January - February 2003
By Douglass K. Daniel
For 68 years, Scoutmaster Billy Jim Vaughn has helped guide Tennessee Scouts along the path of life.
When Troop 1 in Brentwood, Tenn., needed a new Scoutmaster, Billy Jim Vaughn was the natural choice. He had risen to the rank of Life Scout with the troop and had stayed on as an assistant. Still, he was just 23. Everyone agreed it would be only a temporary appointmentor so they thought.
The times were tough. The United States faced serious economic trouble. Criminals were in the headlines as much as the president. Boys needed Scouting that yearit was 1935and they needed leaders to help them find their way in life.
A 'temporary' job
Today, 68 years later, boys still need Scouting. And Billy Jim Vaughn, now 90, is still the Scoutmaster of Troop 1. He can't help but chuckle at the idea of his "temporary" job. "I've never found a time where I thought it was time to give it up," he says. "Maybe that's selfish on my part."
Thousands of Scouts have been grateful for that bit of selfishness.
"Billy Jim is a man to be honored and revered for his positive influence and impact on youth," says Steven J. Charters, an engineer in Marshall, Va., who was a member of Troop 1 in the early 1970's.
Adds another Scout from that era, Rob Battle of College Grove, Tenn.: "He is truly timeless."
To Billy Jim, it is the lessons of Scouting that have defied time. "Everything we do we try to make fun. I learned that a long time agomake it simple and make it fun," he says. "I don't think Scouting has changed at all. The idea behind it has stayed the same. I don't see any difference in it. And I guess that's because I don't look for it. I want it to stay the same as when I was a boy."
Billy Jim was born on April 22, 1912, seven days after the ocean liner Titanic sank. His father was an accountant with a dry-goods company, and his mother cared for four children as they grew up in Nashville and nearby Brentwood.
At age 14, Billy Jim heard about Scouting and its focus on the spirit as well as the outdoors. "I went to every Scout troop I could walk to," he remembers. "I didn't find a troop that felt right. But I couldn't get Scouting out of my mind. Then I met Mr. Haley."
Lessons from a mentor
Curtis B. Haley had founded Troop 1 in 1910, the year Scouting began in the United States. His attention to the role of God in a Scout's life won over Billy Jim. He also admired Mr. Haley's ability to inspire boys to set goals.
Most of all, he appreciated the life lessons his mentor offered. "Mr. Haley was a natural-born teacher. When he spoke everyone listened," Billy Jim says. "And he told stories with morals."
The Great Depression forced Billy Jim to drop out of Vanderbilt University in 1931. He joined the United Methodist Publishing House in Nashville as a printer. He left his job and Troop 1 just once, in 1944, to serve in the Navy as a surgeon's assistant during World War II.
Later an office manager and the head of human relations for the publishing house, he retired in 1977. He returned to the workforce the next year and today puts in four days a week with an employment agency.
Illness had caused Curtis Haley to leave Troop 1 in 1935, but his influence remains whenever the Scouts meet in the Brentwood United Methodist Church.
"We've carried on the program exactly as Mr. Haley did it," Billy Jim says. A candlelight service still closes each meeting, with Billy Jim offering a Scoutmaster's Minute that often leaves the boys thinking about duty and honor.
"I can remember many stories about how important it was to be kind to others, to put God at the center of your life, and to always be prepared for what life sends your way," says John Dyer of Mooresville, N.C., a Scout from the mid-1970's.
Listening is the key
In the eyes of his Scouts, Billy Jim has lived the lessons he taught.
"He is the most calm and serene man I have ever known, and I seek to be more like him every day of my life," says Richard Tippens of Knoxville, Tenn. He joined the troop in 1949 and remained as an assistant Scoutmaster for 20 years.
Rod Shrader, a retired Air Force major who is Scoutmaster of Troop 284 in Endicott, N.Y., calls on his memories of Troop 1 in the 1960's when he faces a challenge today.
"In my daily work," Shrader says, "I attempt to treat individuals as Billy Jim treated meand every other person he ever metwith kindness, compassion, and true interest."
Helping a boy to discover what he needs from life is a special quality that endears Billy Jim to his Scouts. Listening to the boys, he believes, is the key.
"That's one of the things I take pride inhelping kids amount to what they want to amount to," Billy Jim says. "I can't do it for him. He learns to work for what he wants to be. That's my philosophy, anyway."
One boy he listened to in 1969 wanted to be an artist. He gave the Scout every job in the troop that required drawing or painting. Most important, he assured the boy that he could be an artist by working hard and believing in himself.
"He was able to give me enough confidence to go forward and follow my talent and follow my heart," says that boy, now grown up and working under the professional name of Brother Awest. Now an artist and production designer in television, movies, and music, he lives in Sierra Madre, Calif.
"Billy Jim always knew the right thing to say to help a boy work harder and get past his limitations. He was the right man at the right place for tons of us."
Planting the right seed
Former Scouts who come to the house where Billy Jim has lived since 1939 will find its six acres surrounded by suburbs. With Billy Jim is Joy, his wife since 1985, and both are eager to laugh and reminisce about hiking, bird-watching, and the campfire oatmeal he cooked by the pot.
Troop 1 is strong, with nearly 100 boys and 42 assistants, and he's not worried about its future. "I've got 10 guys I could call right now and ask, 'Would you take my place?'" he says. "We've got the greatest people in the world."
Last spring the Middle Tennessee Council celebrated Billy Jim's seven decades of service by dedicating in his honor a six-foot replica of Tait McKenzie's Scout statue at the Jet Potter Service Center. More than 400 current and former Scouts attended the ceremony to congratulate their leader.
It's likely, though, that Billy Jim was thinking just as much about today's boys in Troop 1.
"Every week, when I see those hundred kids and look at those faces, I think, 'Here are a hundred people who need your advice on which way to go.' It may be five years away or 10 years away, but if we plant the right seed it will grow," he says.
"I think of all the kids who've said I've helped. And I can't wait for the next one to come along."
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