Scouting Magazine Comes of Age

By Ernest Doclar, Editor Emeritus

A former editor recalls how, in the wake of World War II, the BSA's magazine for leaders received a major face-lift, new staff, and a revitalized commitment to quality.

The war years of 1939-45 dramatically changed the lives of Americans in many ways. And as World War II ended, its impact helped to profoundly alter the BSA and its magazines.

Editors, writers, photographers, and artists, their skills honed by wartime assignments, shucked their uniforms, eager to get back to careers in civilian life. Other former servicemen paused to earned a college degree, thanks to the GI Bill, then joined the job hunt.

Many of these young men stormed the BSA personnel office for a chance to work for our magazines. [Women were rare in the BSA then, although the Boys' Life staff did boast Frances (Fran) Smith, as good a fiction editor as you'd ever find.]

Competing with the best

Though I missed riding the crest of the immediate postwar wave, several of my dear friends and mentors, now retired or deceased, thrived during those days.

A Navy veteran who had been a Scout as a boy, Bob Hood earned a degree in English before joining the editorial staff of Boys' Life in 1953. Eleven years later he advanced to editor, then was promoted to editor-in-chief of all BSA magazines.

Bob dreamed great dreams that our magazines could compete head-to-head with the nation's best.

A reporter once asked him, "What's the secret of writing for the BSA's magazines?"

"There's nothing different about writing for our magazines," he replied. "Our readers are a typical cross section of the American public. You must never write down to them--especially not to the boy readers of Boys' Life."

A district executive from the Deep South, I received a chance in 1964 to write for the BSA's magazines. I soon noticed that in his drive to u pgrade the image of Boys' Life and other BSA magazines, Bob Hood never hesitated to hire big-name artists, writers, and photographers.

Now the professional Scouters who managed the national BSA's treasury at the time had become accustomed to pinching pennies in earlier assignments on local council staffs, and they kept a tight grip on the purse strings at the national office.

But Hood held his ground. He courted the likes of renowned artists Bob McCall, Salvador Dali, and John Groth; celebrated photographers Andre Kertesz and Ansel Adams; and well-known writers Pearl Buck and Isaac Bashevis Singer.

I asked him once why he spent so much money hiring freelance talent.

Said Hood: "I want our readers to become discerning, never to be satisfied with just 'good enough.' I want them to sample the best of prose and the graphic arts."

Much of the type of content in Scouting magazine hasn't changed in 85 years. However, the variety and quality of presentation has improved considerably, as shown by two examples above. At left, the BSA annual meeting was covered in 1933 and in 1997. At right, a Cub Scout skit was presented to readers in 1933 and a similar feature was offered in 1994.

Scouting--a family magazine

Hood shared that philosophy and those dreams with his executive editor, Walt Babson. Having served as a military police officer in the war, Babson had earned an English degree from NYU.

Unlike Hood, Babson was a professional Scouter who had served as a Greater New York Councils district executive. That stint served the entire magazine division well, as Babson continually advised us from his firsthand experience "in the field" of the great expectations that Scouters and Scouts had of their magazines.

Walt joined BL in 1957, then rose to the post of editor of Scouting in 1970. Like Bob Hood, Walt also dreamed lofty thoughts. He envisioned a family magazine for adult Scout leaders that could compare favorably with Parents and Good Housekeeping.

Increasing the prestige of Scouting meant hiring top professional writers, artists, and photographers, just as Bob Hood was doing for BL. The Chief Scout Executive, his staff, and the national board endorsed Babson's plan.

A demand for quality writing

Both Hood and Babson were avid readers, at work poring over countless magazines and books on all subjects and at home reading for pleasure from 30 to 40 books a year.

The two editors demanded first-rate writing for their respective magazines. They were gentle but stern taskmasters to staff members and freelancers alike. The latter, in particular, who were being paid top rates competitive with magazines like Outdoor Life and Field & Stream, would often receive their initial draft back with a polite request to rewrite the text.

Hood teamed with art director Andy Lessin, who had served with the Army's corps of engineers, to ensure that Boys' Life looked terrific. At Scouting magazine, Babson coaxed Bert Marsh away from the BL staff and installed him as art director for the new Scouting-as-a-family-magazine concept.

During the war the talented Marsh had worked on the military newspaper Stars and Stripes. Other alumni from that venerable service publication also became BSA magazine staffers: Harry Harchar, the BL editor who first hired me, and Gene Allendorf, production specialist, who learned his trade with the Army in World War II's Italian campaign.

In 1991, I succeeded Walt Babson as editor of Scouting. It was a dream assignment, and I had a surefire formula for success. Having learned from all my associates who had earned their stripes in the postwar era, I simply carried on the traditions they had started.

For that I am forever grateful to them. And for the quality magazines that Scouting and Boys' Life are today, all of us should be thankful for their efforts.

Ernie Doclar retired as editor of Scouting magazine in November 1994.

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Copyright © 1998 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.