One December day in 1926, James E. West, the first Chief Scout Executive, ran into Bill Hillcourt, a new Supply Service employee. They were standing by the elevator inside BSA headquarters, which was then in New York City.
“Well, my young man, what do you think of American Scouting?” West asked.
Hillcourt, then 26, emigrated from Denmark, where he’d earned the equivalent of the Eagle Scout rank. He shared his thoughts as the men rode downstairs, but he didn’t stop there.
“His words may have been just a casual remark. But I took them seriously,” Hillcourt recalled in a 1985 Boys’ Life article. “I wrote an 18-page report and sent it to him. It was complimentary in spots, critical in others. But for each criticism I offered a suggestion for remedying the situation.”
Within a week, Hillcourt was sitting in West’s office discussing his report — especially its emphasis on the patrol method. He left with the assignment to write the BSA’s first Handbook for Patrol Leaders. The book, which appeared in 1929, sold nearly a quarter-million copies in its first 10 years.
From Aarhus to America
A native of Aarhus, Denmark, Hillcourt spoke English as a second language. Still, he spoke the universal language of Scouting. He first learned about Scouting when his older brother gave him a copy of Robert Baden-Powell’s Scouting for Boys for Christmas in 1910. He became a Scout the next month. In 1917, Hillcourt earned Danish Scouting’s highest rank, Knight-Scout. In 1920, he attended the first World Scout Jamboree, held in England. (Hillcourt went on to attend all but two World Scout Jamborees, as well as every BSA National Jamboree, until he died in 1992.)
Hillcourt studied to be a pharmacist, but he was more interested in Scouting and writing. In 1926, he traveled to the United States as a reporter for a Copenhagen newspaper. He spent the summer at Scout camp, and then took a job with the BSA Supply Service, which led to his chance encounter with West.
Becoming Green Bar Bill
Hillcourt soon joined the staff of Boys’ Life magazine and launched a monthly column for patrol leaders under the pen name Green Bar Bill. (“Green Bar” comes from the patrol leader emblem.) “No rocking-chair adventuring for us,” he promised readers, “but the real kind, out on the trail under the open sky, following the by-paths through the woods.”
Hillcourt continued writing for Boys’ Life until his retirement in 1965. Across his 39-year career he also wrote the first edition of the Scout Field Book (1944), two editions of The Boy Scout Handbook (1959 and 1965) and the 1936 Handbook for Scoutmasters, a two-volume tome that came in at an astonishing 1,164 printed pages.
Learning by Doing
Much of the material in the Handbook for Scoutmasters came from personal experience. In 1934, Hillcourt and his wife, Grace — who had been one of West’s secretaries — moved to Mendham, N.J., home to Schiff Scout Reservation. There, he founded Troop 1, a unit with which he could test out his ideas. (See the sidebar “The Master’s Scout Troop” for more.)
The Hillcourts’ home — a converted stone sheep barn at Schiff — became a sort of Scouting research lab.
“Grace would make recipes for him at home, and that’s what would end up being in the handbooks,” says Houston Scouter Nelson Block, a longtime Hillcourt friend.
Besides writing extensively, Hillcourt also helped bring Wood Badge training to America. He participated in two experimental courses at Schiff in 1936, and then — after World War II interrupted the program’s development — served as Scoutmaster of the first two official courses in 1948.
His Greatest Contribution
Hillcourt’s biggest impact came after he retired. In 1972, the BSA revised the Boy Scout program, de-emphasizing outdoor skills in a bid to become more relevant to America’s urban population. While well-intended, the plan flopped, and Hillcourt stepped in. He saw the need for a new Scout handbook, one that would capture the romance and excitement of Scouting, so he offered to write it for free. It was an offer the BSA couldn’t — and didn’t — refuse.
That handbook — the ninth edition — appeared in 1979 and went on to sell 4.4 million copies. In its opening pages, 78-year-old Hillcourt described the same sense of adventure he had first experienced so many decades ago: hiking and camping with friends, following the footsteps of the pioneers, staring into the glowing embers of a campfire and dreaming of the future.
He also made a promise, one he knew from personal experience to be true: “Your life as a Scout will make you strong and self-reliant. You will learn Scoutcraft skills that will benefit you as you grow. In time, you will develop skills of leadership as well. So pitch in! Swing into action! In your patrol and your troop you will have some of the best times of your life.”
Hillcourt died in 1992 during the final leg of a world Scouting tour. His New York Times obituary called him “the most widely known figure in Scouting.” His fans, even today, simply call him Green Bar Bill.
The Master’s Scout Troop
In his Handbook for Scoutmasters, Bill Hillcourt described Scouting as “a game for boys under the leadership of boys … a game that develops character by practice, that trains for citizenship through experience in the out-of-doors.”
That’s an accurate description of Troop 1 in Mendham, N.J., which carries on the tradition of the troop Hillcourt founded. Troop 1 is living proof that Hillcourt’s ideas work as well today as they did back in 1935.
“One of our Scouts who’s now at the Naval Academy used to always say, ‘I’ve had seven once-in-a-lifetime experiences,’ because every summer he’d go on a hiking trip or to Philmont or Sea Base,” Scoutmaster Lew Schryver says.
And those trips are just part of what the troop does. In addition to twice-a-year mini-treks on the Appalachian Trail, the troop has hiked in the Pacific Northwest, the Swiss Alps, the Pyrenees and Iceland. They’ve also been deep-sea fishing, caving and scuba diving.
Every year or so, the troop displays a trove of Green Bar Bill memorabilia donated by the widow of an early member.
“Whatever they can take away from that history helps form that sense of pride that they’re part of a historical Boy Scout troop,” Schryver says.
They’re writing the next chapter of that history, as well.
Leaving a Legacy
Though they were devoted to young people, Bill and Grace Hillcourt never had children
of their own. After their deaths, most of their assets went to form what is now the “Green Bar Bill” Hillcourt Foundation, dedicated to preserving Scouting’s history and fostering
Nelson Block, who serves as president of the Hillcourt foundation, says the foundation and a trust that preceded it have supported a host of projects since 1996. Those include materials for new and experimental BSA training courses, programs like a 2008 Johns Hopkins University symposium on Scouting history, and grants to help Order of the Arrow Service Corps youth members attend the 2013 and 2017 national jamborees.
Together, the trust and foundation have made gifts totaling $138,750, further cementing Hillcourt’s legacy as one of the world’s most influential Scouters.
If you would like to pass the Scouting tradition from your family to others, contact the Boy Scouts of America Foundation (BSAFoundation.org) to help continue your Scouting legacy.