My Reflections on American Legion Boys’ State

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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.

BoysStateJTIn 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.BoysStateCert_web

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.

About John G. Testa

Former District 1 County Legislator, John G. Testa is served five terms at the Westchester County Board of Legislators, spending the last 3 terms as BOL Minority Leader. John G. Testa is a lifelong resident of Peekskill who first entered elected public service as a member of the Peekskill Common Council in 1998 and then served three terms as Mayor. He previously served on the Conservation and Parks Advisory Board and Zoning Board of Appeals. John became an elected official eager to improve the City in which his family has lived for more than a century and quickly earned a reputation as a strong, independent, nonpartisan voice for fiscal responsibility. John received a BS degree in Technology from SUNY Oswego, where his academic achievements gained him induction into Epsilon Pi Tau, the International Honorary Fraternity of Technology. He earned his MS degree in Technology from the City College of New York. He began his teaching career in 1980 at Peekskill High School, his alma mater, as an instructor in Technology and Social Studies, retiring in 2013 after 33 years teaching. John has been a leader in support for the Arts Community in Westchester. He presided over the construction of the Peekskill Art Lofts, the establishment of the Hudson Valley Center for Contemporary Art, and the complete restoration of the Paramount Center for the Arts, originally a 1930’s movie house and helped bring critical funding to many Westchester programs. Legislator Testa received the “Advancing the Arts in Westchester Award” by ArtsWestchester. John has a been a leader on environmental issues for two decades and has a long record of initiatives he has supported and spearheaded. His active involvement in developing and promoting environmentally friendly policies began as mayor and continued throughout his time as Westchester County Legislator. His efforts consistently earned John the endorsement of the NY League of Conservation Voters. John’s most recognizable accomplishment has been his promotion and preservation of local history and historic landmarks, bringing an unprecedented focus on the region’s rich history, and its legacy of historic Victorian architecture. His roots in historical preservation stem from his experience as a Revolutionary War re-enactor and member of The Brigade of the American Revolution for 50 years. John was instrumental in securing the preservation of the Lincoln Depot, now the Lincoln Depot Museum, where he now serves as President. The museum was recognized in 2015 as one of The Best Museums in Westchester. He also secured the preservation of historic Fort Hill as parkland, a 40-acre parcel that was originally a Revolutionary War encampment site. Under his leadership, the United States Dept. of the Interior declared Peekskill a “Preserve America Community.” John was able to establish a record number of National Register designations of local structures, including the first Downtown and Neighborhood Historic Districts and supported the preservation of the historic Miller House in North White Plains. In 2017 John was named a “Champion of History” by the Lincoln Society in Peekskill. John and his wife of 37 years, Nancy, live in Peekskill and have two adult children, John, Jr. (fiancé Courtney Kelly) and Katy (husband Mike Mearon). John and Nancy recently welcomed the arrival of their first grandchild, Lacey Mae, in 2019.
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