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The Four Founders of White Stag

An experiment in youth leadership by design:
remembering the founding fathers
(and other historical notes)

A quartet of remarkable men brought White Stag to life, nurtured it to maturity and guided it to longevity.

By Bill Roberts

Long before the founding fathers of the White Stag Leadership Development Program had any sense of destiny they had a sense of place. That place was Camp Pico Blanco, which is located in a redwood forest on the north fork of the Little Sur River in Monterey County, Calif. At times the river trickles and at times it rushes along the base of Pico Blanco, a massive mountain of limestone that lends its name to the camp, before it empties into the Pacific Ocean about 13 miles south of Carmel, Calif. The adjoining Ventana Wilderness is a rugged terrain of deep canyons lush with redwood and alder, steep hillsides of oak and madrone, meadows of sage and chaparral, pine forests and barren rocky peaks, a few jutting above 4,000 feet. The wilderness is rich in history and myths, including a Mexican legend about a lost silver mine and the indigenous Essalen belief that Pico was a sacred mountain, the place where creation began. Immortalized in the poems of Robinson Jeffers, this lyrical landscape is the spiritual home of the White Stag program.

The landscape shaped White Stag as surely as founder Béla Bánáthy did. The interplay between the environment, the Scouts and the program foreshadowed Bánáthy’s understanding many years later of how interrelated systems shape people and the way they learn. The coastal wilderness of varied ecological zones offered diverse natural hurdles—always better than artificial ones—for a program built on guided discoveries. Although cold and wet in winter, the weather was fair enough to permit year-round activities such as staff development camps during the December school break. In summer, you could start the day hiking in a canyon, drenched in a bone-chilling fog, only to find yourself blistered and parched on a summit by afternoon. Portions of this wild place even bear some resemblance to the once-thick primeval forests of central Europe, which spawned the legend of a great white stag who appeared in times of adversity to lead the tribes to better places. In all my Scouting adventures in Camp Pico and the Ventana, I never saw a white stag but I wouldn’t be surprised if one is prancing there, somewhere among the shadows.

In the shadows of Camp Pico’s redwoods, my friend John Chiorini encountered Béla Bánáthy for the first time nearly fifty years ago. It was the summer of 1957, when Chiorini was 17, working on the waterfront. “Béla came through camp with a patrol of six or seven boys and commandeered me to teach a class on camp craft. He said he was trying out some new ideas with this patrol,” Chiorini told me in an interview at his home in Sunnyvale, Calif. “Béla listened intently as I presented and then he came up after and gave me some tips on teaching. He was a mentor to me from that point on.”

He never knew why Bánáthy chose him to teach that class, but before long the mentor had recruited Chiorini, an Eagle Scout and Explorer from Santa Cruz, Calif., to be the first Senior Patrol Leader of a new leadership development program Bánáthy called White Stag, after the legend from his native Hungary and symbol of the 1933 World Jamboree, held in Gödöllő, Hungary. “Béla invited me to a number of meetings over the course of the next year,” Chiorini recalled. “He pulled in a lot of other people and molded us as a staff.”

The year 1958 would be White Stag’s inaugural event with two patrols. No one knew then that this fledgling plan to teach leadership by design was destined to become the basis for Scouting’s leadership training for youth and adults. It wasn’t even exactly clear how White Stag would differ from Junior Leader Training (JLT) as it existed at the time. There was no syllabus. To some extent, at least at first, Bánáthy made it up as he went. I always knew the competencies had evolved through trial and error, but I was surprised when Chiorini told me there was no discussion about leadership competencies as we now know them during planning for 1958. “Most of the meetings were of the logistics kind,” he recalled.

One thing was different from anything Chiorini had experienced. “White Stag was all about creating an environment in which youth led youth. At the time, Scouting was not necessarily a boy-led program. I remember it was very clear in Béla’s mind what a boy-led Scouting program looked like. There was no question about who was in charge in White Stag. The boys were.”

By coincidence, Bánáthy’s informal experiment in 1957 took place exactly fifty years after Lord Robert Baden-Powell took his first patrol to Brownsea Island off the coast of southern England to test his idea for an outdoor program for boys led by boys. In the half century after Brownsea, Scouting spread around the globe. Unfortunately, many adults either forgot, or never knew, that Scouting was all about boys leading boys. Baden-Powell also envisioned that Scouting would teach skills of the hands, the head and the heart. As Bánáthy sized up the first fifty years, he was clearly dissatisfied that Scouting had mainly succeeded in teaching hand skills.

I believe the first thing Bánáthy wanted White Stag to accomplish was to re-inject Scouting with Baden-Powell’s idea that boys lead boys. His second purpose was to find a way to teach them those head skills—leadership—not by happenstance but by design.

