Chicago newspaper publisher and multi-millionaire philanthropist William D. Boyce founded the Boy Scouts of America in 1910. He was born June 16, 1858 on a farm in Allegheny County near Plum, Pennsylvania. His family taught him to love the outdoors and his daily farm chores instilled in him a powerful work ethic. He attended Wooster Academy in Ohio in 1878 and then moved to Chicago to become a salesman.
In the 1880s, Boyce started newspapers in Manitoba, North Dakota, and Louisiana. By 1887, he started The Saturday Blade in Chicago which was a weekly illustrated newspaper for rural readers that was sold by thousands of newsboys. He started W.D. Boyce Publishing in the late 1880s and acquired The Chicago Ledger in 1892. He also owned two other newspapers, Chicago World and Farming Business.
In 1883, Boyce married Mary Jane Deacon from his hometown in Pennsylvania. She gained the nickname "Rattlesnake Jane" by matching his skill in poker and being an expert shot.
In 1914 he established two magazines. Early in the 20th Century, Boyce had as many as 30,000 delivery boys working for his publications and his company policies were very much concerned with their welfare.
There are several embellished versions of a legend about Boyce when he took a trip to London in 1909. The bare essentials were just that Boyce met an English Boy Scout who helped him across the street to his hotel. After the boy refused a tip, Boyce wanted to find out more about scouting and went on his own initiative to the London office of the scouts the next day. Contrary to one eleaborate version, there was no fog, Boyce was not lost, and he did not meet Lord Baden-Powell on that particular trip but the two met later.
But Boyce did return to Chicago with an idea to form an American version of the scouting group for boys based on American Indian lore and outdoor camping activities. He shared his ideas with two friends and Chicago business leaders, Richard R. Donnelly of R.R. Donnelly and Andrew McNally of the Rand-McNally Company. The business leaders raised money and founded The Boy Scouts of America in a meeting in Chicago on Feb. 8, 1910.
Boyce was always an innovator. He saw the popularity of stories from former President Teddy Rooselvelt in the jungles of the Amazon River and wrote his own series of stories for The Saturday Blade from Africa. Boyce took balloons to Africa so he could take pictures of wildlife from the air. This was a first for publishing in America which Boyce claimed increased his readership by 300,000 copies per issue.
When the Boy Scouts needed money, Boyce financed the organization out of his pocket. After a disagreement with the executive director of the Boy Scouts, Boyce started the Lone Scouts of America for boys on farms and required no uniforms or equipment, only lessons in a magazine. The Lone Scouts eventually merged back with the Boy Scouts in 1924.
In the late 1920s, the only son of William Boyce died suddenly of an embolism. Boyce was devastated with grief and some associates said he lost the will to live himself. He died on June 11, 1929 just short of his 71st birthday. He was buried in Ottawa, Illinois where his estate was and which he regarded as his Illinois hometown. Near his grave in the Ottawa Avenue Cemetery is a statue of a Boy Scout.
There is also a bronze medallion honoring William Boyce near the White House as part of the new Points of Light Volunteer Pathway. It notes that since 1910, 110 million American boys have participating in scouting. There are 3.3 million scouts in America at present. Seventy percent of US military academy students have been scouts, 72 percent of US Rhodes Scholars, and 26 of the first 29 NASA astronauts were alumni of scouting.