From the March-April 1987 issue ...
75 Years in the Life of a Magazine
By Keith Monroe
Magazines come and go. They are as diverse as creatures in a zoo. And yet the notable magazines have had something in common. Entrenched in each central office, ceaselessly wooing the Muse, juggling ideas, slashing and choosing, were one or more great visionaries. Few were flamboyant. Most were Grey Eminence types.
Somebody like that was always in the background of the highbrow centenarians like Harper's and Atlantic, the glossiest women's monthlies, the massive national weeklies, and lurid pulp-paper thrillers in their heydeys, the long-lived giants of today like Reader's Digest and the New Yorker. There top people have been legends in the trade.
These shadowy crowd-pleasers were lifelong professionals. Hence it may seem odd that the magazine you're reading at this moment has been produced, for nearly all its 75 years, by amateurs that is, by people who never previously toiled in a magazine office. They were deep-dyed Scouters.
Yet the publishing world hasn't considered Scouting amateurish. By various professional standards (including its current paid circulation of 900,000) the magazine is often ranked among the 30 "most successful" in the United States. It is also, of course, among the oldest. Very few periodicals have attained such an age here or abroad.
Likewise Scouting shares with other notable magazines the rare element mentioned at the onset. Amateurs and come-latelies though they could be called, a succession of key men (and one woman) in its editorial sanctum have been complex, talented, faintly mysterious people.
Perhaps on this estimable birthday occasion, one should take a purple paintbrush and portray the original creators of Scouting as seized with a majestic inspiration in April 1913, when they brought forth this publication as a scraggly off-shoot of the fast-growing three-year-old organization within which they were working long hours for small salaries.
But in truth it began as a biweekly, all-text compendium of announcements and news, issued mainly to save postage, as explained on its front page: "Heretofore we have depended upon special bulletins and circular letters to keep all engaged in this great education movement informed...Expansion of the movement has made this means of communication extremely expensive."
In its humble guise there was no space to list an editor. But all eight pages reflected Chief Scout Executive James E. West. It was all written to his order, or approved by him.
He hinted at bigger roles ahead for the journal. "We want the Scout Masters to get into more harmonious relations with headquarters," the opening editorial said. In June another editorial begged, "Please do not delay expressing yourself frankly." In October the readers were asked, "Does Scouting Serve Its Purpose?" Two columns of varying responses, some censorious, were published later.
At that time there were no local Scout councils, no leaders' manuals. Everywhere troops were starting spontaneously. West sensed that National Headquarters, as it was called then, couldn't be a command post for volunteers. It must be a responsive listening post. Scouting portrayed it as such.
West was a gruff pragmatic genius whose unexpected arrival in the BSA has been chronicled elsewhere. While never confessing lack of skill as a writer or editor, he kept seeking surrogate wordsmiths. In July 1913 he brought in as "editorial director" Walter P. McGuire, a former N.Y. Times reporter.
McGuire brightened Scouting headlines, inserted occasional photos or drawings, but could do little more because West also made him responsible for BSA publicity and Boys' Life. In the latter capacity McGuire was a phenomenal success. He multiplied the magazine's circulation nearly sixfold. So it wasn't surprising that American Boy, then the nation's biggest youth magazine hired him away in 1917.
For a few years Scouting was edited, at least nominally, by various men who stayed only for short stints and are now lost in time. But it came increasingly to be influenced by a remarkable man named Edgar Stanley Martin, who had joined the national staff in 1915 at the age of 42. His title was director of the editorial department, but few people were clear about his functions, for he said little and remained inconspicuous. Often he was out of the office for days at a time.
"He handled the BSA's public relations before we had any," one colleague explained decades later. "His specialty was making confidential contacts in Washington for West. He was part detective, part ambassador."