The early supporters

In the early years, several Monterey-area Scouters supported Bánáthy—and some opposed him. Among the supporters, a few had his foresight but not the understanding he had acquired through rigorous study of the literature of leadership theory and practice. Others didn’t have a clue what he was trying to accomplish or how, but took it on faith that he was on the right track.

Besides Bánáthy, White Stag recognizes three of its earliest supporters as cofounders: Fran Petersen of Chualar, Calif., and later Capitola, Calif., who died in 2002 at age 89; Paul Sujan of Monterey, who died in 2003 at 86; and Joe St. Clair of Pacific Grove, Calif., and later Scotts Valley, Calif., who passed away on January 4, 2008. Bánáthy, who moved from his long-time Carmel home to Chico, Calif., shortly before he died, passed away in 2003 at 83.

Bánáthy, St. Clair (an Anglicized version of the Hungarian name, Szent-Kírályí), and Sujan (pronounced “shoo-yan”) were avid Scouts in their native Hungary, which they fled at the end of World War II when the Soviets took over. After resettling in the United States, each taught Hungarian at the military’s Defense Language Institute (DLI) at the Presidio of Monterey. They all had careers in education, St. Clair as an instructor and administrator and Sujan as an instructor at DLI. As befit his intellect and ambition, Bánáthy eventually left DLI and moved on to senior positions at the Far West Laboratory for Educational Research and Development (now WestEd) and later the Saybrook Graduate School and Research Center, both in San Francisco.

Petersen was a native Californian. For many years he ran the family business, a beer distributorship in the Salinas Valley. He later worked as general manager of a startup fiber optics company founded by Maurice Tripp, another early White Stag supporter who would get my vote as the fifth cofounder. Tripp died in 1999 at 83.

Bánáthy, St. Clair, Sujan and Tripp all attended the 1933 World Jamboree. St. Clair said he met Bánáthy briefly but did not meet the other two until years later. He doubts Sujan met the other two at the Jamboree because he was in the Sea Scouts, who were encamped a long way from Gödöllő. I couldn’t find anyone who knew if Bánáthy and Tripp met in 1933 or how they connected 25 years later. (It is confirmed that Baden-Powell tasted Sujan’s chili.) At the closing ceremony, Baden-Powell urged the 26,000 Scouts to always follow the White Stag because it would lead them onward and upward.

Among White Stag’s cofounders, Bánáthy was the visionary, espousing lofty concepts. Petersen had vast Scouting experience and knew the language of business and management. He couched Bánáthy’s ideas in language average Scouters could grasp and he knew where the political land mines were in the local council. “I don’t think Fran had much influence on the philosophical part of White Stag,” St. Clair said. “But he helped put it into English that anyone could understand.”

St. Clair helped, too. A practical-minded educator, he always looked for ways to transform theory into useful tools for Scouts and Scoutmasters. He also understood Bánáthy’s cultural quirks and Hungarian temperament. His bona fides included Wood Badge adult training in England; service on the council executive committee, and many years as the Scoutmaster of a successful boy-led troop in Pacific Grove.

Sujan’s talents were quite different from the others: He possessed the tenacity of a beaver to get things done, the perseverance of a squirrel to find things, and the mentality of a pack rat to keep stuff. (I think he’d be tickled by that description.)

One founder, many fathers

These were all serious men deeply committed to public service, due in part, no doubt, to the world calamities that shaped them. Even amid the chaos of the early 21st century, it is hard to fathom the tumult the three Hungarians and their families lived through. Each had an inspiring story about how they survived the war, and then escaped to rebuild and live new lives in their adoptive country. Although Petersen’s family was not wrenched by the aftermath of war, he survived the sinking of two combat ships while serving as a naval officer in the Pacific.

The last living member of this quartet of remarkable men bristled at the notion that White Stag had many founders. “There was only one founder and that was Béla,” St. Clair told me emphatically in an interview at his Scotts Valley home. “I know Paul felt that way. I can’t speak for Fran but I believe that was his thinking, too. What the rest of us were doing was trying to sustain it, to nurse it along, move it along. In some instances to stop it from dying because it was frequently on the verge of dying.”

If Bánáthy was the only founder, then White Stag had many caring fathers without whom it would have perished. Petersen, Sujan and St. Clair were the most important but there were others. Among them, Paul Hood is almost forgotten because he was not deeply involved in Scouting; he created a curriculum for leadership by design for the military and encouraged Bánáthy to adapt it. Tripp, an inventor-entrepreneur, a long-time Scoutmaster in Saratoga, Calif., and a member of Scouting’s National Council, was one of the early evangelists for White Stag. John Larson, a National Council executive, was White Stag’s best friend in the professional ranks, the man who lobbied, against stiff opposition, for leadership by design in JLT and Wood Badge.

