Greg Witttine: A Hero for Disabled Boy Scouts

From a New York Times obit by Alex Traub headlined “Greg Wittine, Once a Hero for Disabled Boy Scouts, Dies at 67”:

Greg Wittine had a severe case of cerebral palsy. He could not walk or talk. In his wheelchair, he carried around a homemade keyboard on which he would point at individual letters and spell out words in order to communicate.

He devoted his youth in suburban Long Island to the Boy Scouts. Over nearly a decade, he earned merit badges in subjects like fire safety and wildlife. To get his hiking badge, he crawled down a wooded trail for a mile until his knees were too bruised and bloody for him to go on, at which point he wheeled himself another nine miles.

He had a goal: to attain Scouting’s highest rank, Eagle Scout. By 1978, he had all 24 of the badges then required.

But Mr. Wittine was 23 years old. Boy Scout rules stipulated that all Eagle Scouts earn their badges before turning 18. The national organization forbade him to receive the honor.

He launched himself on a campaign to change the rules. A reporter for The New York Times visited him and asked if he had a message for people whose disabilities thwarted their ambitions. He slowly moved his left ring finger over letters on his word board: “K-E-E-P T-R-Y-I-N-G.”

Mr. Wittine did exactly that. Ultimately, he made the Boy Scouts of America revise its policies toward disabled scouts. Ever since, thanks to his efforts, many thousands of them have found a sense of purpose that has shaped their lives.

Mr. Wittine died on March 5 in Bayville, N.Y., at a nursing facility run by the United Cerebral Palsy Association of Nassau County.

His death was not widely noted; it had been decades since Mr. Wittine’s name appeared in the news, and interviews with local and national Scouting representatives indicated that he had largely fallen out of the organization’s institutional memory. But for a brief period, in the spring of 1978, Mr. Wittine enjoyed the status of a national hero.

His scoutmaster, Richard Golden, wrote letters to local newspapers, and in late March of that year journalists began relating Mr. Wittine’s story. The two men were soon on “Good Morning America,” Mr. Wittine pointing at his word board and Mr. Golden spelling out the letters.

The public “bombarded” the Boy Scouts of America with letters and phone calls, The Times reported. In a spontaneous outburst of shared sentiment, former scouts throughout the nation rooted around in their attics, found their Eagle medals and mailed them to Mr. Wittine.

“Allow me to share my medal with you,” a Florida man wrote in a handwritten letter. “It is old and tarnished, awarded fifteen years ago, but the cherished memories are as fresh and exciting as if it were yesterday.”

Adding to the pressure on the Boy Scouts of America, Mr. Golden issued a warning: He and Mr. Wittine would appear at a national Scouting conference soon to be held in Phoenix, even though they had not yet been invited. “We may go anyway, not only to argue Greg’s case but that of Scouting’s approach to all handicapped persons,” Mr. Golden told The Associated Press.

Days after that interview, on May 5, the Boy Scouts issued a news release. The first sentence read, “The Boy Scouts of America has changed its regulations, and the way is now clear for 23-year-old Scout Gregory Wittine of Roosevelt, N.Y., to become an Eagle Scout.”

It was a major change in policy, dropping “all age restrictions” for “severely handicapped” scouts while still requiring that they earn the same badges as other Eagle Scouts. And it brought Mr. Wittine a flood of more attention.

A parade of notables sent him congratulatory letters, including former President Gerald R. Ford and President Jimmy Carter. Senator Bob Dole, who lived with disabilities arising from wounds he suffered in World War II, wrote Mr. Wittine, too, telling him, “You deserve praise for your efforts, and can take pride in knowing that you successfully blazed a new trail in Scouting.”

Mr. Wittine and his troop — all boys with cerebral palsy — were invited to visit Rosalynn Carter, the first lady, in the White House.

On the scouts’ way down Pennsylvania Avenue, people repeatedly stopped them, recognizing Mr. Wittine and hailing his achievement, Mr. Golden recalled in a phone interview.

“He was glowing in the popularity,” he said. “He was a star.”

Gregory John Wittine was born on March 25, 1955, in Queens, and grew up mainly in the Nassau County hamlet of Baldwin. His father, Ferdinand, worked for Johnson & Johnson, and his mother, Marion (Schlatter) Wittine, was a homemaker undaunted in her encouragement of Greg.

After he became an Eagle Scout, The Associated Press asked him what had given him confidence that he could change the national organization’s policy. With Mr. Golden’s help, he answered:

“M-Y M-O-T-H” (“Mother,” Mr. Golden explained) “W-A-N” — (“wanted”) — “T-O S-E-E M-E B-E-C” — (“become”) — “A-N E-A-G-L-E.”

Another source of support was the United Cerebral Palsy Association. Mr. Wittine attended elementary, middle and high school at the group’s facility in nearby Roosevelt, in classes specially designed for students with cerebral palsy. As a young man, he worked there as a gardener.

The organization also sponsored Troop 350, known by other scouts as “C.P. Troop” because it consisted of boys with cerebral palsy. Their group banner was a stick figure in a flying wheelchair.

They learned scoutcraft at Long Island’s venerable Camp Wauwepex. Photographs show Greg holding up two recently caught fish on a string and kneeling in front of what scouts call a “tripod” — three logs that, when lashed together with rope or twine, become useful on a campsite, as a support, for instance, for cooking pots.

The Boy Scouts of America does not track how many Eagle Scouts have been able to earn their rank after age 18 because of a disability, but in an interview, Mike Matzinger, a national leader of the organization with knowledge about scouts who have disabilities, estimated the number to be in the tens of thousands.

Ben Burns has been the scoutmaster of a troop of disabled scouts in Dallas since 2010. In an interview, he said that the possibility of becoming an Eagle Scout gave his troop members a sense of mission, and that six of them — all over the age of 18, including his son Tim — had attained the rank.

Tim has Down syndrome and struggles to talk. But at his Eagle Scout ceremony in 2021, he gave a speech.

“That’s been the biggest moment in his life, because he was the center of attention, and it was all about him,” Mr. Burns said. “I’m not sure what he’d be doing with his life if he didn’t have Boy Scouts.”

Mr. Burns said that the approach Mr. Wittine conceived — working extremely hard to obtain badges that might seem out of reach, but getting ample time to do so — struck him as ideal. His scouts, who have a wide range of disabilities, pitch their own tents, use hand saws and learn how to climb back into sailboats after they capsize.

“When our boys earn it, they earn it,” he said.

Mr. Burns said he had not previously heard of Mr. Wittine. But, he added: “I think a lot of boys in our troop owe their troop to this boy. He’s the one who fought for this.”

Mr. Wittine worked for much of his adult life as a volunteer at the Long Island Jewish Medical Center, delivering mail and gaining a reputation as a warm, solicitous colleague.

In addition to his sister, he is survived by a brother, Richard.

In observance of his wishes, Mr. Wittine was buried in a Boy Scout uniform with a sash bearing his merit badges. But he was not buried with his Eagle Scout medal, which he gave away to his nephew — following the example set by the former scouts who had sent Mr. Wittine their own medals one spring many decades ago.

Alex Traub works on the Obituaries desk and occasionally reports on New York City for other sections of the Times.


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