While leading a group on an trek through the Grand Canyon, Jery Stedinger, professor of civil and environmental engineering, paused on a bridge over the Colorado River to begin a lecture on the hydrologic and social importance of the river, but quickly realized the group wanted to get moving.
The long-time Scoutmaster had to remind himself he wasn’t guiding engineering college students, but a troop of Boy Scouts. “You can’t tell them this stuff when they want to get going, you’ve got to tell them when they’re tired and sitting down,” Stedinger joked as he recalled the excursion.
Last summer marked 20 years Stedinger has been Scoutmaster of Boy Scout Troop 2 in Ithaca, although he’s been involved with the Scouts even longer. As the leader of the troop, Stedinger guides scouts in the development of programs and activities for 11- to 17-year-olds that address environmental science, outdoor skills, first-aid, teamwork and citizenship. His mentorship not only helps his Scouts develop new skills, but the impressionable young men develop new interests that many will carry with them for life.
“Camping and outdoors is the vehicle, but…it’s all about making them better citizens,” said Stedinger, who estimates he’s instructed about 1,000 teens as a troop and district adult leader. “It’s wonderful to watch them develop through the ranks and the challenges. They’re learning to be self-sufficient and to be leaders,” he added.
One way Stedinger instills these values within the young men in his troop is through community service projects, which are sometimes organized as a group, or by individual Scouts earning merit badges and the Eagle Scout rank. Such projects have included removing invasive plants and constructing walkways within the region’s many hiking trails and state forests. Other Scouts have volunteered their time to help the Loaves and Fishes soup kitchen and Cornell’s Sapsucker Woods, made building improvements to the Cancer Resource Center of the Finger Lakes and built a recreational horseshoe pit for seniors living at Longview.
“Jery has been excellent at promoting advancement and accomplishment among our Scouts,” said animal science professor Thomas Overton, Chair of the Troop 2 Committee, adding that “as a result, Troop 2 is one of the top [regional] units in terms of developing young men and helping many to achieve the Eagle rank.”
Forty of Stedinger’s teens have graduated to Eagle Scouts—the highest rank within the Boy Scouts. One could compare attaining Eagle rank to receiving a Ph.D. in academia. It’s a parallel Stedinger understands well as a teacher in both venues, but Scouts looking to earn an environmental science merit badge might not fully appreciate—at least at the time—the fact that they have an Ivy League environmental engineer for their merit badge counselor. Stedinger’s research in that area has earned him election to the National Academy of Engineering, among other distinguished accomplishments.
There are other connections between Troop 2 and Cornell. A dozen of Stedinger’s former Scouts have become Cornell students, and dozens more are the offspring of staff and faculty colleagues. He recalls the irony of one such connection after a hike at the Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico: “There was one Scout who was out there and when we came back, his mother reported that her son couldn’t believe anyone could get as excited about rocks as I was. But you have to understand this is the son of professor Susan Riha, who’s a soil scientist in Earth and atmospheric sciences. So he’s telling his mother, who’s basically a rock person, he couldn’t believe this,” Stedinger said with a smile on his face.
And now that Scout, Andrew Melkonian, has a Ph.D. in geology from Cornell. “There are a lot of experiences that led to me being where I am today, but that trip and my time in the troop with Jery are definitely ones that I remember and are important to me,” said Melkonian.
Another connection between Troop 2 and Cornell—and the most special connection for Stedinger—was made when the professor had a former Scout as a student in one of his courses. That Scout was Stedinger’s son, Matthew. And while his son is the main reason Stedinger first became a Scoutmaster, it’s clear that Stedinger has a special place in his heart for all of his Scouts. While glancing at the long list of teens he proudly saw grow into Eagle Scouts over the last two decades, Stedinger began recalling, from memory, anecdotes and service projects for each one.
“It’s been incredibly rewarding to get involved with the lives of so many young people over the years. I’ve been privileged to have so much fun with them,” said Stedinger. “Scouting is just a wonderful experience and they develop a set of life skills that we hope helps them throughout the rest of their lives.”