Devoted Leader Inspires Scouts to Soar as Eagles

Times Staff Writer

Agroup of Pacific Palisades teen-agers was cliff-diving at Catalina Island last summer when Trevor Willson, 12, lost his footing and plunged 25 feet to the rocks and water below.

He hit an 18-inch outcrop of rock, striking his chest, stomach and arm, and fell another 10 feet into the water face down.

Two other youths--Read Kerlin, 15, and Justin Mueller, 14--swam to him in seconds. Mueller flipped him over, elevated his head and chest with a body brace and shielded him from the rocks.


Kerlin brought him ashore using a lifesaving technique known as a cross-chest carry, while Mueller helped with an underarm assist. They were 20 to 25 feet from shore, Kerlin said, and a strong undertow made swimming difficult. Lifeguards met them halfway and helped them get Willson to shore.

Lifesaving Techniques

At the beach, five other teen-agers administered first aid, treating Willson for shock and restraining him as he thrashed and screamed, until paramedics arrived an hour later. Willson had suffered a concussion, a partially collapsed lung, a broken wrist, cuts and bruises. His mother, Sharon Willson, said he has been temporarily barred from athletic activities but otherwise has fully recovered.

It was no coincidence that the seven teen-agers at the scene all knew lifesaving, first aid and how to keep their heads in a life-or-death situation. All of them, including Willson, were members of Boy Scout Troop 223, where preparedness is more than an empty motto.

The Pacific Palisades troop is exceptional for a number of reasons, not least among them the number of Eagles--the highest rank attainable in Boy Scouts--it has produced. It is also larger than most troops, has more adult assistants and has a scoutmaster who has held the post more than twice as long as most of the Scouts have been alive.

At a ceremony last month, the 35th anniversary of service by Scoutmaster Michael Lanning, 56, was celebrated, in part by inducting seven new Eagle Scouts, bringing to 294 the number produced by Troop 223.

35th Anniversary

An average troop has about 18 Scouts divided into two patrols, said John R. Wilson, one of Lanning’s assistant Scoutmasters, but Troop 223 has 55 to 60 Scouts in five patrols. And although most troops have only one assistant scoutmaster, he said, Troop 223 has 13.


On average, two out of five Scouts who join the troop become Eagles--an extremely high number compared to a national average of 2% per troop, said Howard Robinson, a senior district executive for the local Boy Scout council.

Fellow Scout leaders say Lanning’s commitment largely accounts for the impressive record of his troop.

“Here’s a man with a rare skill, and going with that is dedication, motivation, everything it takes to extract from youth the highest caliber of performance,” Robinson said. “And they know whether they’re going to make it or not. Wherever you have people with the standards that Mike expects out of himself and others, you’re going to have a large number of Eagle Scouts.”

Lanning, a lawyer who practices in Marina del Rey, gives four reasons why so many of his boys earn their wings:

“No. 1, what we do week to week leads to merit badges and skill awards,” he said. Boy Scouts advance in rank by earning merit badges--21 of them to become an Eagle--and skill awards, and at each meeting there is an activity that teaches the skills necessary to earn them.

“The second thing is, we’ve established a tradition,” he said. “If you’ve joined the troop, you’re going to become an Eagle. It’s an expectation.”


The third reason, he said, is the individual attention given the boys by the 13 assistant Scoutmasters. The fourth is that the troop has the necessary physical facilities at its meeting place, St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church.

The church has 33 acres of land where the Scouts can practice skills like building fires and cooking outdoors. It also has a swimming pool, built for cost by a Boy Scout parent so the Scouts would have a place to practice for their swimming merit badges.

A boy can join Cub Scouts at age 7, become a Boy Scout at 11 and continue until age 18, progressing in rank from Tenderfoot, 2nd Class and 1st Class to Star, Life and Eagle.

Eagle Requirements

One of the requirements for becoming an Eagle is to find, plan, organize and carry out a community service project requiring 100 hours of work, three-fourths of which must be done by volunteers recruited by the Eagle candidate.

One Scout refurbished, repaired and painted the walls of a church thrift shop in Venice, Lanning said. Another cleared a mountain trail, and another rebuilt playground equipment at a preschool. For a 14-year-old, he said, such a project can be one of the great accomplishments of his life.

Lanning said he urges his Scouts to attain the Eagle rank by the summer before they enter the 10th grade, at age 14 or 15. After that, their attention tends to turn more to school, sports and girls.


Robinson said parents of troop members have commented on how they were challenged when their sons were trying to become Eagles. “The discipline Mike expects is at such a level that either you do it or you don’t,” he said. “That’s what we hope every Scout troop would do, but this one for 35 years has had that kind of standard.”

Assistant Scoutmaster Wilson, who is a deputy attorney for the city of Los Angeles, said of Lanning: “Mike is the type of person whose philosophy is, you don’t lose. And he infuses it in the boys: If you’re going to be a success in life, you don’t lose and you don’t quit. . . . “His troop is like a prolongation of his family. He takes a fierce pride in these young men and their developments and successes.”

Lifelong Devotion

Lanning became a Boy Scout on June 1, 1941, and a Scoutmaster on Nov. 9, 1953. His two stepsons, now grown, were Eagles in his troop. “Every Tuesday night of my life, with the exception of a vacation now and then, I’ve gone to a Boy Scout meeting,” he said.

His lifelong devotion to scouting arose from his own experiences as a Scout and the inspiration of his leaders, he said.

“I was an Eagle Scout. It was the hardest thing I’d ever done, and I felt better about it than anything I’d done in my entire life. The people that I met in scouting really lived the Scout oath and law.”

He recited the 12 points of the Scout law, then the oath, with a familiarity that suggested he had said the words 10,000 times: “Trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, reverent. . . . On my honor I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout law; to help other people at all times; to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.”


“A kid joins because he thinks he’s going to have fun and adventure,” Lanning said. “But the purpose of the Boy Scouts, our mission, is to educate young people to the values that are set out in the oath and law.”

Scouts are is taught outdoor skills not for their own sake but to learn self-sufficiency, self-confidence and self-esteem, he said. “People that have those qualities can help other people,” he said.

Summer Trips

Every summer, Troop 223 goes to a summer camp on Catalina Island. Trevor Willson’s fall from the cliff happened during a 10-day camp.

This August, Lanning and 55 of his Scouts are going to Hawaii for an 11-day trip during which they will go on educational tours and visit a Scout camp in Maui. Lanning said it will be valuable to his troop to meet Scouts from different economic and cultural backgrounds.

Next year, the troop will go to the Danish National Jamboree in Copenhagen, where 100,000 people are expected, he said.

Scouts in Lanning’s troop pay about $150 a year in dues (the amount varies from troop to troop), he said, but the money for the trips has to be raised. He said his Scouts will earn $18,000 between now and August by washing cars, selling products at public events and other means that are somewhat less conventional, like organizing a tour of a special-effects studio where a Scout’s father works, and selling tickets for the premiere of a movie produced by another parent.


Lanning is looking forward to his 50th anniversary as a Boy Scout, coming up in 1991, and he would like to remain a Scoutmaster for 10 or 15 years more.

“People get a lot of influences today that can lead to miserable lives,” he said. His satisfaction comes from being an influence that leads to productivity, leadership and service, he said.

“What you see these Scouts doing in terms of realizing their own potential to lead others, to help others, it’s really a satisfying thing.”