I was fortunate to know all these men and other early supporters, to learn from them, and to understand the role each played in the founding of White Stag. I especially had memorable friendships with each of the four founding fathers.

I knew Petersen the best, although St. Clair would be a near second. Petersen and I were especially close in 1970, 1974 and 1975, the three years he mentored me when I was Scoutmaster of the White Stag program for troop leaders, known variously over the years as Level III or Troop Leader Development. We also worked together on the 1973 National Jamboree staff. In the mid-1960s, St. Clair was Scoutmaster and I was Senior Patrol Leader of Troop 129 in Pacific Grove. He sent me to White Stag as a candidate in 1964. My forty-year friendship with his third son, George, who is my age, has kept me close to the family all these years.

I first got to know Sujan under tragic circumstances, when his son, Peter, my contemporary and fellow camp staffer, died in a car accident in 1973. We worked together in happier times during my Scoutmaster years of 1974 and 1975. I had the good sense to let one of my assistants with more patience than I had deal with Sujan in camp. The assistant, Paul Davis, worked out so well he later became Sujan’s son-in-law.

As for Bánáthy, although I worked with him professionally, I probably knew him the least because he was, frankly, the hardest to get to know.

A mystic shrouded in abstraction

From the first time I met Bánáthy in the late 1960s, I experienced him as an enigmatic figure with a mystical aura. A pure gentleman with a dash of Old World nobility, he might have been the most soft-spoken man I ever met and he relentlessly used abstract phrases as a kind of shorthand to save words or entire sentences of plain language. I had to work hard not only to hear him but to comprehend. Considering he was a linguistics expert, I found it ironic that it was not that easy to communicate with him.

An ordained minister, and the son of a Protestant preacher, Bánáthy was a deeply religious man. He certainly viewed his own life as a public service mission to improve humankind’s chances of surviving its self-inflicted follies. He held a kind of secular faith in education as the key to this quest.

A decorated Hungarian army officer he fought the Russians and was wounded. At the end of World War II, fearing what the Soviets might do to them, the Bánáthy family escaped to Austria where they lived in refugee camps for five years before immigrating to the United States. Two of the four sons were separated from the family for nine years, living in Hungary with an uncle. Bánáthy felt deep love for his adoptive country but remained an internationalist at heart. I remember one conversation in which he told me he was a citizen of the world first and an American second. His eldest son, Béla Bánáthy Jr., said his father maintained that thinking until the end of his life.

I never worked with him in the Scouts, although our first encounter, in 1968, came at Camp Pico, where I was on staff, at a day-long symposium on leadership. Several camp staff members attended. So did Hood, Tripp, Larson and others from outside the council, and various council leaders, including Bánáthy, Petersen and St. Clair. (If Sujan was in camp that day, he spent more time at the quartermaster shed than at the symposium.) After that, I only saw Bánáthy at one or two other Scouting events.

By studying his master’s degree thesis on leadership development in 1970, my first year as a White Stag Scoutmaster, I came to understand some of his thinking. Compared to his later writings, about systems design, the thesis was relatively easy reading. Completed in 1963, it discussed the discovery method, and several, but not all the leadership competencies now used, crediting Hood’s project.

In late 1972, when I was fresh out of college, Bánáthy recruited me to work at Far West Lab. Bánáthy, who had earned his doctorate degree in education from University of California at Berkeley and followed Hood to the lab, was one of the architects of a master’s degree program in education R&D at San Francisco State University, in which I studied until I left the lab for journalism school in 1975.

I worked on two projects with Bánáthy, including one to adapt the leadership curriculum to vocational education in the public schools. He always found time to discuss work or Scouting with me, including what I was doing as White Stag Scoutmaster. He was especially interested in 1975 when I brought women into White Stag, a move he said was long overdue. In the years I knew him, Bánáthy was well on his way to an intellectual plane that most of us never reach, somewhere in the realms of science and philosophy.

Chiorini and St. Clair both recalled a different Bánáthy in the early years. “He was very practical and down to earth when he founded White Stag,” St. Clair said. “As the years went on, he became more and more abstract. And then he soared into dimensions that Fran and I and others couldn’t understand. You had to absorb him and become like him to understand him.”

That was the Béla I knew.

The not-so loyal opposition

Although Bánáthy’s ideas were big and bold, in the early years he presented them in understandable language easily translated into practical action. Little was written down at first; it was all in his head. Being able to talk it through was important. Bánáthy had people like Petersen and St. Clair who were only a step or two behind him intellectually and capable of translating into Scoutmaster lingo when his own words were inadequate.

