The long, winding road of an 80-year-old would-be Eagle Scout


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“What is the greatest disappointment in your life?” Tyrette Cowan asked her husband one day a couple of years ago, even though she already knew the answer.

Tyrette’s husband, Bruce, didn’t hesitate.

“Not getting my Eagle Scout award,” he told her.

For decades, Bruce, now 80, would look at the pictures in the Ruston, La., newspaper of all the young people who earned the rank of Eagle, and though he was certainly happy for them, something about it just didn’t sit right.

“It grates on me every year,” he says. “I’d see one of them, and I’d think, ‘I was so, so close. I don’t know how I missed it.’”

There are lots of folks out there who almost made the rank of Eagle but never finished. Almost all of them will say they regret it.

Bruce’s story, though, is different.

To tell it, we have to start at the beginning, when a young boy not yet old enough to join Boy Scouts jumped from a swing at the height of its path, injuring his elbow, and changing his life forever.

A Kid Being a Kid

In 1948, things were different. When kids got hurt, they got hurt. As long as they could walk and breathe afterward, they were cleared for all future activities.

That’s what happened to Bruce Cowan after he jumped from that swing.

“I landed wrong on my left elbow and dislocated it,” he says.

A doctor set the elbow and declared him good to go.

For a while after, he would experience some tingling and numbness in his left hand — what most people call a part of their body “falling asleep.” But that soon stopped, and there were no other issues.

It certainly didn’t stop Cowan from being an athlete. He eventually joined the middle school football team and, later, played tennis and took up running.

He also signed up for Boy Scouts.

“I said, ‘Well, let’s see what this is going to be like,’” he says.

Photo courtesy of Bruce Cowan

An Early Impression

Bruce remembers going to summer camp early in his time as a member of Troop 45 in Ruston.

“I had two counselors that were Eagle Scouts,” he says, “and they said, ‘You’ve got the opportunity to not only learn a whole lot about camping and other things, but every time you work on a merit badge you’re going to learn a lot about that subject, and then you will qualify for this rank, and you can keep working up.’

“I was looking at those badges and there were some Eagle badges, and I said, ‘That’s what I want to do.’”

For the next few years, Bruce spent most of his afternoons working on merit badges. They had an active troop with dedicated, likeable leaders (“That makes a big difference,” he says), and they went camping often.

“I just thought this was the best thing in the world,” he says.

Photo courtesy of Robin Adams

A Literal Lifesaver

Once, Bruce was with a younger girl from his neighborhood when the girl picked up a box that had been left outside, revealing a gorgeous snake.

The girl — Bruce guesses she was 4 or 5 at the time — was fascinated by the snake’s red, then yellow, then black stripes, in that order. So much so that she bent over to pick it up.

Bruce knew better. It was a coral snake, one of the most venomous snakes in the region.

“When I had just started Scouts, we had somebody that came to our meeting and told us about the poisonous snakes of north Louisiana,” he says, “so I quickly grabbed her and pulled her away.”

Then there was the time Bruce went camping with two other Scouts and no adults (did we mention that things were different back then?). One boy was whittling a homemade tent stake when the knife slipped and severed an artery in his leg.

“My other friend and I had both earned the First Aid merit badge,” Bruce says. “I’m not saying we weren’t scared, because that blood was really shooting out of there, but we knew what to do.”

The boys used a tourniquet to slow the bleeding. Bruce ran about a mile through the woods to civilization, where he told someone what had happened. Then he ran back to his wounded friend, and he and the other boy made a stretcher with a blanket and two poles. They carried the boy out and found a doctor waiting for them.

Photo courtesy of Robin Adams

The Road to Eagle

Back then, there was no Eagle Scout service project.

Bruce became a member of the Order of the Arrow. He served as a den chief. He fulfilled what was at the time, according to the National Eagle Scout Association, all of the requirements to earn the rank of Eagle: “work actively as a leader in his troop’s meetings, outdoor activities, and projects; do his best to help in his home, school, place of worship, and community; and take care of things that belonged to him and respect the property of others.”

He earned all the merit badges he would need. Except for one. Due to that injury from the swing years earlier, Bruce Cowan — the football player, tennis player and avid runner — couldn’t do a pull-up, and therefore couldn’t complete Requirement 9 of the Personal Fitness merit badge:

Demonstrate that you can meet the following physical fitness tests after you have trained for each of them regularly on at least four days a week for four weeks: Push-ups, pull-ups, sit-ups and a vertical wall jump.

Photo courtesy of Jessica Hayes

Dead End?

It turns out that Bruce had done more than dislocated his elbow. He had chipped a bone, and when his arm was in certain positions, the ulnar nerve would slip underneath that loose chip and cause anything from a slight tingling sensation — like when he would lie down on it the wrong way — or intense pain — like when he tried to do a pull-up.

“I tried, but it was just too painful,” he says. “I could do the push-ups and I could do the running and everything, but I couldn’t do pull-ups.”

Later, when Bruce joined the Air Force, they gave him alternative exercises to do in place of pull-ups. His Personal Fitness merit badge counselor was not so forgiving.

“Back then, you didn’t ask for dispensation,” Bruce says. “And I just couldn’t do it. So finally, I said, ‘What am I doing? I can’t get that Eagle award, so I’m just going to get out of Scouts.’”

Photo courtesy of Jessica Hayes

No Hard Feelings

For five decades, Bruce held no ill will toward the Scouting movement, his Scout leaders or that merit badge counselor. He calls the man “tough, tough, tough” but says everyone liked him. He was saddened to hear of his death many years later.

