.org/wayback/#issue=7_Me401WGAwC&pg=34
    (If the talented guy who colorized the photos is reading, the cover image for the book is printed in orange, not b/w).

  3. Very touching. Thanks for writing this up. I will be sharing this with my Scouts. At last night’s Court of Honor, our Scouts did a citizenship-related opening and closing flag ceremony that is along the same vein as this. Also, I learned something new today, not knowing that President Kennedy was the first President to be a Boy Scout.

  4. Bryan – thank you for a very nice reflection on President Kennedy and his relationship to Scouting. And, thank you for the fantastic set of photos! If one is of a certain age, he knows exactly where he was the day President Kennedy was assassinated. I was a Cub Scout at the time. Happy memories of Cubbing are seared in my memory, as is the sadness of the day and across the country fifty years ago today. We were blessed to have had President Kennedy’s support for Scouting and the youth of America.

    • It grows tiresome to hear from the perennial dark side. It does not matter how much good someone does, if they can latch onto the one or a few bad things, they will hold it to detract from the good. No one expects the bad did not exist, but using every opportunity to tear someone down does not really seem to be in the Scout spirit to me. No where in the article does it say he should be Sainted (after all, he was a Catholic and I am sure some will fault him for that). It says he did a lot of good, and that Scouting helped to form the good. It does not focus on his faults as that was not the focus of the article. It also did not focus on what he had for breakfast that morning or even mention the Cuban missile crisis. The article is neither the length nor does it purport to be a biography of the man. It is simply a short article, less than 20 paragraphs, talking about the first Boy Scout to become President, and some of the good he did. No one is asking to forget about his faults, just to give the publicizing of it a break for the length of an article on a Boy Scout website. Maybe, just maybe, someone will see the good without the negative comments, and become a better person. For once, could we just let that happen?

  5. Let’s remember what we are talking about here before some of you release your ugly comments. For every positive there is a negative. You can’t have good without evil. None of us is perfect, although it’s fun to say I am. The fact that JFK was a scout and had become president is a great way to say to our scouts that anything is possible. It doesn’t mean that because you are a scout you will be perfect all your life. We all started life pure at heart. Not one of us has remained that way. Some work harder than others to stay as close to pure as possible. That is all we can ask from our scouts is to “do my best” some will succeed and some will stumble. Hopefully scouting will give them the tools to succeed. There is good in all lets try to see that. RIP JFK..

  6. Ken, no one is perfect – unless you have done nothing wrong do not through stones. President Kennedy may not have been a saint but he was better than most who preceded and followed him.

    One of my most treasured possessions was the letter I received from President Kennedy when I made Eagle. Sadly, this letter has disappeared from stuff I stored at my Dad’s house (fear it was sold).

  7. As a 10 year old, I had the unknown priviledge, at the time, to shake his hand. My grandmother an I were in downtown Los Angeles when we heard a commotion outside a store. We went out to investigate, we saw a crowd of people gathered in the street. As weaved my way through the crowd and came out onto the street, this man leaned don from a car and shook my hand, then a young lady, wearing one of those campaign hats puts a ‘JFK’ button on my shirt. At the time I didn’t know who John Kennedy. It wasn’t until the day he was killed that I realized that it was his hand I shook. It was my moment in history. In my collection I still have that button.

    • Great story, Frank! Keep that button.

      If you watch Antiques Roadshow, you know you need to write that story out, and keep a copy with the button. Your grandchildren may get a semester of college off of it, and the button.

      Alternatively, the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah has a button collection. You could donate it.

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