By Ed Staskus
“Scouting is a man’s job cut down to a boy’s size.” Robert Baden-Powell
Vytas Staskevicius was born on a family farm outside Siauliai in 1924, six years after Lithuania’s Declaration of Independence and two years before the start of what is known as the Smetonic Era. The small city, the capital of northern Lithuania, is home to the Hill of Crosses, a spiritual statement and folk-art site of about one hundred thousand Christian crosses.
Siauliai goes back to 1236 to the Battle of Saule against the Teutonic Knights. The endless war between the Teutonic Order and Lithuania was one of the longest in the history of Europe. The first church was built in 1445. In the 19th century Jews were encouraged to go Lithuania for its entrée and their prosperity. The city was majority Jewish by 1910. Šiauliai was known for its leather industry. The biggest leather factory in the Russian Empire was there. A battleground during both World Wars, it saw tens of thousands run for their lives during the wars, never to come back.
Vytas’s father was a native and a former officer in the Czarist Army. His mother was Russian and a former schoolteacher. His father met his mother while stationed far southeast of Moscow. “In those days drunks went into the navy and dimwits into the infantry,” he said. He thanked God every day he had been impressed as an officer by Lithuania’s overlords.
Vytas was a Boy Scout early on. Since his father was the police chief of their province, and since Antanas Smetona, the President of the country, was the Chief Scout, and since there were privileges provided to scout troops in schools by the Ministry of Education, Antanas Staskevicius involved his son in scouting as soon as he grew to school age.
I found myself a Boy Scout in Troop 311, the Cleveland, Ohio, troop my father became Scoutmaster of in the 1960s. We wore official Boy Scouts of America neckerchiefs and carried unofficial knives in scabbards on our belts. We hiked trails through woods, although most of us were hapless with a compass, instead relying on ingenuity, stamina, and dumb luck to find our way.
Boy Scouts got their start in 1907 when a British Army officer gathered up twenty boys and took them camping, exploring, and pioneering on an island off England’s southern coast. The next year the army officer, Robert Baden-Powell, wrote “Scouting for Boys.” That same year more than ten thousand Boy Scouts attended a rally at the Crystal Palace in London.
The first scout patrol of ten boys and two girls in Lithuania was organized in 1918. The next year there were two patrols, one for boys and another for girls. During the inter-war years more than 60,000 boys and girls participated in scouting, making it one of the most popular activities among youth culture at that time. In 1939, just before the start of World War Two, there were 22,000 Lithuanian scouts, or almost one percent of the country’s population.
Four out of five Lithuanians were farmers or lived in the country and camping was everyone’s favorite part of scouting. It’s what probably accounts for my father’s fondness for the outdoors and all the scout camps he was later Scoutmaster at. After first fleeing to Germany during World War Two, then immigrating to Canada, he finally re-located to the United States. It’s where he went back to scouting.
They weren’t all sun-kissed and starlit summer camps, either.
Winter Blasts were camps in thin-skinned cabins in the highlands of the Chagrin Valley at which the scouts earned cold weather Merit Badges. We were reassured exploring outdoors in December was fun. We always built a fire first thing in the morning in the cabin’s Franklin stove, kept it well stoked, and hoped we wouldn’t freeze to death in the long night.
In the summer a grab bag of Merit Badges was up for grabs. There were more than a hundred of them, from sports to sciences. I learned the six basic Boy Scout knots, from the sheet bend to the clove hitch, and earned my Pioneering Badge, although I never learned to properly knot a tie, even later on in life, when my wife always helped me with it.
Vytas was forever putting up and tearing down tents, finding lost stakes and poles, and persuading his wife to repair rips in canvas. He told us sleeping outdoors was manly robust healthy, no matter how much rain leaked onto our sleeping bags. He thought fresh air was a tonic for boys.
He led us finding adventure in duck puddles. He had a maxim that a week of camp was worth six months of theory. To this day some of his former scouts are lousy at theory but always vacation in either the woods or at the seashore.
It wasn’t just the Boy Scouts, either.
For many years he was the vadovas at Ausra, a two-week sports-related, Lithuanian-inflected, and Franciscan-inspired summer camp at Wasaga Beach on the Georgian Bay north of Toronto. Although the campers did calisthenics every morning, went to Mass after breakfast, and spoke Lithuanian whenever they had to, what they actually did most of the time was run around in the woods like madmen, play tackle football in the bay, and sing off-key long into the night at the nightly bonfires.
