- This is Poly
The following story was written by Michael Gabriel ’24 for his Journalism class taught by Ms. Rachael Allen.
by Michael Gabriel ’24
It’s a couple minutes past eight on a Friday night in the gymnasium of the Dimitrios and Georgia Kaloidis Parochial School in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. As the Cub Scouts are corralled out of the gym by their parents, the Boy Scouts are filing in. The Boy Scouts, dressed in their uniforms, proceed to throw their coats and string bags onto the stage and immediately rush to grab one of the coveted basketballs that the custodian had forgotten to put away.
On the stage, sits a folding table from the school’s cafeteria that a couple of the scouts set up, and at that table sits James Vavas ‘93, the Scoutmaster of Holy Cross Brooklyn’s Troop 715. He watches the clock knowing that it’s already past eight, the actual starting time of the meeting, but he decides to give it a couple more minutes and let the scouts keep playing.
Talking with a couple of good friends, I, the Senior Patrol Leader (highest ranking scout) of Troop 715, am told that Mr. Vavas wants me. I look over at him, and he quickly moves his finger in a circular motion pointing up at the ceiling. I look back and immediately put the scout sign (a hand signal) up, signaling that it is time to start the meeting. Mr. Vavas rises from his chair and puts the scout sign up too. The Scouts slowly realize one by one, drop their basketballs, and finally put the scout sign up as well. I wait for the last basketball to stop bouncing, look around, and yell “FALL IN!” It is time for the meeting to begin.
Troop 715 was chartered to the Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Church of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn in 1969, and has been going strong ever since with at this moment a remarkable 113 Eagle Scouts (the final rank in Boy Scouts) to its name. But like all Boy Scout troops across the nation, Troop 715 relies on adult volunteers to help support and run itself. There are various volunteer positions, but there is no role as central to the life of the Troop than that of the Scoutmaster.
As stated on the Boy Scouts of America website, “The Scoutmaster is the adult responsible for working directly with the Scouts providing direction, coaching, and support.” Today, that responsibility falls on the shoulders of Mr. Vavas, but it hasn’t always because like many of the Troop’s volunteers, he too was once a Boy Scout in Troop 715.
It was his very first Boy Scout meeting, and Vavas was assigned to the Wolf Patrol, one of multiple smaller groups within the greater Troop. When the scouts would fall in (get in line), each patrol would line up in the designated spot in the gym, and the Wolf Patrol was at the very front, directly facing the Troop’s Scoutmaster, Mr. Jim.
Mr. Jim, a Vietnam Veteran, had retained an old school military style of leadership as the Scoutmaster of Troop 715, which meant a lot of yelling and a key focus on discipline. For what felt like the entire meeting, Mr. Jim was standing right in front of Vavas, the little sixth grader, looking right over his head, and yelling at the rest of the Scouts. All Vavas could see was Mr. Jim’s uniform, rising and lowering with each breath.
“When my father picked me up, he said, ‘What did you learn today? What did you learn tonight at Scouts?’ and I said, ‘Well, I don’t remember much, but I learned that Mr. Jim’s buttons say Be Prepared on them,’ because that’s all I could remember from the meeting!” Vavas recalled with a chuckle.
Today it says Be Prepared on Vavas’s buttons as well.
At a young age Vavas already showed the signs of a leader. “I was organized, but I didn’t recognize that as a leadership skill as a child. I just thought that was me being me. As I came through scouting, I started to recognize [that] those things that I was fairly good at helped me and moved me along quicker in the Scouting program.”
Rising the ranks, Vavas would continue to refine his leadership skills, and success would soon follow. He became the Patrol Leader of the Wolf Patrol, and after weeks of patrol meetings and preparation, Vavas and his Wolves would win the Camporee, a competition between many different Troops, testing a patrols’ teamwork and Boy Scout skills. After his victory, Vavas was chosen to be the Senior Patrol Leader of the Troop, where he would be in charge of not just one patrol, but the entire Troop.
“My job was then to make sure the patrol leaders were preparing well,” Vavas said. and they were having meetings, and I couldn’t hold all their meetings, but “I had to make sure that I was holding them accountable to having their meetings, and they did.”
