Young men of promise gather in La Mesa for Boys State Orientation Meeting

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Where will the next generation of California’s community leaders come from? The American Legion, the nation’s largest veterans service organization, has a partial answer in the Boys State program, which taps young men of talent and promise after their junior year of high school, for a weeklong exercise in participatory democracy.

Where will the next generation of California’s community leaders come from? The American Legion, the nation’s largest veterans service organization, has a partial answer in the Boys State program, which taps young men of talent and promise after their junior year of high school, for a weeklong exercise in participatory democracy.

San Diego County Boys State delegates and alternates gathered on May 12, at La Mesa Post 282, for the American Legion California Boys State Orientation Meeting for the Legion’s District 22, which is roughly contiguous with county boundary lines.

The California Boys State Program will be held at California State University, Sacramento, June 16-23, bringing together young men from throughout California. The goals and objectives are to develop civic leadership and pride, to deepen interest in and knowledge of state and local government, and to increase dedication to the bedrock traditions and beliefs undergirding American government.

Almost 50 years ago, attorney Bill Smelko was sponsored by La Mesa Post 282 as a delegate to Boys State. He now serves with the program as chief legal counselor. Smelko called it, “the ultimate learn-by-doing experience.”

The delegates, who are randomly assigned as members of the Whig or Federalist political parties, set up a functioning government for their polity, including city, county and state levels of government and a full and complete legal system. Oratory, athletics, music, art, and other talents are encouraged and provided opportunities for display.

The boys were advised to participate in as many activities as they can. Santee American Legion Post 364 Commander Gene Michonski offered advice to the young participants.

“Gentlemen, you will get out of this program what you put into it,” he said. “You’ve got to work.”

On Thursday of their week’s activities, the boys will visit the Sacramento State Capitol. Two outstanding California delegates will be chosen to represent the state at Boys Nation in Washington, D.C.

American Legion District 22 Commander Chris Yates served as emcee for the meeting, and he said he was a Boys State delegate in 1980.

“I promise you, you’ll come back very impressed with what you’ve learned,” he said.

Smelko also addressed the parents attending the meeting with their sons.

“You will notice a difference in them when they return,” he said. “This is the single best experience in living a quality life in America that a young man can have.”

Smelko confided that he was drawn to the law as a result of his time at Boys State, where he passed the Boys State “bar exam” and became a Boys State lawyer. He took pride in having won on appeal a case involving another Boys Stater who was accused and convicted of the crimes of “rape and murder of a spider.”

The program is eligible for college credits, and scholarships are available from the company Samsung to delegate-applicants who are direct descendants of wartime veterans. In 1996, Samsung donated $5 million to The American Legion in appreciation to military veterans. Also in 1996, the Boys State Foundation was set up as a nonprofit to raise money to offset program costs.

Attendance at Boys State identifies a young man as a top student. Thirty percent of those enrolled in U.S. military academies are graduates of Boys State. Advisors at the orientation meeting urged the boys to list their Boys State participation on college applications and when applying for jobs.

This is the 81st year the American Legion California Boys State has been called into session.

This year’s group from within the Legion’s countywide District 22 consists of 62 boys as delegates, selected and sponsored by 22 of San Diego County’s 28 Legion Posts, with boys selected from 50 local high schools.

East County boys set to participate include six sponsored by El Cajon Post 303, and another young man sponsored by Santee Post 364.

The budget this year for District 22 delegates to attend is $31,000. The overall California total is $388,000. Boys State Director Dick Shick is a San Diegan and Adjutant of San Diego Post 6.

Shick said, “This is well worth the money.”

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