Volunteer leadership isn’t always pretty. Sometimes it is downright heartbreaking, thankless and hard as hell.
I grew up in a blue collar family in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. My dad started working at Wisconsin Electric, where he is still employed, when he found out he was having a son at the tender young age of 19.
I had a delightful childhood – strong family, Midwestern values, plenty of love and fun. I was a naturally shy kid and began to connect with the world beyond my family as I entered my pre-teen years.
When I was in middle school my Dad told me that the “power company,” as we affectionately referred to his place of employment, was going to launch a Boy Scout Troop. Now, I am not sure what made me agree to participate in this program, but I can still remember him dropping me off at the interest meeting.
The person in charge, Cid Duncan, was a portly man that, at the time, seemed to be old to be doing this type of work. I suppose everyone looks old when you are 12 years old.
Cid worked at the power company with my Dad. Except, he wasn’t a lineman (pole climber) like Dad; he was an Electrical Engineer. One of those characters playing a role in my young teenage life in which there was no concept of what an electrical engineer was.
There was no workforce development program that could replace the access that I had to the way his mind worked, touching his professional drafting desk and seeing real blueprints – just like the ones I saw in the movies. “Oh, that’s what an Electrical Engineer does,” I thought.
Anyway, Cid served as the founding scoutmaster of Troop 250 based out of the North Division location of Wisconsin Electric – also known as “the hood.” Cid recruited his pal, Johnny Fields (no relation), to serve as assistant scoutmaster and placed his two sons in the troop as well.
Cid was a chain smoker. He was overweight, but moved quickly and was strong as an ox. He had to be. The boys in his troop were different from other Boy Scouts. Only a few of us were connected to Cid and Johnny through the power company because of our mothers and, rarely, our fathers. Most of the boys in the troop were neighborhood kids. All of them without fathers. Some of them with legal issues. Many of them were much older and bigger than me. Several of us younger kids were intimidated by these kids; which is precisely why my father encouraged me to be in the troop, among other reasons. He wanted to make sure his shy son could swim with sharks. And how!
Cid spent every other Saturday with us for the better part of 8 years. Without fail, he was there picking us up in his rusty 1980 model Surburban truck. He was always teaching us lessons. Making up his own mysteries called “Sherlock Nolmes,” his spoof of classic tales designed to encourage critical, real-world, impromptu problem solving. He liked to starve and scare us. This man would drop 15 hungry teenage boys off at McDonald’s and give us $10 to feed everyone. Or, another favorite: he would take us camping and lead the requisite “Midnight Hike” under the crisp, pitch black Wisconsin night with no flashlight; we couldn’t even see our hands in front of us. Those hikes were always preceded by campfire horror stories about John Wayne Gacy’s exploits of cannibalism and escape from a nearby prison, allegedly hiding in the very campground we were in.
I remember physical altercations that Cid had to get in the middle of to keep all of us in line. I saw him cry. I saw his joy. I saw in his eyes the passion and constant search for that one golden, teachable moment that a teacher looks for in a student.
Of course, all of this time, energy and effort wasn’t just about the kids. Like any volunteer leader – the best of them – there was something in it for him, too. Cid and his wife Debra didn’t have children, so they proactively invested their parental energies into children that needed help the most.
In addition to Cid’s work with the troop, he and Debra would take care of special needs babies. Really hard cases. From time to time he would let the boys visit his home in the suburbs and see the room with a baby in a plastic tent hooked up to monitors beeping and clicking. I can remember at least two of these infants dying. Why would they knowingly adopt children that were more likely to die than they were to live?
Why would Cid invest time, money and energy into us knowing that most of us would end up in jail or dead? And, don’t you know? That is exactly what happened. Two of us committed suicide. Four of us went to jail for a very, very long time. One of us became a male prostitute (not me!). Many of us ended up where society says young black boys should have, statistically speaking.
I still scratch my head about it sometimes. There is one thing I know for sure – at least one of us made it through those years with an optimistic future, a deeper sense of civic duty and a profound understanding of personal sacrifice thanks to Cid Duncan and his wife.
I am incredibly thankful to my father, Cid Duncan, Wisconsin Electric, the Boy Scouts of America and my boys from Troop 250 here and gone. My life has been littered with good works and purposeful service efforts, in large part, because of you.