WILLIAM HILLCOURT

 

"Scoutmaster to the World"

 

 
by Nelson R. Block


The campfire yarn of that great storyteller, Bill Hillcourt, begins in the town of Aarhus, Denmark, August 6, 1900. He was christened Vilhelm Bjerregaard Jensen. The besieged Col. Baden-Powell, who would be such an important figure in Bill's young life, had been relieved in Mafeking less than three months earlier. The youngest of three boys, Bill had a busy and happy childhood, in a family headed by his father, Johannes Hans Bjerregaard Jensen, a prosperous building contractor, and his mother, Andrea Christine (nee Pedersen).

Bill was well educated, attending the prestigious cathedral school in the town. He had friends at school, but spent much of his time alone, roaming the woods outside town. His mother worried about him being alone, but none of his friends shared his enthusiasm for the wild spaces Bill enjoyed so, and Bill had no program to attract his playmates there.

When Bill was ten, his brother Harald, eleven years older and a book-seller, sent him a Christmas present which was to change his life, as well as the lives of countless other boys. Baden-Powell's Scouting for Boys was a success throughout Europe, and had been translated into Danish. Bill read it, and learned that Scouts did the kinds of things he wanted to do on his woodland treks. He learned that one became a Scout by joining a patrol, or by forming one among his friends. This Bill did immediately. His early Scouting was a checkered affair. Although his patrol certainly did the sort of adventurous backwoods activities he hoped for, their regular meetings in the packing house which belonged to a member's father sometimes devolved into "war games" which were wilder and more boisterous than Bill enjoyed.

About 1912, the Danish economy suffered a depression and Bill's father lost his contracting business and properties. He sought and won the contracts for building depots for the expanding net of the Danish state railroad, and the family moved several times to be with him. Bill's Scouting suffered, as he moved from place to place with each relocation. Scout troops were far apart in these early days of Danish Scouting.

In 1916, the family was back in Aarhus, and Bill had reformed the Peewit Patrol. It was his best. With Bill at the Peewit's head as patrol leader, they tackled all manner of Scouting activity. They camped on an island in a nearby lake. They put on large-scale theatricals with other patrols to raise money. They tramped the countryside. They hiked and camped one summer along the west coast of Denmark. Bill flourished. He attained the rank of Knight-Scout, the highest in Danish Scouting, in 1917. His circle of influence grew. His patrol was part of a real troop. As the most senior of the patrol leaders in the troop, he often led the group as a whole. He came into contact with other Scout troops in the community, and began to see the wider circle which Scouting formed.

By 1920, Bill was helping to lead the troop on a regular basis. He was also studying to become a pharmacist, the beginning of his interest in practical scientific matters. In recognition of his leadership and advancement, his troop selected him to represent it in the Danish contingent to the first World jamboree at Olympia, in London, where he would first meet B-P.

Bill's interest in Scouting back in Denmark began to take a serious, adult focus. He became Scoutmaster of a troop and a trainer in national training courses. He wrote for the national Danish Scout journal, then was given the task of editing it. His interest in journalism grew, as he also wrote for newspapers and published his first book, The Island, based on his island experience with the Peewits.

In 1925, Bill decided to take off to see the world, with a Scouting flair. He wanted to investigate Scouting in other countries, with the idea of bringing back the best ideas for use in Denmark. He would start out in the United States.

Bill's plan was to work his way along. In the U.S., he spent the summer of 1926 working in a New York Scout camp. He then obtained a job at the B.S.A. offices. One day, while working in the Supply Service warehouse with boxes of U.S. Army semaphore signal flag poles – surplus from World War I – a large box of flag poles fell and hit Bill, breaking his right leg. He was laid up for a week, then left the hospital on crutches.

One Friday, when Bill went into the office to pick up his mail from Denmark, he met Chief Scout Executive James E. West, also waiting for an elevator. The two got into conversation. As the national office was still a rather small operation in those days, even Dr. West knew of the young Dane who had been hurt.

He asked Bill how he was getting along and what he thought of American Scouting.