Singing around a bonfire is even better than singing in the car or the shower.
When Vytas was nine years old he was one of the nearly two thousand homeboys at the 1933 Reception Camp in Palanga when Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts, came to Lithuania. Palanga is a seaside resort on the Baltic Sea known for its beaches and sand dunes. Then a sleepy resort, today it’s a summer party spot.
He never forgot having been at that camp, seeing scouting’s leader and guiding light, if only on that one occasion. “He was a hero to us, someone who gave his life to something bigger than himself, even though we were all smaller than him,” he said.
The scout leader’s son, who was with him in 1933, didn’t forget, either. “I particularly remember the warm and friendly welcome we received as we came ashore on Lithuanian soil,” recalled Peter Baden-Powell in 1956.
In 1938, five years later Vytas was at the Second National Jamboree in Panemune, the smallest city in the country, which commemorated both the 20th anniversaries of the foundation of the Lithuanian Boy Scout Association and the restoration of Lithuania’s independence.
Things change fast. Two years later the Soviet Union invaded, the country’s independence was overturned, and scouting was outlawed. During the war and successive occupations, first by the Soviets, then the Nazis, and then the Soviets again, both of his parents were arrested and transported to concentration camps. His father died of starvation in a Siberian labor camp. His mother spent 20 years in the Gulag.
In 1ate 1944 he fled to Germany, made his way buying and selling black market cigarettes, and after the war worked for relief organizations dealing with the masses of displaced people. He met his wife-to-be in a hospital in Nuremberg, where she was a nurse’s aide, and he was being operated on several times for a wound that almost cost him his right hand.
He found passage to Canada in 1949, married Angele Jurgelaityte, who had emigrated there a year earlier, and by 1956 was the father of three children. In 1957 he left Sudbury, Ontario, where he had worked in nickel mines for almost seven years, first as a black powder blaster and then as a hauler of ore, and moved to Cleveland, Ohio. His wife and children followed a half-year later. He worked as an elevator operator for seventy-five cents an hour, less than half of what he had been earning in the mines, swept floors stocked warehouses did whatever he could for a paycheck, and took classes in accounting at Western Reserve University at night.
While in Canada he wasn’t involved in scouting.
“There weren’t any children, or they were all still babies,” my mother said. “All of us from Lithuania, and there was a large community of us in Sudbury in the early 1950s, were all so young. We were just starting to rebuild our lives, and getting married and having children, but it was taking time for them to grow up to scouting age.”
Robert Baden-Powell always counseled that Bot Scouts should be prepared for the unexpected and not be taken by surprise. “A scout knows exactly what to do when anything unexpected happens,” he said. By that guiding light scouting stood Vytas in good stead through the 1940s.
When his parents were arrested by the NKVD and deported, he took over the family farm. He was 17 years old. When he fled their farm in 1944 with ten minutes notice about the Red Army being on the horizon, he barely crossed the border before it was closed for good. When he landed in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 1949, everything he had was in a small suitcase and there were ten dollars in his wallet. In the event, he still had five dollars when he knocked on Angele’s door in Sudbury, almost six hundred miles away.
In Cleveland, living in a Polish double he bought and shared with his sister’s family, who had also fled Lithuania, he found work full-time at the Weatherhead Corporation, kept going to school at night, and after earning a degree in accounting went to work for TRW. He made his way up the ladder, finally managing his division’s financial operations in South America.
After taking early retirement in the late-1980s he helped found the Taupa Lithuanian Credit Union and as director built its assets into the tens of millions. In the 1990s he formed NIDA Enterprises and managed it through 2008, when he was in his 80s. He believed the workingman was the happy man. “Nothing works unless we do,” he said. He believed there was value in work. He believed work without effort was valueless.
Because of World War Two and its dislocations, living rough and subsequent emigration overseas, as well as the demands of rebuilding a life and building a family, he didn’t participate in scouting for many years. But once a scout always a scout. “What you learn stays with you long after you’ve outgrown the uniform,” he said.
When he took over from Vytautas Jokubaitis as Scoutmaster of Troop 311 they were big shoes to fill. Vic Jokubaitis was a tireless advocate for his countrymen who became director of Cleveland’s Lithuanian American Club. He was awarded the Ohio Governor’s “Humanitarian of the Year” award in 1994.