Still, there were doubters. “The reaction was mixed the first time Béla talked about White Stag at the council executive committee,” said St. Clair, who was at that meeting. “There were people like me who knew him and trusted him. They may not have understood what he was talking about but they accepted it and did not oppose it. There were an equal number of people telling him we should not do this in Scouting.”

I concede I never fully understood the opposition, which persisted for years. Due to its special élan, White Stag may have appeared to be a bunch of elitists who claimed to know it all about leadership. But the program was never exclusive; there was always room for anyone to participate in some way. In truth, White Stag was only a somewhat more systematic approach to what Scouting was supposed to be: a boy-led outdoor program. A few opponents may have been offended by what they perceived as a pagan legend that was White Stag’s inspirational theme. Others may have been jealous that funny-talking outsiders were behind the program; Bánáthy and St. Clair still had thick Hungarian accents, which softened in later years. Some may have objected to the military influence, although the competencies defined by Hood’s project are universal skills, applicable in any group. For a few opponents, White Stag was no doubt just too intellectually demanding.

There were also personality conflicts. “Béla did not hit it off with some people,” St. Clair admitted. Like many visionaries, he lacked diplomacy. “Béla didn’t do much to cotton up to people. He felt it was below his dignity,” St. Clair said. “He couldn’t have done the program in 1958 without informing the council. But he believed so strongly in the concept that he didn’t care whether it was acceptable or not, he was going to do it.”

In the end, the local council gave White Stag its blessing but not in perpetuity. Petersen, St. Clair and others had to fight similar battles long after Bánáthy left the picture. Sadly, I think White Stag sometimes was a divisive force in its own council with enough blame for both sides. However, any controversy it caused locally, and the uproar leadership development by design created at the National Council, seems almost quaint today compared to the recent public debates over certain Scouting policies.

Despite conflict, White Stag grew slowly, thanks to Petersen, who had the advantage of being a respected hometown guy. St. Clair credited Petersen for spreading White Stag throughout the Monterey area and Tripp for taking it beyond, attracting the first non-council Scouts, then bringing it to the attention of the National Council. “Bánáthy’s case grew stronger primarily because of Petersen and Tripp,” he said.

A deceptively simple method

In designing the program, Bánáthy took a holistic approach, foreshadowing the systems principles he would promote during his last three decades. He viewed White Stag as a system of inter-connected parts: Environment, students, teachers, ceremonies, boy leadership, competencies and methods. All moving parts were important in the design.

He also viewed leadership development as a continuing process. To this end, he conceived a three-level program, starting with a course on patrol membership, followed by a course on patrol leadership and culminating in a course on troop leadership. Under his plan, the youth and adult leadership roles for each level comprised additional developmental phases, so that, in all, the program had nine levels: three for students, or candidates; three for youth staff and three for adult staff. Beginning in the mid 1960s we hewed closely to this scheme.

One issue Bánáthy faced was the general lack of understanding about his main teaching method. In those days, boy leaders and Scoutmasters were accustomed to rather dry lectures and stiff demonstrations at JLT and Wood Badge. This was not Bánáthy’s style. “Béla was a consummate trainer but I don’t think we consciously knew how much we were being trained,” Chiorini recalled. “It was definitely not formal training. There was a lot of discovery. He put you in a situation and let you work it out, then gave you feedback. I always had a feeling that had been Béla’s model for some time.”

In JLT jargon, the model became known as guided discovery. Its pedagogic roots date at least to John Dewey, an American educator who espoused experiential learning in the early 20th century. Simply, if bluntly put: Boys will want to learn how to pitch a tent after they’ve been drenched in a torrential downpour. Likewise, they’ll be eager to learn how to plan after the bad planning that left them unprepared for rain. In White Stag, a guided discovery meant any hurdle that required group action to overcome.

The guided discovery looks deceptively simple, which is why it is so hard. It demands great discipline and patience from the teacher (the tortuous term “manager of learning” should be banned) to allow students to sputter and fail at a hurdle, sometimes miserably so, before helping them learn the lessons they need through a process of questions and answers similar to the Socratic method, which pre-dates Dewey by about 2,500 years. The discovery method requires the teacher to know when and how to intervene with the proper lesson (perhaps before the rain falls). It requires the teacher to ask questions that will lead students to reflect upon and learn from their own experience. Our staff development always aimed to create youth staff adept at the method.

I never saw Bánáthy in action in camp but I take Chiorini’s word that he was a master of the discovery method. Petersen was the best practitioner I ever met. He would watch from a proper distance, neither too far nor too close, sometimes out of sight behind a rock or tree. He seemed to know exactly how long to allow a situation to continue, to let group dynamics play out. Then he knew exactly which question to ask. To a Senior Patrol Leader, he might offer something as simple and oblique as this: “Do you think one of your patrols is about to hit its stress point?” In my own Scoutmaster days I found myself aping many of his tactics and was inspired by his example to devise a few new ones.