The elevator came. They rode down together, then parted. Bill felt his ideas merited more than a few remarks made while waiting for an elevator. He wrote a detailed memorandum and sent it to Dr. West. It caught the Chief Scout Executive's interest, and he invited Bill to work permanently with the B.S.A. on program and editorial assignments. Thus began Bill's lifework in earnest.

Bill, like many staff members at the old national office, often had assignments direct from Dr. West. This put Bill in contact with the Chief's staff, including one lovely, dark-haired, fun-loving young woman, Grace Brown, from Yonkers. Bill tried to find out about her around the office, and was met by the rumor (started by a secretary who had her eye on the tall, fair-haired, ruggedly good-looking young Dane) that Grace had said, as a teenager, that she would never marry a foreigner; she would never marry a blond; she would never get married in June. Well, Bill always enjoyed a challenge. Their courtship lasted several months, with Bill proposing just a few weeks before the sailing date, on June 3, 1933, of the steamship he had in mind for a honeymoon in Europe. Grace accepted, though this made her a June bride. They were married at dawn the morning they left New York. Their honeymoon lasted 100 days, and was mostly spent cycling through western Europe – no mean feat for a girl who had until then never learned to bicycle.

Back home, Bill began writing and editing Scouting magazine. In his long memo to Dr. West, he had suggested that the Boy Scouts of America needed a handbook for patrol leaders. He had insisted that it had best be done by someone who had actually been a patrol leader, as well as a Scoutmaster.

Dr. West agreed, and Bill – a Dane with Danish his first language – was commissioned to write the first American Handbook for Patrol Leaders.

With the Handbook, for Patrol Leaders published in 1929, Dr. West pulled Bill in on a related job, one which was aimed at saving Boys' Life. The Great Depression was upon America, and magazines designed for the youth market were about to become extinct. Boys' Life had been able to hold on for a time because of B.S.A. backing, but it would have to become self-supporting if it was to stay in print. The B.S.A. appealed to the Rockefeller Foundation for a loan to keep Boys' Life afloat. The Foundation agreed to a moderate amount of support, with the conditions that Dr. West serve as editor and that the magazine feature more Scouting activities. Bill was to see to satisfying the latter condition, and one means of doing so was to publish a monthly page telling patrol leaders (and their patrol members) how to advance in Scouting and live outdoors with their patrol. The patrol leader of the Aarhus Troop 1's Peewits had become the patrol leader of America. Green Bar Bill was born October 1, 1932.

In the years that followed, Bill's role expanded from the B.S.A.'s chief journalist on Scoutcraft and troop leadership to one of its primary program researchers and developers. Bill was never satisfied to dream up a project or menu, he wanted to try it out, play with it, and perfect it before telling Scouts to do it. He decided the best way to accomplish this would be to again take the leadership of a Scout troop. And he quickly found the perfect location, the village of Mendham, New Jersey, just outside the newly donated Schiff Scout Reservation. Bill and Grace convinced Dr. West to allow them to convert an old stone sheep barn into a house for the two of them, where Bill could be close to the troop and on location of the B.S.A. national training center located at Schiff. The idea was a success, and for almost twenty years Mendham's Troop 1 was the "experimental" troop of the B.S.A.

At Schiff, Bill and Grace had a fateful meeting with Lord and Lady Baden-Powell. In 1935, when the B-P's visited the U.S., they were taken out to visit Schiff. There was a reception for the visitors, at which they were introduced to many of the members of the national staff and their wives. As Lady Baden-Powell met each of the wives, she inquired as to whether they helped their husbands in their Scout work. Most replied that they helped by taking care of the children and home while their husbands traveled on Scout business. When Lady B-P met Grace, she received a somewhat different reply. Grace told her about their accommodations at Schiff and its purpose, how Grace typed and edited Bill's manuscripts for Scout publications and tailored many of their weekly meals around Bill's experiments for patrol menus. Suddenly, Grace found herself being led by the hand away from the other wives, toward Lord Baden-Powell and Dr. West. "Darling," Lady B-P said, "these are the kind of people we've been hoping to meet." Within minutes, B-P had been apprised of the Hillcourt family efforts on behalf of Scouting, and decided to attend breakfast at their cottage the next morning. Thus began a friendship with Lord and Lady Baden-Powell which would last as long as the B-P's were alive, and continue with their children and grandchildren.

