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Fifteen years ago, Scouting and I both lost a great friend

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  • Fifteen years ago, Scouting and I both lost a great friend

    In 1991, I was 19 years old and William "Green Bar Bill" Hillcourt was 91. He used to get a kick out of the symmetry of those numbers, and the fact that we spent nearly every day of that year together as unlikely friends.

    I had come to know Bill Hillcourt not unlike thousands of others he met each year... I waited in line at the 1989 National Jamboree to have a couple of books signed for my Scoutmaster back home. I really didn't know or think much about who Bill was, I just knew the recipients of those books would appreciate that I had gotten his signature on one of more than 30 books Bill had written on Scouting and the outdoors.

    We had a brief conversation that hot summer day of the Jamboree, but it resonated. The following year in organizing for the 75th anniversary NOAC, I reached out to Bill and asked him to write a memoir of his friend Urner Goodman for the event publicity material. The friendship took hold, as we swapped drafts and edits over several months.

    Soon Bill invited me along to travel with him as he toured the country visiting Scouting events each weekend, speaking to thousands who were enchanted by his passion and zeal for the Movement of Scouting. We spent the summer of 1991 in Seoul as honored guests of the World Jamboree. It was there, when we stepped off the plane and were greeted by Korean Scouts who clamored for Bill's attention that I first began to appreciate the worldwide impact Hillcourt had on Scouting.

    Later that year, I left my home and moved across the country to live with Bill in New York, helping him publish new editions of his Baden-Powell biography. As a young man Bill had a special relationship with Baden-Powell, who was in the twilight of his life. He admired and learned much from his friend.

    Bill and I conducted interviews for hours each day, talking about the history of Scouting and the history of the world, all from a firsthand perspective. In retrospect, I missed so much of an opportunity to learn more from him, and I was so unprepared of the opportunity or responsibility, but it was an amazing gift nonetheless.

    We spent most of 1992 traveling and writing and talking. Late that summer, Bill left for an around the world trip for Scouting (I stayed behind to coordinate a book release that was coming off the press, and was to meet up with him in his native Denmark in a few weeks). His trip began in Japan, where a new translation of one of his Scouting books was being released, and on to Moscow. This was just after the fall of the Soviet Union, and Bill had been asked to come to Russia and help draft Scoutmaster training materials for an emerging program that had been hidden for decades in the shadows.

    He went on to Sweden, where he spent some time with his friends at the Silva Compass Company... Bill and his friend Bjorn Kjellstrom had collaborated many decades before to make orienteering and the liquid filled compass a sport. He was to leave Sweden, and meet up with me in Denmark, where we planned to spend a few weeks, away from the crowds and the busy travel schedule, focused on Bill's own autobiography.

    On November 9, 1992, fifteen years ago today, Bill Hillcourt shockingly, surprisingly passed away. It's a good thing, I think, to die at 92 years old and have it be a surprise to everyone you knew. He was as mentally awake and physically strong as could be, all the way to his final day. I was a kid, chasing him around the globe, and often I couldn't keep up.

    Bill Hillcourt was my friend. That's a funny thing about him... when he died, I wrote to notify a few thousand people listed in his address book. Many of these people were just contacts that had coordinated some weekend Scouting event that he might have attended, probably only meeting Bill once or twice. But the boxes of reply cards and letters I received told a much different story... for years I encountered thousands of people who would tell of what a special relationship they had with Bill.

    It didn't matter if you were a young Scout waiting in line for a signature, or if you were some Scouter coordinating an event somewhere for Bill to visit. It didn't matter if he had stayed in your home one night, or you had swapped letters to discuss Scouting. Bill had an amazing gift for making people he encountered feel special, for letting people know how important the relationship was to him.

    Bill didn't always agree with the direction BSA followed, and throughout a nearly 75 year career, he was brought in several times to "right the ship" of Scouting when others drove it off course. I'm sure he'd find plenty about today's organization that could and should be better. But I also know that the Movement of Scouting, which Bill believed thrived in the spirit of the Patrol, the challenge of the outdoors, and the mentoring of leadership, would continue to make him proud.

    I learned so much from Bill Hillcourt... there's so much more I could have learned, and our time together was fleeting. He had incredible confidence in me, but even higher expectations. Bill showed me, through his trust, that expectations are what raise a child. I will spend my life, often falling short, but always reaching for the expectations and example he set.

    This site is dedicated to Bill Hillcourt. I encourage you to read more about his impact on Scouting and the world at http://www.scouter.com/features/0290.asp

    TERRY HOWERTON
    (This message has been edited by a staff member.)

  • #2
    Thanks for sharing.
    While I have read some of what Bill wrote and a little what others have wrote about Bill, sadly I don't know that much.
    One of my best friends, who is a couple of years older than I am (And believe me I never let him forget that he is older than me!!) Has a necker signed by Bill and he really does treasure it.
    I really think that it's a wonderful testament of how welcoming the BSA and America is when I see how well an immigrant can do and how far he can go in this great country.
    From what I have read, I do think "Green Bar Bill" did understand boys and it seems to me that he was like many of the old Scouter's who at one time used to congregate at Gilwell Park back in England. (I'm thinking of people like Rex Hazlewood,John Thurman and John Sweet)These guys never seemed to forget that Scouting was supposed to be a challenge and worked hard on ideas that would keep the fun in Scouting while at the same time they really did promote the patrol method.
    At times I'm a little unsure which direction Scouting is headed? Falling back and looking at the writings of people like Bill Hillcourt does help me remember what this game is supposed to be about and help me keep the faith.
    The loss of anyone we love and care about does hurt, no matter how old they are. I feel for your loss, but have to admit to feeling a little envious that you got to spend so much time with a Scouting icon.
    Most of know that we will never reach the same heights that others may have reached, we are happy to do what we can in our communities and home towns, working with and doing our best for one kid at a time.
    Eamonn.