In 1972, I attended an early leadership development Wood Badge course staffed by men who meant well but had no leadership development experience. Working from a syllabus written by Larson, the staff walked mechanically through pre-packaged guided discoveries. The staff was not flexible enough to seize the moment for what it offered. Some of the best guided discoveries are unplanned hurdles—a torrential downpour, for example—and those that are planned need to be handled flexibly to teach the best lesson the situation demands. For example, the guided discovery may have been intended to create a departure point for teaching topic A, but based on what happened, topic B would make more sense. The guided discovery requires a deft touch by a teacher who is flexible in mind and spirit.

Guided discoveries can backfire, too. At least one Monterey mother forbid her son ever to attend another White Stag event when she learned that he had walked around on a broken foot while the adult leaders waited for the boy leaders to react. (Hey! We were in a remote wilderness location, the kid was ambulatory and we had no way of knowing his foot was broken. We were probably not sensitive enough in this case and it is also true that overly protective adults are the bane of leadership development.)

Bánáthy, Petersen, St. Clair, Sujan and Tripp all used the discovery method, whether they called it that or not, in their home troops long before there was White Stag, and long before the National Council institutionalized it.

Did someone say competencies?

Around 1959[1]—no one I interviewed knew exactly—Bánáthy met Hood, the civilian director of a project to teach small group leadership competencies to U.S. Army sergeants and other non-commissioned officers. Hood had an office at the Presidio where Bánáthy was at the DLI. In White Stag meetings, Bánáthy soon started to talk not only about boy-led Scouting, guided discovery and leadership by design, but to sprinkle in the language of the competencies, such as getting and giving information, using the resources of the group, planning and evaluation, all of which he knew could be taught by design through guided discoveries.

“For a long time Béla had had the conviction that JLT was lacking,” St. Clair recalled. “It was not what he believed should be a well-rounded program to influence and inspire Scouts. So when by chance he came across a member of this organization stationed at the Presidio involved in military leadership training on the squad and platoon level, Béla immediately jumped in. Hood was impressed by his knowledge and his vision.”

It took a few years for the competencies to evolve into a curriculum. “I don’t remember any formal classes we ever had in the competencies,” said Chiorini. “I’m not even sure Béla knew exactly where we were going. But the whole idea of competencies and teaching them was fully developed by the time I came back to the program in 1969.”

Chiorini was active in White Stag from 1958 to 1961 before going to Stanford University and then a stint as an Air Force officer. After he returned to White Stag he remained involved for more than a decade. He credits Bánáthy for his entire career: White Stag stimulated his interest in psychology, which led to undergraduate and graduate degrees, and a career as a corporate trainer and consultant.

Whether they talked about competencies or not, Chiorini said White Stag was always experimental—and that was far more exciting than specific competencies. “I was 18 and in a position to create a program. I can’t put my finger on any specific contribution that I made but I felt I was contributing to the intellectual development of this thing. We were treated as adults and back then no one outside White Stag was treating me that way.”

Well into the 1970s, thanks largely to Petersen’s attitude, many of us on staff had similar feelings, viewing White Stag as a laboratory for leadership development. It would have lost its allure if it ever stopped being experimental or became institutionalized, both of which did come to pass. As interesting as the outdoor adventures were, the intellectual hurdles of building a new program were the real challenges. Especially in Level III, which was for the oldest boys, my staff contemporaries and I believed we should break the mold each year, try something new and see what we could learn about leadership.

Whatever we tried, we never veered from the Bánáthy fundamentals of guided discovery and boy leadership. I can’t say the same about the competencies. Even though they were pretty well flushed out by the mid-1960s, we constantly tinkered. In 1970, we reduced the number and heavily emphasized evaluation in Level III.

I don’t mean to downplay the importance of the competencies. Bánáthy clearly had something like them in mind when he conceived of leadership development by design. By design implies you are able to break down a body of thought into teachable knowledge and skills. If he had never met Hood, Bánáthy would have had to invent the competencies. And they gave the program something to show to Scoutmasters, National Council executives and others who needed concrete details.

By the time I became Scoutmaster a second time, in 1974, National Council was on the verge of adopting something like White Stag as the basis for JLT and Wood Badge. Within the local council it was politically necessary to adopt the JLT syllabus and nomenclature, to make White Stag look more like the National program and less like, uh, White Stag. I wanted us to do this without losing what made White Stag special.

