Only about 5 percent of Boy Scouts ever attain the Eagle badge, the youth development organization's highest rank. From 1912 to 2013, according to the most recent statistics available, 2.3 million Scouts have become an Eagle, with an average age of 17.
Approximately a dozen Scouts have been older than 65-year-old Hugh White when they received their Eagle rank, said Boy Scouts of America communications director Deron Smith, but the Columbus commercial real estate broker waited a half century. Here's why:
'Dropped through the crack'
White was 11 years old when he became a Boy Scout in 1961. He joined Troop 44.
"Camping, all kinds of scout trips, scout meetings every Friday night, summer camps, hiking, it was constant activity," he said.
A job transfer took away his Scoutmaster in 1965, and the troop disbanded, so White joined Troop 6, which still meets in the original lodge on 13th Street. There, he completed his Eagle Project, controlling erosion and cleaning Weracoba Creek behind the lodge.
The only step remaining was to go before the Eagle Board, a group of three to six community leaders who would determine final approval. That appointment, however, took 50 years to be scheduled.
"It seems like I was waiting for the board, and in the meantime things were kind of drifting away," he said. "It seems like there was a change of leadership in that scout troop, and that's maybe where it got dropped through the crack."
But he wasn't done with Scouting. After graduation from Hardaway High School in 1968 and earning a bachelor's degree in business administration from Columbus College in 1972, White started his real-estate career and became a Scoutmaster for Troop 1 at St. Paul United Methodist Church.
"I petitioned the leadership of Boy Scouts to see if my Eagle Scout rank could still be awarded," he said. "I was told I could not receive Eagle rank after age 18."
The current Boy Scouts bylaws disagree. According to rule 22.214.171.124, the following requirements must be complete before the Eagle candidate's 18th birthday: "merit badges, service project, active participation, Scout spirit, position of responsibility and unit leader conference. The board of review may be conducted after the 18th birthday."
And rule 126.96.36.199 declares, "There is no requirement that the application must be completed or submitted before the 18th birthday. Councils do not have the authority to reject applications submitted on or after that date."
The problem for White was that he didn't have his Eagle Scout application to prove he had met the requirements.
'Are you Robert Hugh White?'
Then while he was on the local Boy Scouts board, for several years starting in 2002, he again inquired about his Eagle status, and he again was told it wasn't possible without the documentation.
About two years ago, he received a call from an official with the Boy Scouts of America office in Irving, Texas, who was checking records for the national Eagle Scout registry. The conversation went something like this:
Official: "Are you Robert Hugh White?"
Official: "Columbus, Georgia?"
Official: "You're an Eagle Scout?"
Official: "Well, we show that you are."
White: "That's crazy. I knew that I had done everything, but I thought that part was missing."
Official: "No, we definitely have you as an Eagle Scout."
The official said he needed to do
some more research and called back White a few days later.
Official: "By the way, were you born in 1928?"
White: "No, I was born in 1950."
Official: "Then there's another Robert Hugh White from Columbus who was an Eagle Scout."
And this Robert Hugh White had his hopeful moment crushed.
White wondered to himself, "What's going on? How does this all kind of fit together?"
In December, he and his brothers, Karl and Victor, cleaned out his mother's home on Timber Drive as Isabel prepared to move into Franciscan Woods, a senior living community. While in the attic and sifting through keepsakes in a box, White found his Eagle Scout application -- complete with the required signatures.
White asked his mother, "Mom, what in the world?" And 89-year-old Isabel replied, "Well, I thought one day it might be important."
White called his contact at the Boy Scouts national office and asked, "Do you think this will make a difference?" The official answered, "I think that's what we would call a golden bullet" and added, "We would always be sure that, if a Scout did his part, the adults would do theirs."
However long it takes -- Scout's honor.
Anthony Berger, the Scout executive for the Chattahoochee Council, praised White for accepting the process.
"He could have taken it the wrong way and been very bitter toward the organization," Berger said. "But, instead, he respected the fact that we have to maintain the integrity of the award."
The national Boy Scouts official instructed White to send him the application along with a letter outlining the background story. White didn't take any chances this time:
He sat in the local Scouting office and dictated the letter to a staff member, signed it and mailed it along with the application.
Ten days later, the official called White and told him that his application was approved.
All that remained was the interview with the Eagle Board. "I walk in, and they look at me and start laughing," White said with a laugh of his own.
One of the board members noted, "Well, we are fairly accustomed to doing this with 15- and 16-year-olds. This one's going to be a little different."
White explained the unusual circumstances. A board member asked White why this exception should be made. He replied, "That's not up to me. That's up to the Scouts' leadership."
After about 10 minutes of deliberation, the board invited White back to the room. All the members stood and welcomed him as an Eagle Scout.
"It was great," White said. "I'm an adult. I can't say it would have meant as much when I was 15, but I thought it was neat, and I thought, 'Wow, after all these years, how serendipitous it was to find that document, because it could have just as easily gotten passed to the trash and never seen.'"
A board member told him, "You never have to be so rigid that you can't do the right thing."
Berger said, "To be able to tell someone who his whole life felt in his heart that he was an Eagle Scout but never had the badge to prove it, to finally give him closure on that, was an absolute honor and gift. It was very touching."
'I just never gave up on it'
The day after he received his Eagle badge and pins during the May 7 ceremony in the Columbus Convention & Trade Center, White visited his mother and showed her the awards.
"She thought they were adorable," he said with a smile.
Asked what Scouting has meant to him, White said, "If you pick up a Scout manual and open it to any page at random, Scouting will talk to you about citizenship, family, outdoors, your relationships. You won't find a page in a Scout manual that's not positive reinforcement about what a young guy should be growing up to be. You won't find a sentence, and I don't know of any other publication like that. And that's what Scouting is about."
White and his wife, Vicki, have two daughters, Christie and Morgan, and four grandchildren, Lucy, Clara, Annabelle and Hugh.
White plans to give his Eagle badge to little Hugh, 2, and he dreams his grandson will achieve the same rank.
"That will be the motivation," White said. "I'll tell him it'll be his one day, when he earns it. It'll be a goal for both of us. I'll help him to achieve Eagle rank."
And he will share his story of persistence.
"I just never gave up on it," he said.