Under Vavas’s leadership, Troop 715 swept the competition and won the Camporee yet again. That along with his win as a Patrol Leader built up a great resume for him, and when it came time for him to finally achieve the rank of Eagle, he had a lot to look back on.
At his Eagle Scout Court of Honor, the formal ceremony for rising to the rank of Eagle, he gave a speech to reflect on his journey in Boy Scouts. “That was the salient moment in my life when it just clicked that scouting had given so much to me. I had an obligation to give back so that other scouts can benefit from it.” To be Scoutmaster though, was not considered.
“I guess in my mind’s eye, Mr. Jim would be the scoutmaster forever.”
Mr. Jim had been the Troop’s Scoutmaster from 1971 up until 2014 when he had to retire due to health concerns. He would pass away not too long after that. “You know as a kid, you don’t think about mortality and people getting older and dying. I think if Mr. Jim was healthy, he’d still be the Scoutmaster today at 75 years old,” said Vavas. Needless to say, the passing of Mr. Jim left a large hole in the Troop’s soul.
Mr. Frank Panagakos, an already established adult volunteer in the Troop, would end up taking on Mr. Jim’s responsibilities for the next two years, but due to his own health concerns and how they would hinder his ability to lead effectively, he too would retire, leaving the position open yet again.
“So I had to find a replacement, and I thought hard about who would be a good replacement, who would be a good fit to take over Troop 715, and the number one name on my list was Mr. Vavas,” said Panagakos.
After discussing the situation with the Troop committee members, they were all in agreement. Panagakos approached Vavas, and asked him if he would like to be the Scoutmaster of Troop 715.
“When I was asked to be the Scoutmaster, it was extremely humbling, a very humbling experience because I saw the shoes that I had to fill in. Frankly those shoes are tremendous shoes for me to fill. I don’t think I fill them. I think everybody has to create their own shoes, and make their own footprints and imprints on the Troop,” said Vavas.
Vavas accepted the offer, and took on the role of Scoutmaster in the Fall of 2017. As a leader, he follows in the footsteps of Mr. Jim, but he does it in his own shoes.
“You may think of a leader as someone who stands in front of a group and gives orders. There’s a place for that kind of leadership, but Scouting focuses more on servant leadership, which simply means choosing to lead, giving more than you receive, and making a difference”(Pg 32, The Boy Scout Handbook).
“I think that we as a society have an obligation to give of our time, talent and treasure,” said Vavas. Treasure meaning financial support. “Someone gave of their time, talent, and treasure to the scouting program when I was a child. That was Mr. Jim. That was my father… and people give back because they see value in those things.”
Vavas takes the time to run the meetings every Friday night, organize the camping trips, help the scouts rise the ranks to Eagle Scout, and so much more. At almost every Eagle Scout Project, a community service requirement for Eagle, you will see him with his blue tinted sunglasses cleaning out a shed, painting a fence, digging a hole —; whatever he could do to help.
“When I first joined scouts… we were on a camping trip, and I couldn’t tie my shoes the right way because they were the boots, and he helped me. And it’s something that, you know, no one else would do with you. It’s something that someone would say ‘look on YouTube’,” said James Zain, one of the almost forty scouts enrolled in the Troop as of January, 2023. Out of those scouts, one is Vavas’s son, Danny, who Vavas credits as an initial motivator to his involvement in the Troop.
“Now that Danny is at that point where he is earning his Eagle Scout my job is not done because for me to leave now — that I got what I needed out of scouting, because my son benefited from scouting —, would be selfish, and that would not be what a good scout would do.”
“We all give back because of what we got from it, and the more you get, the more you give, and that’s why I continue to do it.”
“I have an obligation to continue but also a desire to continue so that other young men who I don’t have a father-son relationship with so that they can continue and benefit from scouting the way I did… We all give back because of what we got from it, and the more you get, the more you give, and that’s why I continue to do it.”
Mr. Vavas, standing where Mr. Jim once stood and looking out at the Wolf Patrol, finishes up his recap of the night. He looks out at the scouts, almost all of whom he has watched grow up through scouting. He tells them all to bow their heads. They all do.
“May the Great Scout Master watch over us and protect us until we meet again. Amen.”
He looks up.