Address at the Dedication of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library

The Rotarian

April, 1950
To arrive at an understanding concerning the particular needs of our young boys and girls, we should proceed like scientists and examine the behavior characteristics of the animal. In this article I am particularly interested in the city boy. We must determine the anatomy of a boy’s mind, and also what civilization has done to him.

This sort of boy, like all boys, is endowed with a dynamic energy and an impelling desire to take exercise on all occasions. He has tremendous potentiality even when he sits still. His every movement is a crisis. He lives in emergencies. Indeed, every boy must consider the world all over again. To his eyes it is a world filled with great adventures, discoveries, and vast undertakings. He does not come into the world with information on pains and penalties-he also must pick up these items.

Like all pups, he is born with a bounding instinct to play. Also his primary instinct is to hunt in a gang, and that multiplies his devices. He is a complete self-starter, and therefore wisdom in dealing with him consists mostly in what to do with him next. If he is to be a successful adventurer in life, he must grow in mind and imagination, and for that he must live at least part time in the land of make-believe. One of the sad things for him is that he must grow up into a land or realities.

He represents not only joys and hope, but also paradoxes. He strains our nerves, yet he is a complex of cells teeming with affection. He is a periodic nuisance, yet he is a joy forever. He is a part-time incarnation of destruction, yet he radiates sunlight to all the world. He gives evidence of being the child of iniquity, yet he makes a great nation. He is filled with curiosity as to every mortal thing. Every one of his body cells contains an interrogation point. Yet he is the most entertaining animal in existence.

Now, all that is mostly happy and encouraging, but modern civilization has bumped into this special group of boys. It has built up great cities. It has increased stupendously the number of boys per acre. It has covered up all the ground with bricks, cement, and cobblestones and surrounded it with brick walls. All the natural outlets for the energies of these boys have been upset.

The normal boy, a primitive animal, takes to competition and battle. In the days before our civilization became so perfect, he matched his wits with the birds, the bees, and the fish. Today he is separated from Mother Earth and all her works, except the weather. The outlet of curiosity in exploring the streams and fields is closed to him because of the city environment.

This pavement boy, in fact, has a life of stairs, light switches, alleys, fire escapes, bells, and cobblestones, and a chance to get run over by a truck. Inasmuch as he cannot contend with Nature, he is likely to take on contention with a policemen. There are about 4 million of these confined dynamos in congested districts of American cities.

The Constitution provides these boys, as well as grownups, with the inalienable right of liberty and the pursuit of happiness. His chief use of the Bill of Rights, however, is free assembly and free speech. We are not so much concerned at the moment, however, with his liberties as we are with his methods of pursuing happiness. He and his gang can go on this hunt for happiness either constructively or destructively. Therefore, our proposal is to channel him into constructive joy, rather than destructive glee.

I dislike to refer to these boys as “underprivileged.” That is only a half truth. My country provides the pavement boy with better schools and better health protection than any other in the world. He has more chance of becoming a policeman or a mayor or even an editor or a banker than he has anywhere else on earth. He suffers far less than his grandfather from mumps and measles and we heal his broken bones more quickly.

But we are more concerned at the moment with the privileges which this civilization has taken away; and the particular ones which concern us are those that influence or make his character and his physical stature. Now this brick and cement foundation of life is a poor soil for physical, moral, and spiritual growth.

Somebody will say morals are the job of parents, but the best of parents cannot keep him indoors all the time. His world in the streets is a distorted and dangerous world, which the parents cannot make or remake. So it becomes a job of public responsibility. That job hinges around what these boys can do every day between school hours and bedtime, on holidays, and on Sundays after church.

Ours is a problem of creating a place where these pavement boys can stretch their imaginations, where their inborn bent to play and where their unlimited desire for exercise can be led into the realms of sportsmanship-which is the second greatest code of morals. We must divert the boy’s fine loyalties to the gang from fighting it out with fists to the winning of points. We must let off his explosive violence without letting him get into the police court.

It is a problem of creating a place in which his curiosity as to what makes the wheels of the world go around may be turned into learning how to make some of the wheels himself. All this will make the boy a citizen and not a gangster. Even the taxpayer can understand that the cure of a gangster is a thousand times more expensive than the diversion of a boy away from a gang. We can do the latter for $40 apiece, while the former costs $10,000 and often does not succeed at that.

That is why fourteen years ago I accepted the responsibility of becoming the chairman of the board of Boys’ Clubs of America. I am happy to say to you that there are many fine youth organizations serving not only the boys but the girls of my land, but I believe that the Boys’ Clubs of America are doing a particularly fine job with this boy of the city pavements.

I have watched with great interest when the Boys’ Clubs in Tampa, Florida; Amarillo, Fort Worth, San Antonio, Waco, and Wichita Falls, Texas; Binghamton, Jamestown, Utica, and Niagara Falls, New York; Washington, D.C.; Catasauqua, McKess Rocks, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Norfolk, Virginia; Rushville and Warsaw, Indiana; Cincinnati, Ohio; Salt Lake City, Utah; San Francisco, California; and Seattle, Washington, were established either through the direct sponsorship or initiative of the local Rotary Club.

In many other communities, including Fayetteville, Hot Springs, and Pine Bluff, Arkansas; Columbus, Indiana; Fair Lawn, Jersey City, Passaic, and Trenton, New Jersey; Bethlehem, Media, and Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania; and Alpena, Michigan, the Rotary Club co-operated with other civic organizations in the establishment of Boys’ Clubs.

These Boys’ Clubs that Rotary has established offer outlets for that explosive energy in play and the land of make-believe. Their activities stretch all the way from checkers to sandlot baseball, from orchestras to bands. There are boxing matches, libraries, gymnasiums, and swimming pools. Boys are led into shops of the arts and the trades to discover their occupational bents, and, above all, they are taught the spirit of sportsmanship, cooperative living, and responsibility in citizenship. They are taught the rules of life and are given glimpses of the opportunities in this great land of ours.

From another direction these Clubs are proving of superlative importance. The totalitarian countries also adopted these benevolent ideas of handling boys. They groups them, they systematically cured their physical defects, gave them recreation, and found their occupational bents. But they pounded in communist and fascist modes of thought. They built their minds into mental and moral submission and to a brutal mold. Their concept was that each boy was a molecule in a mass-directed State.

That is exactly the opposite of what our Boys’ Clubs do. We build into our boys’ personalities, personal responsibility, dignity, character, and moral discipline-not regimented minds. These concepts clashed on the field of battle, and ours proved the better of the two, man to man.