Once again through the process of cleaning and sorting through boxes of saved items I came across a package of material from a very special experience I was fortunate to be a part of as a student at Peekskill High School.
Back in 1935 the Illinois Department of The American Legion developed a program with the idea that young people be offered a practical experience in the study of the way government works. The core tenant being that the individual is an integral component and directly responsible for the character and success in government.
Over time state after state started to participate in the program with New York joining in 1938. It was held at the Syracuse Fair Grounds and with the onset of WWII it was moved to Manlius School in Manlius, NY. After a short stint at Colgate University the program eventually settled in Morrisville Agricultural and Technical College.
In June of 1975 as a junior at Peekskill High School I was selected to represent my school at American Legion Boys’ State of New York. When I was informed of my nomination to be considered to participate I was pleasantly surprised as it was not something I applied for. The final step for me and the other nominees was an interview by the Local American Legion Post, which is still located on McKinley Street in Peekskill. The interview must have gone well since I was selected to represent Peekskill.
The criteria for selection was outlined in the American Legion’s booklet we received; “juniors in high school, with leadership qualities, are selected for Boys’ State. Boys’ State leaders are mentally alert and physically clean, vigorous, enthusiastic and of good personality, honest and thrifty, able to get along with others and good sportsmen.”
Looking back the experience was one that has had lasting effects. It prepared me for not only understanding government but for leaving home for college. Up until this point in my life I had never been away from home on my own. Boys’ State was one week long and was held on a college campus with the participants housed in dorm rooms. Each floor had a US Marine assigned to make sure we followed procedure and, especially, to make our beds in traditional Marine fashion: box corners and sheets and blanket tight enough to bounce a quarter when dropped on it. Since we were at an agricultural institution in the middle of nowhere in upstate NY we also had the treat of unending pitchers of fresh milk on our dining tables.
Perhaps the big irony of the whole thing is that I never dreamed or desired to have any part of political or governmental life other than to vote. We dove into the levels of government from local all the way to State level. Each floor was considered a city that would hold elections and gain a full understanding of American governmental tradition and how wonderful it is to be an American citizen.
I was elected as one of the three Senators from the city of “Stember” and learned the process of getting elected and becoming a representative in state government. During our week at Boys’ State we participated in city and county caucuses, state and party conventions, voting procedures, inaugurations and meeting of elected bodies. On top of the governmental activities we also participated in daily Reveille, Flag Raising and Lowering Ceremonies along with physical fitness drills and softball and soccer tournaments. Each day ended with “Call to Quarters” and Taps.
Now, some 38 years later, I enjoy looking back and realizing how important of an experience the American Legion gave me. Since being an elected official in the area I have had the honor and privilege of working closely with the local American Legion posts and especially the very same Peekskill post that selected me to represent them and Peekskill those many years ago. Every time I walk into their McKinley St. building I can’t help thinking about the day my father took me there for that interview in 1975. I was never so anxious or intimated as I was that day. Little did I know then that the experience afforded me, a 16-year-old high school junior, would stay with me through a lifetime and career in government service.