Interview With Author Mark Ray
By: Scott Robertson
Posted On: 2010-09-23
Recently, I had the honor of interviewing Mark Ray, the author of “The Eagle Court of Honor Book” and “The Scoutmaster's Other Handbook”. You can find more information about these books at http://www.eaglebook.com.
Lets just get rolling with some questions
Can you tell us a little bit about when you were a Scout? What did you do for you Eagle Project? Do you have any embarrassing moments as a Scout? What were your greatest highlights, favorite parts and best memories of being a Scout?
I was a Cub Scout and a Boy Scout in Oxford, Mississippi. I quit for about a year when I was 12 or so, but then joined a troop my father was working with. He later became the Scoutmaster, and I worked with him as an assistant Scoutmaster during college.
We had a troop bus that we painted in the colors of the Scout uniform. It let us go all sorts of place on long trips, including the National Scouting Museum when it was Kentucky and national forests in Alabama and Arkansas where we went backpacking. It was also pretty temperamental, breaking down at the most inopportune times. The gear shifter tended to get stuck, and our mechanic actually taught us how to fix that while we were moving down the highway.
There are way too many highlights to list, but I would include the 1981 National Scout Jamboree, working on camp staff four summers, and a week-long trip we took to Washington, D.C. (in a chartered bus—not our old school bus!).
For my Eagle project, I planned a blood drive. Oxford is a small town, so the blood-drive team had to drive in from Jackson, which is 2-3 hours away. The day of the drive, it started raining, and we had to consider whether to postpone the drive until another day. When I asked the blood-service representative what she was going to do, she looked at me and said, “You’re in charge; you decide.” Here I was, a 15-year-old kid, and this older woman—who was probably in her 30s!—was letting me make what seemed like a major decision. It was a great lesson in leadership. (In the end, I rescheduled the drive, and we ended up collecting 85 pints of blood.)
Why did you decided to write the books?
As a district executive, I got invited to a bunch of courts of honor. Some were good, some were okay, and some were pretty bad. At one court of honor, the honorees (who were twins) had to stand at attention on stage for the whole ceremony; they locked their knees and passed out almost in unison. At another, also for two Scouts, someone read very congratulatory letter each Scout received verbatim—even though the letters were identical for both honorees. I thought it was a shame that Scouts who had worked so hard to become Eagle Scouts didn’t have great courts of honor. But then I realized that there just weren’t many resources available, so I decided to write The Eagle Court of Honor Book.
The Scoutmaster’s Other Handbook came about in much the same way. After I’d been a troop leader for 15 or so years (five as Scoutmaster), I realized I’d amassed a lot of ideas and experiences that were worth sharing. The Scoutmaster Handbook from the BSA is a great introduction to the job, but I thought there needed to be a sort of companion volume. So I wrote it.
Tell me about your website, www.eaglebook.com.
The website primarily exists to promote my books, along with the personalized Eagle Mountain Certificate. However, it also includes links to other sites of interest (including an updated list of those that appear in The Scoutmaster’s Other Handbook) and other content.
I’ve also recently added a new Scouting e-card generator (www.eaglebook.com/cards). This free service lets folks send Scouting-themed e-cards for all sorts of purposes—court of honor invitations, congratulatory notes, birthday greetings, etc.
I am sure you have attended more Eagle Court of Honors than you can count. Are there any tips you can give us on things to do and things to avoid?
First, go to my website, www.eaglebook.com, and use the free court-of-honor backdater. All you have to do is enter your court of honor date, and it will generate deadlines for everything you need to do along the way. Second, when you start your planning, ask the honoree what elements he wants his ceremony to include and what presenters he wants to use. Tailor the ceremony to honor his request. Third, hold a walkthrough several days before the ceremony in the room where the ceremony will be held. You don’t need every presenter there, but you do need the honoree, his family, and your key participants. Walking through the ceremony helps you discover things you’ve forgotten, like the need for a second microphone or a chair on stage for the emcee to use. Finally, make sure the Scout’s parents don’t have to do anything during the ceremony and reception except enjoy the moment.
In your mind what makes a great Scoutmaster?
