With utter clarity, George Maher can remember the first time he tried to get his Eagle Scout award. It was March 10, 1944, and he was three days short of his 17th birthday. The scene was the fourth floor of a school building in Queens.
Maher had all the merit badges. But halfway through his board of review, an assistant scoutmaster for Troop 120 interrupted the meeting. Maher's mother and uncle were at the door. Maher's father, Patrick, was at the hospital with urgent heart problems. The elder Maher died that evening.
Within a month, Maher enlisted in the Navy to fight in World War II. His dreams of becoming an Eagle Scout were delayed for 68 years. Early next month in Palo Alto, that oversight will be corrected. The story is worth telling.
Few organizations -- the Catholic Church is one -- get worse coverage today than the Boy Scouts. It's largely self-inflicted. The national organization's stance toward gays defies one of the most significant political and cultural movements of our time.
But as an Eagle Scout myself -- and the father of one -- I can tell you I've never seen the issue of sexual orientation play any role in the camping and hiking at the heart of scouting. For me and my son, the experience taught volumes in patience and leadership.
An engineer's career
George Maher, still a fit man at 85, studied at San Francisco State College after the war and worked as an engineer for PG&E, settling in Redwood City. He then did a stint with the Red Cross. For the last 25 years, he has volunteered at scout offices, where he processes Eagle applications.
He thought about going back for his own Eagle. He once sent off a letter to New York scouting authorities that was returned marked "addressee unknown.'' It wasn't until a conversation early this year with Mark Manchester, the development director of the scouts' Pacific Skyline Council, that wheels turned.
Manchester had casually asked when Maher got his Eagle. And Maher told him the story. "It kept gnawing at us,'' Manchester said. "I had to at least make a phone call.''
Maher might never have made the final hurdle had he not kept records of all his merit badges. Even then, he faced a problem. He was missing the card showing he was a Life Scout, the rank below Eagle.
As it happened, he had a decent excuse. In a massive storm off the Philippines in December 1944, Maher was nearly washed off the deck of his destroyer, the USS Prichett. When he pulled himself up, he was missing the wallet that held the Life card.
The storm is well-documented -- it is sometimes called "Halsey's Typhoon,'' after Admiral William Halsey. So word arrived from Scout authorities. Maher was entitled to get his Eagle. As one of the oldest Eagle recipients ever, he'll get his badge on Jan. 6 in a Boy Scout ceremony. The certificate will say March 10, 1944.
"When Mark told me it had come, I was shocked,'' Maher told me. "It shows me the people in charge of scouting follow through on things. If they determine you actually earned something, you should get it. I still find it hard to believe.''