When reflecting on a week of Boys State, the first name that comes to mind for many of us is Charles Wiley. He is one of the few living World War II veterans and a retired reporter who traveled to many parts of the world. Now 92, he speaks at many Boys State programs with the same booming, gravelly enunciation that he did years ago. The message is the same too: “Life is hard, but it’s a lot harder if you’re stupid, so don’t be stupid.” Be aware of how the world works, and be better for it.
In the last couple years, Wiley has given a second lecture, “When America Went To War.” He recounts what happened in America when World War II began. The entire nation worked together to support the war effort. They all sacrificed in various ways. The point of the lecture is unity and sacrifice. The collective WWII effort stands out dramatically against the debates and arguments we’ve had over wars since. It’s a terrific recount of a unique moment fading from American memory.
I’ve found myself wondering this year about what happened next. When the war was over, what happened to the country? Did the sense of unity continue?
To put it more directly: what happens when the thing holding you together isn’t there anymore?
We’ve spent the week looking at communities in this space. I didn’t plan to have this focus, but it provides us an interesting angle at this post-graduation moment. There is no ALJBS 2019 anymore. No Madison City, no Vandenberg County. The Governor commands no one. The staff has returned home. As each of us breaks from this weeklong community we’ve shared, we return to our previous ones. We, the individuals, return. We, the individuals, have to reckon with what we’ve seen and apply what we’ve learned to our local places.
This, friends, is Boys State truly happens.
We are a week that shapes the future. The week is never the goal. We don’t care who does Boys State best. We care about the men that are created by it. Our challenge as staff is to influence people to become better citizens, leaders, and men in the one week out of a lifetime we are given. It is an audacious, ridiculous plan, but we do it anyway, each year, with pleasure.
We do this by teaching and practicing ideals. To make better citizens, we teach them democracy. We feature speakers like Micah Rasmussen to show them the theory and speakers like Kenneth Armwood to show them the practical side. We put them into cities and counties and ask them to solve three to five major issues. We schedule politics, band, and athletics (and time to work on the manuals) at the same time, forcing them to make decisions about their time based on how they fit into society. To make better leaders, we tell them to self-organize and report to us about how they plan to take action on their issues. We create roles for many people to fill, nudging them towards taking ownership of their own life. To make better men, we bring in men like Charles Wiley and Attorney General Gurbir Grewal. We staff the program with men like Dominic Santillo, Dr. Greg Wilson, and Chuck Smith. We try to give examples to follow while also allowing a wide swath for our young men to explore.
Look: most of us will never be wildly successful. For every Senator Menendez, tens of thousands of ALJBS alumni will never reach that level of influence. These are the people we aim at. We want better citizens in all our communities. If we get leaders, that’s great, but we aim at making a better society by influencing a group of people who may top out in their local towns. We want them able to understand how government works so they’re unafraid to go to a council meeting and demand answers. We hope they become an influencer to the people in their immediate vicinity more than to people online they’ve never met. Our goal is transformation from the ground outward. The upward will come in time. We’ve got a good track record of it.
But this transformation will be hidden to us. It will not be in a Rider University incubator but rather in your towns. It will be at your dinner tables. It will be in your school homerooms and lunch tables. It will be on Instagram. To you, our new alumni, we hope that you pick one lesson from this week and apply it to your own situation. Get involved in where you are, learn about it, and seek to help it. Keep doing this throughout your life, wherever you are. If other commitments prevent you from doing this in a civic sense, do it in those commitments. Be a good son, grandson, nephew, friend, or member. Seek the good of the community you are in. Learn what it means to wield power well and then do it.
The twentieth-century German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a book about community called Life Together. Bonhoeffer wrote particularly about religious community, but he recognized the group/individual interplay marvelously. “Let him who cannot be alone beware of community.” is followed immediately by “Let him who is not in community beware of being alone.” We are alone and not alone. We are not reliant on others but we need them. We need them to know and improve ourselves, but only we can do that work.
As you begin your week-shaped future, you are alone on your journey. Your path is yours. We cannot walk it for you, nor can your community. We have been beside you; others (and maybe we) will be alongside you in the future. Walk it well. No matter where you are. No matter whether it feels like it makes a difference or not. No matter if your name doesn’t end up in lights. Walk it so your future and your family’s, community’s, state’s, and nation’s future are better for it.
And if you feel like coming back as a junior counselor to help others start their journey next year, please consider applying. We’d love to have you. Or consider making a donation to help the program continue.
Let’s do this again, gentlemen, with others.