Martin had taken graduate courses in sociology and education at three universities. He had been a high school principal, then superintendent of playgrounds in Washington D.C., before going to work for the BSA. After he arrived, Scouting occasionally featured laudatory messages signed (and actually hand-edited in some cases, as facsimiles showed) by thunderous names: Theodore Roosevelt, william Howard Taft, Woodrow Wilson, Herbert Hoover, and others. Their praise was among the stimuli that kept the BSA's adult membership growing.
In 1920 Scouting announced a basic change in its own content. "News is not wanted by the field for mere news' sake," it said. Henceforth it would allot most of its space to "the How and Why of Scouting."
That was a big order, as a ground-floor Scouters knew. But Martin was qualified to judge nuts-and-bolts instruction. He had been a Scoutmaster as early as 1911, and in 1913 was cited by President Wilson for leadership of Scouts during the Ohio flood. Even as a national staff member he sometimes went to the grass roots. "At the Blue Ridge conference of Scout executives he was helping a group of ragged mountain boys pass their Tenderfoot tests," wrote West's deputy, George J. Fisher. "At the French Lick conference he was seen teaching village boys how to tie knots."
Martin was officially named editor of Scouting in 1927. By then its detailed bits of advice, often sent in by troop people, had proven so widely useful that a 420-page collection, The How Book of Scouting, was published. Veteran Scouters still thumb the old book for ideas about troop meetings, hike and camp activities, ceremonies, and group psychology.
Late in 1926 an accident broke the leg of Wilhelm Bjerregaard 26, a temporary worker in the BSA warehouse. West would be curmudgeon, but often turned paternal when he heard of underlings in serious difficulty. He told Martin in effect, "Find something for him to do."
This was feasible because Bjerregaard had done much Scouting in Denmark, and written articles there. So Martin asked him to draft an article comparing Danish and American Scouting. The Dane sent in a 31-page essay. It sharply criticized the BSA for many of its ways, but most of all for giving only lip service to the "patrol method." Scouting's monthly program outlines were bad, he implied, because they gave patrol leaders little to do.
Martin showed Bjerregaard's blast to West, who sent copies to six national staff members and three key men on the Executive Board. There were ruffled feathers and hot debates. In April 1927, with West's cautious approval, Martin hired the outspoken immigrant as managing editor of Scouting. The newcomer Americanized his name to Hillcourt, and began drastically changing some of the program advice that Scouting offered. In 1932 he switched to Boys' Life and has been famous ever after as Green Bar Bill.
Martin was Scouting's editor until he died in 1940. During the depression, when a few local councils closed down and others operated from storefront offices, he kept the magazine cheery but still encouraged readers to criticize and ask questions. Sometimes he seemed to trim its sails to prevailing winds, but more often he strove to change the winds.
A memorable tempest arose about the Second Class requirement which called for a Scout to "earn and deposit at least one dollar in a public bank." In the 1930s this was hard, even for millions of adults, and some urged that the requirement be waived for Scouts who families needed every nickel. The magazine said no.
From the blizzard of protesting letters, Martin chose one telling of a Scout in a orphanage. It demanded, "How can he possible pass this requirement?" Martin printed it with a reply from West who himself had grown up in an orphanage: "It is up to your troop committee to create jobs. Experience proves this can be done." Later a committeeman wrote back: You were right. We did create a job working in a garden. Thanks, Dr. West."
West took the title of editor after Martin's death, but much of the editing and writing continued to be done anonymously by Mrs. Mabel Greene, who had come to work in 1922, after responding to a blind advertisement which directed, "Answer in own handwriting." She was happy to find herself part of the BSA, for her late husband had been a Scoutmaster in Highstown, N.J., and she had helped with the troop. She remarked that she should pay the BSA for letting her work there.
At first she was part of the office clerical pool. Most of the office ladies mortally feared West. A few talked back to him, and were thereafter consigned the dullest chores. (West never quite fired anybody, it was said, but he didn't suffer fools gladly.) Somehow Mrs. Greene impressed him. After retirement she reminisced, "If you were ignorant, you were scolded to help you learn faster. But if you were plain stupid, you got promoted. I was soon promoted. I was made an assistant to E.S. Martin."