The next 30 years were productive ones for Bill. The Scout Movement was growing in the U.S. and program ideas, as well as the written materials and training programs to go with them, were growing as well. Bill authored the first Scout Field Book (still a classic text on basic campcraft and nature lore), two editions of the Handbook for Scoutmasters and two editions of the Boy Scout Handbook, as well as articles for Boys' Life (sometimes two a month) and Scouting magazine. In 1936, Bill took Wood Badge training under John Skinner Wilson, Camp Chief of Gilwell Park. After World War II, he was instrumental in bringing the Wood Badge course to the U.S. He became the first Gilwell Deputy Camp Chief of the U.S.A. in 1948 and the first B.S.A. Wood Badge Scoutmaster. He edited B-P's Scouting for Boys and Aids to Scoutmastership to be used to help revitalize Scouting in war-torn countries; the books have been translated into more than twenty languages. He helped develop junior leader training courses and new requirements for Boy Scout advancement. He corresponded with Scouters in other countries, advising them on training. He met Scouters from around the nation and the world at National and World Jamborees, which he religiously attended.

Throughout his work with the national office, Bill maintained his dogged effort to see that material was thoroughly researched, well-organized and invitingly presented. Boys and leaders must be taught Scoutcraft that worked. The national staff must set an example in living up to the standards they proposed others live by. Those who did not measure up were in for a discussion with Bill. Even if it was the Chief Scout Executive.

One day Bill was at Schiff, and walked in on Dr. West's address to a new class of Scout executives. The Chief noticed Bill at the rear of the room and said, "Here's Bill Hillcourt. He'll have something which will be good for us to hear, even though we may not like it." Bill proceeded to make a few impromptu remarks, including telling the new executives they should appear in uniform at training events, unlike Dr. West, who was wearing a business suit. The next day a memo went out from the Chief's office, mandating the wearing of proper Scout uniform by all members of the national staff at training events.

Bill retired from professional service with the B.S.A. in 1965. He had devoted all of his free time during the previous four years to researching and writing, with the assistance of Lady Baden-Powell and Grace, the first authoritative biography of B-P. Published under the title Baden-Powell – The Two Lives of a Hero, it was translated into seven foreign languages and became the standard reference work on this world figure.

Bill and Grace traveled widely, visiting Scout friends and helping to develop and implement training programs for Scout associations all over the world. Grace died in 1973, leaving Bill bereft of his great friend, companion and helpmate. He pressed on with his volunteer Scout work.

Bill disliked new program changes made in the 1970's, which he thought de-emphasized the outdoor aspects of Scouting. In 1978, Bill convinced Chief Scout Executive Harvey L. Price to allow him to write a new Boy Scout Handbook, bringing back the outdoor orientation. Bill did this gratis, and within one year brought out a new, Ninth Edition, entitled The Official Boy Scout Handbook; it was an immediate success. His efforts were recognized by the National Court of Honor with the award of the Silver Buffalo for distinguished service to American youth; his citation called him "The Voice of Scouting".

Bill's last years were spent as Scouting's worldwide goodwill ambassador. Even though his Green Bar Bill column had disappeared from the pages of Boys' Life in the 1980's, Scouts who had never seen in print his famous "Bill" signature superimposed on two green bars lined up for hours at a time to get the genuine article handwritten on their handbook or Order of the Arrow sash. Bill signed 7,423 autographs at the 1989 B.S.A. National Jamboree. He made dozens of public appearances at local Scouting events annually, and he corresponded with hundreds of Scouters of many nations, offering advice and encouragement. He was awarded the highest Scouting recognition of a dozen countries, as well as the Bronze Wolf, the highest award of World Scouting.

On November 9, 1992, while on the last leg of a world Scouting tour, Bill passed away in Sweden, a day away from his boyhood home in Denmark.

Of all the wide-eyed boys who ever were introduced to the hardy life of outdoor adventure through Scouting, none served so many of his brother Scouts so well, for so long, so devotedly, as Bill. He was, as one of his friends once called him, the "Scoutmaster to the World."


©1993 The Journal of Scouting History
c/o Nelson R. Block
910 Travis Street, Suite 2400
Houston, Texas 77002