In 1964, Bruce graduated from Louisiana Tech University with a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration. He later twice served as president of the Louisiana Tech Alumni Association and for three years on the school’s foundation board.

He met Tyrette, and the two lived for a few years in the small town of Saint Francisville, La., just outside of Baton Rouge. Bruce even served as Scoutmaster of a troop there before moving back to Ruston to start a family.

Bruce currently works as a financial planner for his own business, Cowan Financial Group.

But still … those photos in the newspaper of those new, smiling Eagle Scouts …

Photo courtesy of Jessica Hayes

A New Hope

Jessica Hayes’ background is not in Scouting but in plants. She’s a landscape designer who met Tyrette Cowan by chance years ago at a local garden center. They got to chatting, and eventually she ended up taking care of the family’s potted plants. About five years ago, she took over maintenance of their entire yard.

The topic of Scouting never came up.

That is, until a few years ago, when Jessica just happened to volunteer to be a den leader for her nephew’s unit, Pack 54 in nearby Farmerville. Jessica was wearing her pack T-shirt while working on the Cowan’s yard, and suddenly the friends had something new to chat about.

Tyrette told Jessica the story of Bruce’s regret that he never earned the rank of Eagle, and Jessica immediately thought, “This doesn’t seem right.”

Hayes did her own research and began to believe that Bruce should have been awarded the rank of Eagle. She turned to her unit’s Cubmaster, who referred her to Pete Thorson, the district executive of the Louisiana Purchase Council’s Thunderbird District. Thorson got in touch with the National Council, and he and Hayes presented their case.

Looking Closer at Advancement

The BSA’s Guide to Advancement is clear on conducting an Eagle Scout board of review after the subject’s 18th birthday.

8.0.3.1 Eagle Scout Board of Review Beyond the 18th Birthday

  1. It is possible for those who completed the requirements for the Eagle Scout rank in their youth, but never received it, to obtain credentials necessary for acquiring it. If a board of review was not held, and the individual met the BSA membership eligibility rules in effect at the time, then a board of review may be requested. In any case, all requirements must have been completed before age 18. … Only when the application is well-documented and compelling shall credentials be released or permission granted for a board of review. Requirements in effect at the time of membership are used, but regardless of the practices of the day, all must have been completed before age 18.

There’s even a Belated Eagle Scout Rank Application for situations just like this.

Photo courtesy of Robin Adams

Modifying Requirements

Luckily, Bruce kept all his merit badge cards and rank cards.

“I’ve worked hard for each one of them,” he says. “I didn’t have any reason to throw them away, so I just kept them.”

He had everything he needed to prove that he completed all the requirements for Eagle at that time, except of course for that frustrating Personal Fitness merit badge.

But the BSA has always been open to kids with differing abilities and ailments.

The 1948 BSA Handbook for Boys notes that the hike requirement for the rank of Second Class can be modified “if a physician certifies that the Scout’s physical condition for an indeterminable time does not permit the Second Class hike.”

Likewise, the same book says the First Class swimming requirement can be substituted for an entirely different activity “in cases where a physician certifies that the Scout’s physical condition for an indeterminable amount of time does not permit swimming.”

The BSA’s modern-day Advancement for Members with Special Needs policy notes: “A Scout with a … disability expected to last more than two years … who is unable to complete all the requirements for Scout, Tenderfoot, Second Class, or First Class rank may, with his or her parent or guardian, and also the unit leader or a member of the troop committee, submit a request to the council advancement committee to complete alternative requirements. … Simple modifications very close to existing requirements need not be approved.”

Bruce, with Jessica Hayes. Photo courtesy of Robin Adams.

Finally!

In short, it was difficult for the BSA to come up with an argument that a Scout who accomplished all that Bruce accomplished — and was clearly physically fit — should be denied the rank of Eagle because he couldn’t do a pull-up due to an injury he suffered as a child.

After a long COVID-related delay, Thorson, Hayes and Tyrette received word that Bruce was going to get the rank of Eagle.

“We were trying to be able to do it as a secret,” Tyrette says, “but it got to the point that there was a paper that he had to fill out.

“I said, ‘What would you say if I said you could get your Eagle Scout?’ And he looked at me a little strangely and he said, ‘I would be the happiest person in the world.’ And I said, ‘Well, fill this paper out.’”

Bruce’s board of review was earlier this spring. His court of honor was just a couple of weeks ago. Finally, the 80-year-old man is an Eagle Scout.

“I couldn’t hardly sleep for two days,” he says. “Next to my kids being born and my wife and I getting married — I’ve got to say that, or I’d be in trouble — it has been one of the best things that I can say happened to me.”

Bruce has no plans to retire anytime soon, partly because he’s his own boss and he can take off work almost anytime he pleases. Later this spring, the Cowans are going to embark on a motor home tour through Fredericksburg, Texas, then up to Santa Fe, N.M., then to the Grand Canyon, on to Yellowstone and finally to Glacier National Park in Montana.

Occasionally, Bruce’s elbow still bothers him. He feels a little jolt if anyone touches it the wrong way or if he puts it down wrong on the arm of his chair.

But that’s OK. The man’s an Eagle Scout. He can handle anything.

Bruce and his wife, Tyrette. Photo courtesy of Robin Adams.
About Aaron Derr 48 Articles
Aaron Derr is the senior editor of Boys' Life and Scouting magazines, a former Cubmaster and current Scouts BSA volunteer.