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Chris Petersen: Scout's honor

Staff Writer | April 18, 2010 9:00 PM

Chris Petersen knows the impact Boy Scouts of America has on those in the program. He's seen it in his own home.

His 20-year-old son, Zerin, broke his neck last year while playing on a Slip 'n Slide. He's paralyzed, and doctors don't know if he'll walk again.

"We hope and pray and have faith," Petersen said. "But again, to me, that kid when he had a broken neck and I walked in, he was smiling. He was in a hospital with hundreds of other kids that had broken necks. He was very positive, very driven, always happy. And everybody in the hospital is talking about why he is like that, how can he handle it that way."

Petersen pauses for a moment, then continues.

"I think it was because of Scouts. Great kid. Most kids don't handle such a devastating accident. But because he's gone through Scouts, he understands you take what you do and you make the best of it. He's slept out when it's 20 degrees below zero. He's toughed it out. He's climbed mountains. So when hardships came up, he overcame them and did well with them. I think that same thing is impacted to all kids when they run into those circumstances in life. So he's been able to do pretty good with what to most people would be a pretty devastating thing."

Petersen is the executive director of the local chapter of Boy Scouts of America and oversees Shoshone, Kootenai and part of Benewah County programs. He's worked for Boy Scouts for 28 years - including 18 in Alaska, the last eight in North Idaho - influenced thousands of kids, and doesn't see life without it.

"After I retire, I'll probably be doing the same thing," he said with a laugh.

"I've been a camp director every summer. This is my 27th year running camps. Every summer I go to camp and tell kids stories and sing songs and do the things that kids like to do."

The son of Max and Lucy Petersen was one of 10 children who grew up in Michigan. He recalls his father introducing him to Boy Scouts when he was 8 years old.

Perhaps surprisingly, he didn't care for it.

"I tried to drop out. When I first went out, they had initiations in those days. They'd take you out, drag you out in the woods without a sleeping bag, give you a hard time and all those things. I wanted to drop out. This was tough. My dad says, 'You're staying in because of what it's going to do for you. This will make you of good character. It's a good program. You don't have a choice. You're not going to drop out.'"

The son did as instructed. Good decision, he says with a smile.

"My dad was right," he said.

Scouting, he says, instilled in him a strong sense of patriotism, love of country, sacrifice and honor. It taught him about respect, about caring for others, about enduring difficult times, about being inventive, about finishing what you start.

The Spirit Lake man who stands 6 feet, 4 inches tall, resembles Abraham Lincoln and knows well the life story of the country's 16th president. He was a man of good character, Petersen said. One of his favorite quotes from Lincoln, one that guides him today, and one he often shares with Boy Scouts, is this:

"It's not important to be proud of where you came from. It's more important where you came from be proud of you."


What impact has Boy Scouts had on your life?

Well, obviously, it is my life. A scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, reverent. That goes through my mind every day. The Scout oath, 'On my honor, I'll do my best to do my duty to God, my country, to help other people,' those things, those values that started out as a kid, those were just words that we said. We said them at each troop meeting, but they didn't have meaning until my Scout master said, 'I'm going to give you a coin. And every day you do a good turn, you take the coin out of your right-hand pocket and put it into your left-hand pocket.' And he had us stand up at the meeting at the end of the day and if you hadn't done a good turn, you felt kind of stupid because he went around the room and had everybody say what a good turn they had done that day. So I've gone out of my way probably thousands of times because that one individual impacted what that meant. It was more than just a saying. You lived your life that way.

What do you want to impart on kids who are Boy Scouts?

Every summer, we have about 1,200 to 1,500 kids go through camp. When they leave, I want them to remember the character and citizenship traits, they're what make our country great. So I tell them the words of our Founding Fathers. I dress up like Abraham Lincoln. We've done the Civil War the last three years. Just good stories about heroes in the Civil War. I love history. I read a lot of history and tell the kids stories of history. We have flag ceremonies at the beginning of the day, then sing some songs. At the end of the day, same thing. We tell stories and sing songs. We're impacting to them those values that come out of those historical stories.

And they have fun?