She was not stupid. She held a master's degree from Columbia, and a medal from the king of Yugoslavia for work as executive officer of the Serbian Aid Fun. She had done some magazine and newspaper writing. Although she worked for Martin she did much more.
Harold F. Pote, who was personnel director from 1930 to 1955, recalled: "Mabel was a big factor in staff operations. West installed her in an office almost adjacent to his. My own office was nearby, and I saw that he often called her in. She drafted innumerable speeches, reports, and articles for him and others." President Franklin Roosevelt, hailing the BSA in a nationwide broadcast, used a speech she wrote. Often she was asked to comment privately on Norman Rockwell's ideas for Scout paintings.
In 1943, at the point of retirement, West decided Mrs. Greene needed help with Scouting. Candidates for managing editor were interviewed. One was Kenneth A. Wells, a Scout executive from Oregon--who didn't get the job but later became national director of research. Wells wrote recently, "In 1926 the magazine ran a contest for the best essay on the subject of 'Why have a uniform?' I won the first prize of $100 and my essay was published. The money paid half of my tuition for my first year at Reed College."
The managing editor's job went to Lex R. Lucas, a lanky, affable man who was the son of an early-day Scoutmaster in the California village of Cucamonga, and had become an Eagle Scout, Cubmaster, and Scoutmaster before entering the professional service. For 10 years he had been executive at Visalia, Calif. In the national office he and Wells--both bespectacled and thin faced--were sometimes mistaken for each other, and became close friends.
Wells arranged for major research projects by the University of Michigan, featured in Scouting, which revealed (among other findings) that the movement demonstrably produced multitudes of good citizens, and that one in four teen-agers admired their own fathers more than anyone else, although seldom saying so.
Lucas became editor-in-chief in 1951. (Chief Scout Executive Elbert K. Fretwell was the nominal editor until then.) With full authority and a bigger budget, he gave the magazine more variety and scope--assigning projects to free-lance writers and illustrators, and developing regular departments that became long-time fixtures in the magazine.
In 1952 Mrs. Greene retired. Lucas wrote of her, "Name the BSA book and you will probably find somewhere hidden among the credit lines the name or initials of M.R. Greene. She delivered topflight writing."
For 223 consecutive issues Lucas wrote a column, "Personally Speaking," that is remembered as a distinguished contribution to the movement. Forty of these warm anecdotal essays about boys and the BSA were published in book form after he retired in 1965.
The next Scouting editor was Harry A. Harchar, another Eagle Scout and ex-Scoutmaster who had been in the national office since 1939 (with time out for war, starting in the infantry and ending as a columnist for Stars and Stripes). Harchar became editor of Boys' Life in 1952 and oversaw the operations of both magazines until he was succeeded at Scouting in 1969 by current editor-in-chief Walt Babson.
Babson, in the tradition of his predecessors, had been a Scout, (in a New York City, 80-boy troop) a troop Scouter, and a BSA professional with a B.A. in English from New York University. Like the others he seemed to adjust easily to magazine work. Scouting's many editors who were, so to speak, khaki-collar people would seem to bear witness to a truism often remarked upon: The typical longtime Scouter tends to be a jack-of-all-trades.
The sociological phenomenon that is the Scout movement has evolved (at times spasmodically) through the decades. Anyone who glances through the magazine's 700-odd issues can see that they reflect the evolution. Scouting has flourished because it was always dedicated to the same purposes as its readers. And they might agree, as a Scouter once wrote. "It's not how old you are, or what you've done, but how young you act and what you plan to do that counts."
Copyright © 1987 by the Boy Scouts of America. All rights thereunder reserved; anything appearing in Scouting magazine or on its Web site may not be reprinted either wholly or in part without written permission. Because of freedom given authors, opinions may not reflect official concurrence.