First off, great Scoutmasters come in all shapes, sizes, colors, ages, and genders and with all levels of Scouting experience (or lack thereof). You don’t have to look like you just stepped out of a Norman Rockwell painting to be effective. I think what makes great Scoutmasters great is their belief in the program, their belief in boys, their willingness to give the program a chance to work its magic (especially with something like youth leadership, which takes a lot of patience), their flexibility, and their sense of humor.
What can Scouting do better at today? How can it improve its image? How can it better service the Youth experiencing what the program has to offer?
At the 2010 National Scout Jamboree, the folks who were promoting The Summit, our new high adventure base in West Virginia, did something revolutionary: they actually asked Scouts what they’d like to see at The Summit. As individuals and a movement, I think we could learn from that example.
From my perspective, three specifics jump to mind. First, we need to deliver the promise. Scouts who go to Philmont, attend the Jamboree, and do other cool stuff are much more likely to tell their friends about Scouting than Scouts who do nothing more exciting that compete in string-burning competitions at the local Scout camp. Second, we need to remember that the program exists for today’s Scouts, not for us. What worked when I was a Scout won’t necessarily work today, nor should we try to recreate our own youth experiences, as great as they may have been, for today’s Scouts. Finally, we need to remove barriers to success. Too often, for example, district advancement committees create artificial hoops for Eagle Scout candidates to jump through, frustrating and alienating some of our best youth members.
What elements do you think it takes to have a great Scout unit?
Every parent should take on some job, no matter how small, so the burden of running the unit is spread out. The leaders should all have clear job descriptions so everybody knows who’s responsible for each area. The unit committee should give the unit leader and his/her assistants (and den leaders, etc.) whatever support they need so they can focus on working with the Scouts.
For Boy Scout troops specifically, I think it’s important to have Scouts at all age levels so youth leaders have somebody to lead and so you always have an influx of enthusiastic new Scouts. It’s important to have good relationships with your chartered organization and with Cub Scout packs and Venturing crews in your area since that’s where your Scouts will come from and go to.
I have heard a rumor that your are involved in editing some sections of Scouting magazine, is this true?
Yes, I edit (and mostly write) the Roundtable section, which includes What I’ve Learned, What Would You Do, Cub Scout Corner, Merit Badge Clinic, The Nature of Boys, Advancement Trail, and Ethics. I also write two or three feature articles for the magazine most years, and I write all the feature articles for the Eagle Scout Magazine, which is published by the National Eagle Scout Association.
On the back of your books you mention a small list of your Scouting accomplishments including being a Vigil in the Order of the Arrow. I am only a Brotherhood, but in the past worked with the local lodge's election team and found that many Scouters do not understand what the Order of the Arrow is about. Can you tell us what the Order of the Arrow is and how you think it could better educate Scouters on its functions?
The OA is Scouting’s national honor society, so it exists to recognize Scouts who excel. More than that, however, it puts those Scouts to work in promoting camping and giving back to Scouting and the community. In the past, some lodges have gotten too inwardly focused, but I see that changing for the better these days. A great example is the ArrowCorps5 program, which sent 3,800 Arrowmen to national forests across the country in 2008, where they spent 250,000 man-hours on conservation work. That’s going to be followed up in 2011 by SummitCorps, which will put Arrowmen to work building trails at our new West Virginia high-adventure base. So to answer your question, I think local lodges need to talk up programs like these, along with projects they do on the local level. I know they’ve got some great stories to tell.
What recommendations do you have for current Scouts and Leaders?
For Scouts: Scouting is the greatest youth-development program in the world, but you only get out of it what you put into it. Do everything you can in Scouting, and leave the videogames and TV watching until later.
For Scouters: Get all the training you can, do all the reading you can, and learn all you can from your fellow Scouters. Don’t stay in any one position so long that you become a fixture or a fossil. Recognize the signs of burnout. And don’t ever make the mistake of thinking someone else can’t do your job as well as, or better than, you.
Do you have any advice for young Scouts who want to be writers?
One way to become a good writer is by being a good reader. If you want to write like J.K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame, for example, read her books. But don’t just read them for enjoyment. Try to figure out why they’re so good. How does she describe her settings and characters? Why are certain passages suspenseful or funny? Then write your own stories, applying the lessons you’ve learned.