Kids want to throw a tomahawk and a knife, go hiking, cook a meal under the stars, sleep out and look at the stars. We take what the kids enjoy, and we teach character and citizenship and leadership through the fun activities that they want to do, which is what a bunch of people did with me. I didn't have a lot of direction, I had people who were good mentors to help me understand what being a good citizen was all about.

Do you ever get tired of Boy Scouts?

I love it. It's a live-in job every summer. I'm at camp seven days a week. I love working with kids.

Did you earn your Eagle Scout badge when you were a teenager?

Actually, I didn't. I didn't become an Eagle Scout. I loved the outings. I loved camping, I loved hiking, I loved doing all the outdoors stuff. Earning badges wasn't a big thing for me. I just wanted to go outdoors, out in the woods, cooking over a fire, storytelling and all those kind of things.

I wasn't driven like some kids to get a badge, that wasn't part of it. But I loved the people that I associated with and they were good mentors for me.

How many volunteers do you have here working with Boy Scouts.

There are more than 800 volunteers working with kids in Kootenai County. To me, that's phenomenal. Every neighborhood has a troop of Boy Scouts. There are mentors who lead by example, who touch the lives of kids to be good citizens, to get involved in life.

I work with the cream of the crop in society. These are people who care about kids. You know how busy we are, everybody's got a thousand irons in the fire. To work time in to work with young kids is something that most people don't do. If you take the average person, they want somebody else to take care of their kids.

Boy Scouts of America is 100 years old this year. What does that mean to you?

It's pretty exciting when you think about any organization that can last 100 years. We're bigger and stronger today than we were in the past. That's always a good sign. I think about those Founding Fathers, people that did a good turn.

How did Boy Scouts ever get started?

Boy Scouts was actually started by a newspaper editor. His name was William Boyce. He was on a safari to Africa, stopped at England, he was a businessman and had some things to take care of, and he got lost in the fog, didn't know where he was. A young kid came out of the fog and said, 'Can I help you, sir?' And he said, 'Sure, I don't know where I am, I can't see anything.' So this kid led him to where he was going. At the end of the little trip there he whipped out his wallet and said 'Look, I'm a wealthy guy. I'd like to pay you for taking me out of your way and doing this.' The kid said, 'I can't accept any money. I have to do a good turn. I'm a Boy Scout.' So the newspaper editor was so impressed by that he said, 'What if all kids were like that? What if all kids would go out and do good turns for nothing?' And so, he went and found out more about scouting and brought it back to the United States and started the program. He had newspaper boys working for him, about 2,000 boys. He thought if every one of those boys becomes like that one boy over there in England, just think how much better the country will be. And the program started out small and grew to hundreds, then thousands. In 1910, there were actually groups here in Idaho. The first Boy Scout group that I read about historically was over in Wallace. So scouting's been around in Idaho for 100 years.

Why do you like to play the role of Abraham Lincoln?

It's about taking a good man in our country who did great things.

It's all for developing their character, because Abe was a good character. What a neat thing if kids would relate me to an individual who lived a hundred years ago who was a great guy, who helped our country focus on character. He was honest, he had integrity, he had good leadership skills - all those things make for great stories with kids. So they call me Abe.

What's the biggest influence Boy Scouts will have on those kids who join?

It's not what a kid does today in scouting. It's what he's going to do his whole life. Scouting develops character in young people. It teaches leadership. It's the impact over a lifetime.

Date of birth: Nov. 10, 1956

Family: Wife, Mary-beth, one daughter, two sons.

Education: Grand Valley State College, degree in natural resources planning.

Number of hours on average you work in a week: 75-80

Number of hours on average you sleep in a night: 5

Hobbies: Hunting, fishing, backpacking

Favorite movie: "Star Wars." Good message of right and wrong.

Favorite book: "Undaunted Courage," by Stephen Ambrose

Favorite author: Abraham Lincoln

Favorite type of music: Anything uplifting, positive.

Best advice you ever received: A Scout leader told me to be a good leader, you have to follow up. Follow-up on all the little details.

Any one person who most influenced your life: For sure, my father. He set a great example. He was one of those people who always did what was right. He worked hard, he was involved in government, he was involved in his community, he was active in his church.

Quality you admire most in a person: Integrity

Any one thing you consider your greatest accomplishment: Being influential in the life of a young boy.

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