My father worked with Cleveland’s Lithuanian scouts for nearly twenty years, although even after giving up scouting, until his death in 2011, he never really stopped scouting. While Scoutmaster he helped affiliate Troop 311 with the American Boy Scouts, opening up many camping and jamboree venues for it, as well as linking it to the traditions and activities of scouting worldwide. In the late 1960s he established an ancillary scouting camp at Ausra, the Lithuanian-Franciscan campsite on the Georgian Bay, where Cleveland’s scouts enjoyed two weeks of camping, and by many accounts, some of the biggest nighttime bonfires they ever experienced.
“Dad loved bonfires,” recalled my brother Rick, who was also a scout. “It was a rule with him, that there be one every night. Some of his log cabin-style bonfires were as big as dining room tables and were still smoldering in the morning when we got up for our morning exercises and raising the flags.” When asked what bonfires meant to him Vytas said, “Sometimes it takes looking through campfire smoke to see the world clearly.”
Although they never exactly warmed to it, he introduced winter camping and hiking to his troop, even encouraging them to try snowshoes. “I don’t remember ever falling down as much as when I tried walking on top of snow drifts wearing snowshoes,” recalled one of his scouts. “But he said it didn’t matter how many times we fell down, it only mattered that we get up and try again, although getting up while stuck in snowshoes is easier said than done.”
He stressed achievement by encouraging the pursuit of Merit Badges, especially those that involved self-reliance and taking your chances. “One summer at a Canadian camp at Blue Mountain we were taken on a two-night canoe trip,” Rick said. “We were supervised, but only given a compass, a canteen, and a big bag of chocolate chip cookies. We had to make the round-trip up the bay and back to the camp ourselves without their help. They told us it was both a duty and a challenge to find our way, and we did it, and I still remember how accomplished we all felt when we did that.”
In the 1970s he inaugurated Scautiu Kucius, a kind of Boy Scout’s Christmas Eve, a tradition that endures to this day. Every year, a weekend before Christmas, Cleveland’s Lithuanian scouts gather and feast on twelve foods representing the twelve apostles, sing carols, and kick their shoes off over their heads to see near what girl they will land, which is old-school for predicting the future.
Another annual event he was invested in was the Kazuke Muge, a scouting craft fair, fund-raiser, and parade held every March in the community hall of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Cleveland’s Lithuanian church. He organized and promoted it for many years, making sure stalls were assembled for the craft sales, arranging indoor games and entertainment, and encouraging everyone to support the scouts.
Although he did much for the movement, as a Scoutmaster he didn’t try to do everything for his young charges. He thought it better to encourage boys to educate themselves instead of always instructing them. “When you want a thing done ‘Don’t do it yourself’ is a good motto for a Scoutmaster,” said Robert Baden-Powell. Like him my father believed that to be true.
“There is no ideal way to do things,” he explained to Gintaras Taoras, one of his scouts. “There is no absolute wrong way to do things. Everyone has different ways to accomplish something. It will just take some faster to accomplish the task and others longer, but you both end up at the same end point. Learn through your mistakes.”
Gintaras, who would become a Scoutmaster in his own right, when asked what person had made a difference in his scouting career, said it was Vytas Staskevicius. “Brother Vytas was never afraid to try anything new. He always gave us the chance to do things ourselves, like getting our camps organized and set up. If we got it wrong, he didn’t harp on us getting it wrong. He would ask us how we could have done things differently, what we learned, and we would then move on.”
After World War Two the Lithuanian Boy Scouts Association began to re-organize. In 1948 a National Jamboree was held in the German Alps. More than a thousand displaced Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts were there. In 1950 there was a Lithuanian presence at the Boy Scouts of America Jamboree in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania.
In 2014 Gintaras Taoras was in the front ranks when the 65th anniversary of scouting for Lithuanian immigrants on four continents was recognized at the Lithuanian Embassy in Washington, D. C. “Scouting is a powerful movement providing life-changing opportunities to today’s Lithuanian youth,” said Zygimantas Pavilionis, the Lithuanian ambassador.
“I wish to personally congratulate the Lithuanian Scouts Association,” said Robert Gates, former Secretary of Defense under Presidents Bush and Obama and National President-Elect of the Boy Scouts of America.
The Centennial of Lithuanian scouting was celebrated in 2018. My father was one of many Scoutmasters who kept scouting alive. Although he has since passed away, whatever scout camp in the sky he is at, he is sure to be smiling through the smoke of a celestial bonfire at how Lithuanian scouting has resurrected itself one hundred years later.
Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”