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    • #3
      Now 16 years have passed... sometimes it seems like yesterday.

      TERRY HOWERTON

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      • #4
        I was one of the people on that list you mailed to. I had been traveling in the U.K. when word of his death showed up, several weeks after the fact. While I was certainly nowhere as close to him as were you, I still felt I had lost a good friend. I only wish I had been able to spend more time with him. It was a memorable experience.

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        • #5
          As a young Scout in the very early 1970's I lived less than a mile from National Headquarters in North Brunswick, N.J. Often our Patrol Meetings were held in the apartment of one of the members. More than once a nice old man from upstairs came down to see what we were up to. He never made a big deal of who he was. I knew he was "Green Bar Bill" and that he wrote a column for Boy's Life. But at that young age, I had no idea what an impact he had upon Scouting. All I knew was that he was a cool old guy who had some good ideas!

          Nearly 40 years later I am Scoutmaster of a new troop. Most of what I share with our young Scout Leaders are the ideas from Bill Hillcourt. His name means nothing today to those boys. But at least a few times a month, I invoke his name in passing on suggestions on how they "might" want to do something.

          I hope Scouting never loses touch with the gifts that "Green Bar Bill" gave us. He is a wonderful inspiration, even today.

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          • #6
            I was a Cub Scout in St. Petersburg, FL in the early 1960's. Bill picked my Pack to do a feature article in Boy's Life on Physical Fitness. I still have a copy of the article.

            Year's later, I became friends with a member of my local church (the mid-1980's) who had been a life-long friend of Bill's. I shared my encounter with him and he shared many stories of his adventures with Bill.

            They are fond memories. I always enjoyed his Boy's Life articles and still use many of the skills learned today.

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            • #7
              I saw him at the Jamboree in 1977. As a 14yo I was totally unaware of who he was and of his eminence in Scouting. It was only years later as an adult that his influence on the core of Scouting became evident.

              Who today has taken on that role? You are indeed a fortunate Scouter.

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              • #8
                I see that this is a very old thread and that it's been close to two years since the most recent post on it, but nonetheless, I'd like to mention my experience with Bill Hillcourt. My troop in Plano, TX, happened to have a parent who worked in the National Office in Irving, which wasn't that far away. I'm not sure how all the pieces came together, but when it came time for my Eagle Court of Honor in October 1984 (which I shared with my friend, David), this parent managed to get Green Bar Bill to be the featured speaker. And what do you think his topic was....????? SERENDIPITY. My parents still talk about the concept of serendipity to this day, and it's been more than 25 years since that court of honor. What an honor it was for me and David to have a true legend speak at our court of honor. He gave us both a signed copy of his biography of Lord Baden-Powell (complete with the green bars!). Looking back on it now, I knew at the time it was special to have him there, but like so many things in life you truly don't appreciate them at the time; they gain value with time. I went to the '89 Jamboree in Virginia, and I saw him there, too. What a great experience and memory for me and my friends. I hope his legacy continues, even into this age where staying true to the ideals of Scouting is more and more difficult. Thanks for having this forum and for providing an outlet for me to speak a word of thanks to this amazing man who touched the lives of so many people.

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                • #9
                  I missed the original posting of this thread so long ago.

                  Scouter-Terry, you and I may have briefly met in your tour with Green Bar Bill in '91. He attended our Maine state jamboree that May at the Brunswick Naval Air Station. My brother and I were the first in line to get our handbooks signed. Bro got recruited by Bill to do the green bars for him, which he did for Mr. Hillcourt for over an hour before another scout in line was asked to take his place.

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                  • #10
                    Terry;

                    Any idea when we may see a biography of Bill? Certainly needs to join the accepted icons of BSA. Thanks.

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                    • #11
                      I echo skeptic's suggestion. I believe that there are some professional historians who participate in these forums who might work with Terry and others to write a good biography. I would like to see one and would gladly purchase it.

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                      • #12
                        BOYS' LIFE did a bio article in the late 80s, early 90s on him. the speech on Serendipity jogged my memory b/c it was i the title of the article.

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                        • #13
                          Brief Hillcourt bio on this site... http://www.scouter.com/features/0290.asp

                          I have started, a few times, to craft the book, but regret it has not been done... Certainly open to collaboration.

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                          • #14
                            I want to thank you Terry. It is all to often we get caught up in the little annoying things we see in scouting today as volunteers trying to bring the values of Scouting to today's youth. Sometimes we need a story just like this one to bring us back to center and remember why we're doing this, and where it came from. I never new this legend of a man, but the stories must be shared at campfires across Scouting the world over. I will invoke the name of Gray Bar Bill in honor of such a great man who gave so much to scouting. And when people ask me who he was I hope I can answer with great confidence on any knowledge I may learn of him. And still know that he had much more to give.

                            Thank you Terry. I know Mr. Hillcourt must have put great expectations on you, and I hope that you can fill his role when needed. (IMHO I think you are needed now to bring scouts back to its core principles. To help us remember what scouting is really about.)

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