In 1974 and 1975 we called it Troop Leader Development instead of Level III and taught the competencies as defined by National while keeping the experimental, adventurous and inspirational qualities that made White Stag unique. In 1974, the experiment was to recruit boys and adults for staff who had never been through White Stag to see if they could be adequately trained in a year. That year, we also used written Leadership Growth Agreements for the first time, an idea borrowed from the Wood Badge “ticket” that Scoutmasters must complete in their home troops. In 1975, my last year in White Stag, the experiment was to bring girls and women into the program.

Gimmicks and questions

By the end of the 1960s, Bánáthy had left Monterey for San Francisco and was mostly out of White Stag, yet it continued to flourish. Petersen was heavily involved for at least a few years after I left in 1975; I’m certain White Stag owes its longevity to him.

He understood better than most what leadership development meant to business, the public sector and the military—all constituents in Monterey. If a new bank president or Presidio commandant took an interest in Scouting, Petersen would soon button hole him to talk up White Stag. He was known to take school principals, preachers and Girl Scout leaders down the dusty pot-holed hairpin road into Camp Pico to show them White Stag in action. He was an artful seller of ideas, convincing many skeptical Scouters of White Stag’s value. Behind the scenes, he made sure White Stag took a business-like approach to fiscal matters.

White Stag can also thank Petersen for continuing to attract a stream of talented energetic young men to leadership positions. Like Chiorini, many of us went off to college only to have Petersen keep in touch and lure us back to White Stag years later.

Petersen’s abilities were evident from the start, even in White Stag’s second year, when he was Scoutmaster, said Chiorini. “Fran was always a problem solver. He was as well grounded in Scouting as anyone I knew. Béla looked to Fran as the American Scouter who knew the ropes. Fran probably knew more about how to raise kids than any Scoutmaster I ever met. Kids loved him and he was a great teacher.”

That’s because Petersen was concerned that each boy would learn and have fun at the same time. It helped that he knew every crag and cranny of the Ventana Wilderness, where he had done most of his own Scouting on foot and horseback. He understood better than most Scouters how to orchestrate a high adventure program that would make the best use of this natural resource and force boys into leadership opportunities.

He also had an arsenal of games and gimmicks that kept us on our toes. For example, at the beginning of a staff training day, Petersen hold up four red marbles and explain that whoever had a marble in his pocket at the end of the day got to stay and clean up the meeting hall. He liked to use non-verbal communication. When his son Jan was on youth staff, the two used bird calls to talk to each other. Petersen might stick the ends of his neckerchief into his shirt as a signal he needed to talk to his Senior Patrol Leader, keeping the lad constantly on alert.

Long before White Stag, Petersen used many of these games in his troop in Chualar, where he adapted Scouting to the needs of youth whose parents labored as migrant workers in the Salinas Valley. He also understood the importance of ceremonies and how to create inspirational moments. Petersen was more likely than anyone I ever met to start a conversation with a boy by asking him a thoughtful question. He never lost his sense of wonder at the answers he would get.

A walking, talking archive

St. Clair made many contributions, not least of which was putting three of his four sons in the program. Akos was a candidate in 1958. George and Bob spent many years on staff and served as White Stag Scoutmasters.

Perhaps St. Clair’s most important contribution was the steadying influence he provided later White Stag generations. He was literally a walking archive. Long after Bánáthy, Petersen and others faded from the picture, St. Clair stepped forward to provide the historical perspective, often with documentation, to new generations of enthusiastic but not always fully cognizant White Stag leaders.

St. Clair also understood the mechanics of a Scout troop better than most. He shared the average Scoutmaster’s skepticism of high-minded ideas. At the same time, he was happy to be the guinea pig to find out which ideas worked. With an administrator’s sensibility, he was detail oriented and knew the importance of planning. He also understood the commitments and responsibilities of each constituent in the home troop: the Scout and his family, patrol and troop leaders, and sponsoring organizations.

St. Clair was adroit at tying the lessons learned in the encampment to the home troop; he knew this was crucial to White Stag’s staying power. More than once he counseled a bewildered Scoutmaster who did not understand what his Senior Patrol Leader, fresh back from White Stag, was saying or doing.

One of his big contributions to leadership development was serving as Scoutmaster of an experimental Wood Badge course, held in Monterey in 1968. He had some great help. Bánáthy was course advisor and Petersen was Senior Patrol Leader. Larson was involved because this was one of the leadership development courses National was scrutinizing.

The course had a unique feature: After the theoretical training, each candidate brought his troop to the same session of summer camp. I was on camp staff and vividly remember that week when most of the troops were those of Scoutmasters from the Wood Badge course. This allowed the Wood Badge staff to use camp and its resources for special activities. The idea was brilliant and orchestrated by St. Clair. I don’t know if it was ever tried elsewhere. Larson was there all week, which likely contributed to his enthusiasm for leadership development and his ability to sell it to National.

