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Good Scouts Indeed
Penny Ward Moser
February 06, 1989
The desperately poor but proud Wilderness Scouts are being forced to do battle with the Boy Scouts of America
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February 06, 1989

Good Scouts Indeed

The desperately poor but proud Wilderness Scouts are being forced to do battle with the Boy Scouts of America

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"That would be correct."

The phone rang only once in the cramped motel room in Blairsville. "Wilderness Scouts" answered Corn-well. I introduced myself. "I'm trying to figure this all out," I said.

"Well, we're trying to figure it out ourselves," said Cornwell. "We don't know what's going to happen, but some big law firm in New York City [Kane, Dalsimer, Kane, Sullivan, Kurucz] is going to help us for free. Then I was on some call-in show on a California radio station, and we just got 200 orders for birdhouses. We had to get some old ladies from the nursing home to process the orders, and they're awful slow, bless their hearts. And the volunteers who build a lot of the birdhouses are blind, so they can only do so much. I just don't know what we've got ourselves into. Why don't you come on down and spend some time with us?"

I hold no malice toward Boy Scouts in general. I married one. But as they say in northern Georgia, "It just doesn't wash" that the BSA, which in 1987 reported a $38 million budget with $4 million in profits, could interpret the good will of Congress so cavalierly. As Joe Sullivan, the Wilderness Scouts' New York lawyer, puts it, "There is an aura of bullying going on here. I think the Boy Scouts would have done well to research this prior to action."

The first stop in researching the Wilderness Scouts is Cornwell. At 41, he could pass for a man much older. "It's the chronic pain," he says. "It ages you."

Cornwell was raised in a chicken coop on a mountain homestead just over the North Carolina border from Blairsville. His father, a moonshiner, was murdered by rivals when Harold was seven. His mother worked 12 hours a day, six days a week to support her four kids. One day, two U.S. Forest Service rangers came by, struck up a conversation with 14-year-old Harold and invited him fishing. "Since I didn't have a dad, I'd never done outdoor things," recalls Cornwell. On his fifth bait of the hook, Cornwell landed a 29-inch bass.

After high school, while serving aboard the U.S.S. James C. Owens, a destroyer, Cornwell fell down a ladder. Subsequently his crushed spine fell victim to osteoarthritis. In 1984, after 15 years with a nearby phone company, he could no longer work and retired on disability.

One morning he took a neighborhood boy fishing with his own son, Richard. "The little fella was an aimless kid," says Cornwell. "But when he got in the boat, he brightened up and said, 'I have a cousin who'd sure like to do something like this.' "

When he picked up the cousin, over in Fannin County, Ga., Cornwell was dumbstruck. "The family was living in a shack with no decent heat, no water, not even an outhouse," he says.

So they went fishing. "After a couple of hours the little cousin told me his daddy had been punishing him by pressing his hand onto a scorching woodstove," says Cornwell. "That was it. I had to do something." The Wilderness Scouts of America was born.

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