Donald Rumsfeld, Distinguished Eagle Scout and former secretary of defense, dies at 88

Donald H. Rumsfeld spoke with Scouts during the BSA’s national meeting in 2006. (U.S. Navy photo)

Donald Rumsfeld, the Distinguished Eagle Scout and former Philmont trail guide who served two terms as secretary of defense — including under fellow Eagle Scout Gerald R. Ford — died on June 29 at his home in Taos, N.M. He was 88.

Rumsfeld is the only person to have served two nonconsecutive terms as defense secretary. He occupied that post from 1975 to 1977 under Ford (to date our only Eagle Scout president) and from 2001 to 2006 under George W. Bush. He was both the youngest (43) and oldest (74) person to be defense secretary in our nation’s history.

In 2006, Rumsfeld received the Silver Buffalo Award at the BSA’s National Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C. The award, which is the highest honor the BSA can present to volunteers, recognizes service to Scouting and the country on a national level.

In his remarks accepting the award, Rumsfeld said that Scouting “prepares young people to make correct choices. In choosing to put on the Scout uniform, young people indicate that they value honor and duty to God and country, [and] they willingly accept their duty to help other people at all times.”

 

‘One of the best decisions I’ve made’

Donald Henry Rumsfeld was born on July 9, 1932, in Chicago.

His father, George, was a real estate salesman, and his mother, Jeanette, a stay-at-home mom. The two instilled in him a commitment to hard work and a love of reading — traits that Rumsfeld carried with him throughout his life.

Rumsfeld’s parents also signed him up for the youth-serving organization that would transform his life.

“I joined the Cub Scouts when I was 7 and enjoyed excursions to hike, fish and canoe,” Rumsfeld wrote in his 2012 memoir Known and Unknown.

Rumsfeld remained in Scouting even after his father enlisted in the Navy and moved the family all over the country. Rumsfeld proudly wore the Scout uniform while living in Illinois, North Carolina, Washington state and California.

In World War II, Rumsfeld’s father served on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific. Back home, Rumsfeld, then a 12-year-old Boy Scout, sent his dad a letter with a major announcement: He was planning to drop out of Scouting.

“My dad sent a note back, saying, ‘That’s fine. Use your own judgment,’” Rumsfeld told the crowd at the BSA national meeting in 2006. “‘After all,’ he said, ‘quitting is easy.’ He said, ‘you can quit one thing, and then you can quit another, and then pretty soon you’re a quitter. So you will have defined yourself not by what you’ve done, what you accomplish in life, but your decisions not to finish what you start.’”

Even at 12, Rumsfeld heard the message loud and clear.

“And I stayed in Scouting,” he says. “And it was one of the best decisions I’ve made.”

During his Scouting career, Rumsfeld was a Cub Scout, Boy Scout and Explorer Scout. He was a camp counselor for the Northeast Illinois Council’s Ma-Ka-Ja-Wan Scout Reservation before becoming an Eagle Scout in 1949. (He was named a Distinguished Eagle Scout in 1976.)

After high school, Rumsfeld, a gifted student and accomplished wrestler, attended Princeton on academic and ROTC scholarships.

Joyce and Donald Rumsfeld at Philmont in 2020. (Photo courtesy of Roger B. Hoyt)

‘A special experience’

While Rumsfeld was still a Scout, his passion for Scouting adventures and the great outdoors took him to a magical place where those two forces meet: Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico. He took a position leading crews of Scouts into the backcountry as a guide — the role later known as “ranger.”

“What a special experience that was for a young boy from Chicago, I must say,” Rumsfeld said.

Rumsfeld fell in love with the Land of Enchantment and returned there throughout his life.

When he left his post as defense secretary in 2006, Rumsfeld and his wife, Joyce, retired to their ranch near Taos — about an hour from Philmont.

In August 2020, Rumsfeld and his wife returned to Philmont’s base camp to visit the facility and tour the National Scouting Museum.

While there, Joyce Rumsfeld told staffers that she remembers receiving postcards from her then-boyfriend Donald during the summer of 1948 while he was on staff at Philmont.

The couple shared how Donald Rumsfeld’s memories of the Sangre de Cristo mountains led him to want to retire there.

Among the Philmont staffers who heard these stories was Roger Hoyt, Philmont’s general manager.

“It was an honor to host their quick visit and to thank him and his wife for their service to our country,” Hoyt said in 2020. “I am always delighted to see the Philmont alumni who drop in to fondly remember their time here and share what Philmont means to them.”

Supportive Scouters

Leading any group of people, whether an executive department or a Scout troop, is a team effort. No person can do it alone.

Rumsfeld knew that behind his successful Scouting career were countless adult volunteers who supported that unforgettable journey.

At the BSA national meeting in 2006, Rumsfeld praised these unsung heroes of Scouting.

“Scouting could not exist without countless hours that are invested by the people in this room and your associates all across the country — as mentors, as leaders, as role models,” he said. “And although the impact may seldom be immediately obvious, the value of your service is seen over many, many years in ways that you’ll never even notice.”

About Bryan Wendell 3157 Articles
Bryan Wendell, an Eagle Scout, is the founder of Bryan on Scouting and a contributing writer.