Like the other Hungarians, St. Clair could be gruff but quickly turn into a soft wise owl. Serious on the surface, he had a humorous vein and a sense of irony that made him the funniest of the four founding fathers, though I cannot for the life of me remember him ever telling a joke. He had a great laugh when he let it erupt. I’m happy to report that, as he’s aged, he’s loosened up.

A pack rat’s pack rat

What can I say about Sujan? He was different from the others yet so essential to the program’s success. For the better part of four decades, he was White Stag’s one-man quartermaster operation, the ultimate logistics and procurement machine. He also used his position to teach boys how to plan and think.

“Uncle Paul,” we called him. Some of us occasionally used the same appellation for other White Stag elders, but “uncle” only stuck consistently to Paul. It was no doubt a sign of our overwhelming affection for Sujan, who had the hide of a porcupine and a heart of pure velvet.

While the rest of us were arguing the theory of guided discoveries, he was dumpster diving for No. 10 tin cans or flattering a new Presidio commandant to make sure we could continue to hold staff meetings on base. Sujan knew the competencies, but I doubt he spent much time ruminating on Bánáthy’s philosophy. He knew in his heart that his fellow Hungarian was on the right path. It tells you everything you need to know about the difference between Bánáthy and Sujan that the former had been an army officer and the latter a sergeant.

Sujan was the consummate teacher, content to be a career language instructor. At DLI, he was more popular than Bánáthy, St. Clair recalled. “He was one of the best liked teachers in the department. His students loved him and kept in touch with him long after they left. They certainly learned from him because of his personality.” He was so enthusiastic about teaching his native tongue, that Sujan even taught me some Hungarian words over the years, including a few that can be uttered in public.

Given White Stag’s periodic conflict with the council, an autonomous quartermaster was essential. It was imperative the program stand on its own feet financially and logistically because we never knew if the local executives would favor it or fry it. (It never fried it but it did come close.) In this context, Sujan’s dumpster heroics were crucial. “He was a typical quartermaster,” St. Clair said. “He had no patience for philosophical arguments. He was an extremely practical minded person who cared about the practical needs of the program.”

He could also be difficult to deal with. With the thickest accent of the three Hungarians—which he never lost—a stinky cheap cigar and a brusque manner, he could be intimidating. There was never any malice; it was simply his no nonsense approach to life. Nearly every encounter I had with him was a guided discovery of some sort, with me walking away trying to figure out what I had just learned.

In his own way, Sujan was an unrelenting teacher of leadership skills, David Stein recalled. Stein, a Scouter in Oakland, Calif., got involved with White Stag in 1974 and remained active through the mid-1980s, including three years as director. “Uncle Paul used every request for a piece of rope as a learning opportunity,” he said. “How many pieces, what length, what size, why? Any candidate who spent any time with him learned to think and to plan.”

For Sujan, a devout Catholic, church was the only thing more sacred than Scouting, but not by much. A long-time Cub leader, he loved kids as much as he loved life itself. It was a joy to watch him show a lad how to sharpen a knife or tie a knot. Sujan was also the only founding father who had a daughter, Margarete, who participated in White Stag.

The creative force

My last two years in White Stag, 1974 and 1975, coincided with my last two years at Far West Lab. By then, Bánáthy was far along the systems design path he would follow the rest of his professional life. His first book on the subject, “Instructional Systems,” published in 1968, was hard to understand unless you were part of the systems tribe. But as I slogged through it, I could see White Stag ideas in systems theory and systems theory in how he had designed White Stag.

It wasn’t just Scouting he was leaving behind intellectually. Fellow lab professionals, especially those who came from public schools, rolled their eyes at some of the things Bánáthy said and wrote. One office wag often said sarcastically: “Systems design means you draw three overlapping circles on a page and call them interrelated.”

That was not only unfair but grossly simplistic. Just as the guided discovery was Bánáthy’s method for teaching leadership, systems design became his method for understanding, organizing and trying to improve a world whose problems were becoming exceedingly complex and interrelated. His circles on the page overlapped because in reality the systems each circle represented were interrelated.

Bánáthy argued that the issues facing mankind were so enormous that traditional techniques for identifying a problem, then getting experts to solve it without consideration of the people or the system or the environment in which it existed, was wholly inadequate. He argued that experts weren’t the only ones who should be solving the problem but anyone involved in the system or influenced by it. He saw this as democracy in its most advanced form. The notion is not that far removed from one of the basic White Stag ideas: That leadership is a group function, not a quality or trait vested in one person.

Just as Bánáthy saw leadership as a set of competencies that could be applied to any group, he saw systems design principles as a formula for attacking any complex problem, including the many educational issues he tackled at Far West Lab. He was an idealist but not a naïve idealist. He understood it would take years for a critical mass of people to adopt his view, which is why he devoted the last 30 years of his life to spreading this gospel. He considered this mission to be far more important to society than any contribution White Stag might have made.

