By Kathryn G. Menu
The New York chapter of the American Legion sponsored summer leadership and citizenship program, Boys State, has boasted at least one Sag Harbor resident at its annual retreat since its founding in 1935.
Until last year, that is.
“We didn’t get anyone that wanted to go,” said Martin Knab, commander of the Sag Harbor American Legion Chelberg & Battle Post this week.
With the help of local Boys State alumni, Knab hopes to change that this year by getting the word out that attending Boys State can open up a world of opportunities for successful candidates.
In addition to spending a week with students from across New York at the State University of New York at Morrisville in June, students are given a crash course in local government, and the program can boost college applications and open up scholarship opportunities, said Knab.
It also allows candidates to be part of an over 70-year-old tradition nationwide that has drawn the likes of former President Bill Clinton, astronaut Neil Armstrong, journalist Tom Brokaw and basketball great Michael Jordan.
Boys State was founded in 1935, and is considered one of the most selective programs in government instruction in the United States. Candidates are selected by their local American Legion Post, and are sent as delegates to state-sponsored conferences where they learn about how local and state governments operate, as well lessons in citizenship and state law.
Delegates from each Boys State across the country are chosen to attend Boys Nation, which takes place in Washington, D.C., and educates students specifically about the functions of the federal government.
Christopher Dent was already interested in government when the American Legion in Sag Harbor selected him for Boys State in 2000. Shortly after the program, Dent said he made the decision to study Political Science at McGill University rather than Engineering.
“Boys State was a memorable experience,” said Dent. “At the core of the program was a mock government, independently established by high school students. While this ‘government’ we created was far from perfect, it taught us about the complexity of working with such a large group of people, and, importantly, the compromises that must be made.”
In addition to morning assemblies featuring government officials, and the creation of the mock city, county and state governments, other activities include presentations on law enforcement, as well as recreational activities like band and chorus and athletics.
Boys State candidates are “chaperoned” by members of the United States Marine Corps who drill them daily, enforce regular physical exercise and military habits such as how to keep one’s bunk clean.
“While this was an intimidating prospect for a 16-year-old kid, it turned out to be one of the best aspects of the program,” said Dent. “The Marines assigned to us were tough, but they were genuinely nice guys, who, while we were teaching ourselves about government, taught us the basics of adult life — getting up early, exercising every day, keeping our spaces neat and self confidence. That might sound pretty basic for teenagers on the verge of heading out on their own, but they were good life lessons taught at just the right time.”
After graduation, Dent worked for The Scientific Association Dedicated to Excellence in Analytical Methods (AOAC) where he was the administrative lead on several government contracts through the Department of Homeland Security, Department of Defense and the Environmental Protection Agency.
He currently lives in Scotland, fulfilling the dream of his wife to live abroad, and is an independent consultant for AOAC while seeking full time employment in Edinburgh’s government and financial sectors.
For Nicholas McErlean, 21, traveling to Boys State with classmate William Yeni in 2006 was something he will never forget, in particular the 6 a.m. drills, occasionally in the rain.
The rigors of daily drills aside, it was the one-on-one conversations with members of the Marine Corps about their own experiences in combat that stayed with McErlean.
“At the time, I was very interested in pursuing a military career,” said McErlean, who is finishing up his criminal justice degree at Suffolk Community College. “So sitting down and having this conversation meant a lot to me. It was a humbling experience, hearing about serving overseas, watching friends killed in action.”
While the week revolved heavily around these activities, McErlean said it was also the chance to taste the experience of college-life, living in a dorm, meeting new people.
“It really prepared me for college,” said McErlean. “And I made a lot of good friends I am still in touch with.”
As the parent of a Boys State candidate, Dent’s mother, Elizabeth, said the experience was a feather in her son’s cap, but being chosen by the Legion was also an honor, culminating in the opportunity to read The Gettysburg Address after the Sag Harbor Village Memorial Day parade.
For McErlean, reading the address in front of Sag Harbor’s veterans was a privilege, and one he shares with Dent and each Boys State candidate the Legion selects.
This year, Knab hopes to restore that village tradition by attracting new candidates to Boys State and ensuring Sag Harbor continues to have representation at the annual conference, which will be held this year from June 26 to July1.
Interested Pierson High School juniors should contact their guidance counselors, and send a letter of interest to the Post at Chelberg & Battle Post 388, PO Box 541 Sag Harbor, NY 11963.