American Legion Boys State has been known to be a life-changing program, and although there is no way to know exactly how many young men's lives have been altered and improved during the past six decades, the potential is infinite.
This past week, more than 350 high school seniors-to-be from throughout Minnesota had the opportunity to be part of the 2013 American Legion Boys State, marking the 65th year the hands-on government program has been in existence in Minnesota.
"I've attended other summer camps in past year, but I definitely think this will have the most impact on my life and give me the most skills to take away," Marshall High School attendee Thomas Wyatt-Yerka said.
During the 65th annual Minnesota Boys State program this past week, the group of high school seniors-to-be gathered together outside to await a flag retirement ceremony.
The week-long program is designed to demonstrate and encourage good citizenship, leadership and a sense of responsibility locally, in their state and in their country. For the past seven years, Southwest Minnesota State University and the community of Marshall have been proud to host the Minnesota Boys State program.
"A lot of programs are celebrating their 75th year," said Mike Bredeck, who has served as Boys State director since 2001. "The Illinois Boys State program is 78 years old. Anytime we can have something that longstanding, it's huge. Nowadays, programs don't seem to last that long. We're hoping to be around for 35 more years to make it 100. I believe that's very realistic."
Spearheaded by Legionnaires Hayes Kennedy and Harold Card, the first Boys State took place in Illinois in 1935. Gradually, other states began to adopt the youth program. Currently, Boys State serves young men in every state across the country except for Hawaii.
Behind the efforts of Richard C. Ebert, Joe Kise, Lee Krough, Lars Nesvig and C.A. "Chic" Zwiener, Minnesota began offering the program in 1949.
"Our mission is to instill the ideas of civic duty, Americanism and an appreciation for democracy," Bredeck said.
While the program hopes to build a strong foundation for the future leaders, it couldn't happen without dedicated volunteers. Between 50-60 counselors, activity directors and office staff are needed to each year. That doesn't include the food service people or others on campus.
"The kids make it successful every year," Bredeck said. "It's always different but the same. And what would we do without the volunteers? We'd have no possibility of having this legacy continue. We have a very dedicated staff."
Boy State activity director Bill Zwiener, whose father helped start the program, has been a Boys State volunteer for 63 years. Choir director Brad Brandt has served for 40 years, while Dean of Boys State David Way has been there for 39. Neil Kruse and Tom Johnson have also donated time for the past few decades as well.
"With five of our veterans, we're talking about almost 200 years' experience between them," Bredeck said. "They volunteer almost every year. I think that says a lot about the program, that they're willing to come back every year."
Along with Johnson, who has volunteered for 30 years, other staff members have hit milestones, including Lee Tallakson and Charles Koenig (20 years) and Marty Seifert, Ryan Lorsung and Drew Hood (10 years). At 89, Dr. Wayne Taintor is one of the oldest volunteers.
While Jim Tate heads the newspaper effort, John Ginocchio directs the Boys State band every year. Bredeck said Andy Post, Matt Verkuilen, Scott Ewing, Steve Glaser, Al Kruse and Jeff Reisdorfer have also been instrumental to the program.
"It's an entourage of about 60 people who assist each year," Bredeck said. "Many counselors help in the effort. These people have been fantastic. Then, there's the office staff, the food service, the custodial staff. It ends up being hundreds of adults who make their impact in Marshall."
Boys State historian Cy Molitor recorded the first six decades of history, compiling information and snapping photos for the large Boys State book. The next edition will likely include 10 years of history at a time.
"Boys State is one of the best organized events I've ever been part of," Molitor said.
Molitor is especially proud of the Boys Staters' accomplishments, noting that Minnesota has some really great kids. Each year, a young man is voted Outstanding Boys Stater in Minnesota and gets a $1,000 scholarship from Samsung. The winner then competes against the 48 others who won in their respective states.
"In four of the last six years, a Minnesota Boys Stater has won the national outstanding award," Molitor said. "It's a $20,000 (Samsung) scholarship prize."
Throughout the week-long program, the participants have the opportunity to gain valuable tools for their future.
"The first thing they learn is a networking process," Bredeck said. "They develop a camaraderie. I have heard many stories about kids going off to college and one day, they wear their Boys State shirt and start developing friendships because of that."
Gradually, the boys become immersed in the political process. Under guidance from counselors, they organize and participate in the various levels and branches of government, often working their way up the political ladder. They learn about parliamentary procedure and how to create and move bills through legislation.
"They learn about the legislative process, how the local, county and state government work," Bredeck said. "They learn about the two-party system, the convention system and the judicial, legislative and executive branches of government. They get all of that."
In addition to being exposed to a variety of speakers, such as Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Paul Anderson, Bredeck noted that the participants get a pre-college experience.
"They're sitting in classrooms and lecture halls listening to speakers speak, taking a test and then, of course, they're also interacting with their peers," he said.
A flag retirement ceremony, conducted by Anoka Voiture 390, teaches the boys staters about flag etiquette, respect and honor. They often begin seeing the bigger picture and realize how they are connected to a much-larger world.
"They get dialogue amongst each other on the topics of the day," Bredeck said. "They have a heightened awareness of what the current events are, like the flag etiquette, and they learn about important fundamental rocks. They understand the dynamics that are beyond the political process."
Boys Staters also get to have fun, including daily sports and other activities. Tracy Area graduate Mason VanEssen attended Boys State last year and said that the experience was unlike anything else.
"It's nice to be around a crowd that is such a driven and experienced bunch, through school and the activities they're in," he said. "Just the knowledge I've picked up from them is really wonderful. I'm taking away a new confidence in leadership and will continue leading at my school and in everything I do."
Marshall High School graduate Stephen Womack also attended last year. Though he came into Boys State thinking it would be all about government, he soon realized it was much more than that.
"You meet some incredible people here," Womack said. "Everybody is just great. Coming into it, I didn't think so much about the people and thought more about what we'd be doing. But the people are what make the whole experience."
Womack said he learned a lot, especially about parliamentary procedure and the election process, but he left Boys State other priceless knowledge, too.
"Just knowing you have to be informed about your government regardless of how you're involved with it is definitely the most important thing you need to take away with you," he said. "A lot of us probably won't be running for an office in the future but just to know what does go on when you vote is great."