“My father would have seen the systems work as his greatest contribution,” Béla Bánáthy Jr. told me. “He basically defined a certain approach to designing systems that is fairly unique and he applied it in many areas. He would have seen White Stag as just one manifestation of it. Public education was another.”

Bánáthy Jr., one of the two sons separated from the family by the Iron Curtain for nine years, was a White Stag candidate in 1958 or 1959—he didn’t recall exactly. White Stag made such a big impression on him that he didn’t remember much other than a hurdle to cross a creek and an inspiring ceremony. He conceded that he had fonder memories of a trip to Philmont and working at Camp Pico than of White Stag.

After assuming for years that he had little in common with his father, about twenty years ago the son made a discovery: He shared his father’s passion for systems design. Bánáthy Jr., who was 61 when I interviewed him in late 2004, majored in computer science in college then directed the computer lab at Monterey Peninsula College for two decades. He became interested in the application of computer system design principles to social problems, earning a doctorate degree in systems design at Berkeley. During a rare visit with his parents in the early 1980s, he discovered in his father’s library some of the books on systems theory that had captured his own imagination.

“The systems linkage was the first thing that brought us together after years of not seeing much of each other,” he recalled. From that point on, they shared many conversations about systems design and attended conferences together. The younger Bánáthy still teaches in the Saybrook graduate program his father created in the 1980s.

As father and son got to know each other, the elder told the younger about the experiences that had shaped his life’s work. As early as the 1933 World Jamboree Bánáthy participated in discussions with Scouts from central Europe about the need for some kind of democratic confederation among the region’s nations. At the end of the war, Bánáthy and his fellow officers, who were about to surrender to the Americans rather than face a Soviet firing squad, discussed the issues facing their generation, including the need for some kind of regional confederation. As they talked, these soon-to-be ex-officers committed themselves to lives of purpose that would benefit future generations.

“My dad had this profound concern for future generations. It was a compelling theme throughout his work,” Bánáthy said. “Most of his later work was around groups identifying core values and nurturing them. The systems approach was the methodology.”

When he mentioned this, I recalled a conversation I had with his father, one of our last before I left Far West Lab, about core values and education. Returning to an old theme, he said when he looked at Scouting as created by Baden-Powell, he saw success only in the area of hand skills. He believed White Stag was a way to teach head skills. The next challenge, he said, was to find ways to teach skills of the heart—or values—by design. That was a quest he pursued for the rest of his life.

Time will ultimately judge Bánáthy’s contribution to everything he did after White Stag but his legacy to Scouting is already as crystal clear as the upper reaches of the Little Sur River. No matter how different today’s JLT programs are from Bánáthy’s vision, there is no denying he caused a major shift in thinking in Scouting and the forging of a new model for training youth and adult leaders. Few social innovators see such dramatic results in their own lifetimes.

Bánáthy couldn’t have foreseen any of this in the summer of 1957 when he recruited Chiorini to teach his patrol at Camp Pico. “I don’t think Béla or Fran Petersen or anyone envisioned White Stag would be exported in those early years,” Chiorini said. “No one was thinking about exporting it. The point was not to create an institution but to create a concept. I think White Stag’s longevity must have surprised Béla.”

After a contemplative pause, Chiorini added words that are truer still: “I have the feeling that if Béla were to drop back into the program today he would be compelled to create something new. His contribution was as a creative force. The visionary will always be far ahead of the rest of us and then dissatisfied with the vision he has created.”

© Bill Roberts 2005

About the author:

After three years at Far West Laboratory, Bill Roberts turned to journalism, eventually holding leadership positions at newspapers and magazines, where he often applied lessons learned at White Stag. Roberts contributed to the reportage that won the San Jose Mercury News a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Since 1995, he has worked as a freelance writer in Silicon Valley, covering technology and business for various magazines. When he wrote this article in early 2005, Roberts was living in a Shinto religious community in Japan, working on a book about traditional Japanese arts as a spiritual path. You never know where the White Stag will lead.

Unattributed opinions expressed here are strictly his own.


[1] ^ Chiorini was adamant that there was no discussion of competencies in that first year or so. He was actively involved for three or four years before going to college. 1958, '59, '60 and '61. I think he was Scoutmaster in ’61. And he doesn’t recall much discussion even then of the competencies. Personally, I knew the competencies were evolving throughout the 1960s. It oversimplifies matters to say Bánáthy conceived of the 11 competencies now enshrined in Scouting’s training literature. I can’t honestly say I even heard the term “manager of learning” (I hate that) until after National published a syllabus.

 
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