My personal tribute to

Photo by Don Carter

Dr. Harold R. (Hal) Belknap, Jr.

on the occasion of his passing


Posted: 20 April 2008. Although this is posted at a time of mourning, I believe the important thing is to celebrate the joy brought into this world by this wonderful man. What a blessing it has been to meet and know him as a friend and mentor, One of the downsides to getting older is that we outlive some of our friends and family members. It's probably little more than a perception issue, but these things seem to come in threes. For me, in rapid succession, the famous meteorologist Edward Lorenz died on 16 April, my former supervisor and friend Don Whitman died on 17 April, and now my friend Hal has died (on the morning of 20 April). Although Ed Lorenz was only an acquaintance, I had the pleasure of meeting him twice and felt a great deal of respect for him, not just for his accomplishments, but also for his human qualities. Don Whitman was not a close friend, but I valued his friendship nevertheless, and he was a good supervisor from whom I learned valuable lessons.

Hal Belknap was one of those people who stood out in my life like a beacon in the dark. I'm sure this tribute will be one among the multitudes that will be sent out in the near future. He touched so many lives in such a wonderful way, all through his life. The stories of his impact include so many people in such a positive way, I can only add my small increment to the total outpouring. His presence in our lives was such a blessing, it's actually difficult to mourn his passing - I refuse to feel sorry for myself by his absence because his life was so meaningful to so many. Rather than weep, I can only try to add my voice to the many who will step up to salute him. My main concern at this point is the impact of his loss on his wife, JoAnn, and the rest of his family.

Together (and their bond was so clearly special it's difficult to think of them separately), Hal and JoAnn represented something so awesome to me, it's hard to express in words. I came to know them through a process initiated by my son, shortly after we moved back to Norman. My son wanted to join a Boy Scout troop, and Vickie had recently seen an ad in the local paper for boys to join Troop 777. Vickie knew of Hal through her work at Norman Regional Hospital, and she seemed to be supportive of the idea, so my son joined Hal's Troop. He was among the first boys Hal recruited for his fledgling Troop which at the time contained only a single patrol. Little did I know where this odyssey was going to take us. I had no idea how important that choice would become in my life.

Hal and JoAnn with Freddie Goodwin (left - son of my fellow Patrol Dad, Fred Goodwin) and my son Chad (right) on the occasion of their Eagle Scout Court of Honor ceremony at the Ketner farm, where so many weekend campouts were held during my son's rise to Eagle Scout.

Hal wasn't very visible to me in those first few months and I wasn't very much involved with the Troop - I took my son to meetings and then drove him home, without doing anything and without knowing much about what was happening. After the first summer Troop campout at Fort Gibson Lake (which I didn't attend), a conspiracy developed - a conspiracy between my son and the adult leaders of the Troop to draft me into service. When I took my son to the next troop meeting, much to my surprise and consternation, I was called up to the front and given a Boy Scout shirt with all the necessary paraphenalia for me to become a Patrol Dad. That was the beginning of my adventure with the Boy Scouts and with Hal (and JoAnn) - very few Troop events from then on did I miss. Some of those experiences have been documented here, and here and here, but this only scratches the surface of all that has transpired. A complete history would require many pages.

Perhaps the most important thing about Hal was the "philosophy" of his leadership of Troop 777 (which also included the Cub Scout Pack 777, and the medical Explorer Post 901 he led), which so clearly resonated with what I wanted the experience for my son to be. My own experience with Scouting as a boy turned out badly, because the leadership of the Troop I had joined after Cub Scouts was more militaristic than I was willing to accept. Hal's approach to Scouting was to combine in roughly 50-50 proportions the fun part of Scouting (mostly outdoor hiking and camping) with the achievement part (rank advancement, merit badges, etc.). Too much emphasis on either by itself makes for a poor growth experience for the boys. In our early days, Hal also went out of his way to take on young men who came from problem families or had serious "issues" of various sorts. Hal felt the obligation to help disadvantaged young men - boys like my son and others in our Troop came from supportive families and their success during and after Scouting was much more likely than with some of the boys we recruited. Frankly, when I first joined the rest of the adults, I was at a loss to understand how to deal with such boys - I had no experience and no idea how to interact with them in such a way that they would be benefitted. But Hal led the way, and there were some other adults in Troop 777 far more capable of addressing such things than I. I gradually came to understand how this was to work and admired very much Hal's commitment to making a positive difference in the lives of troubled young men. I look back and realize that for some of them, we were the only positive experiences in a typical week for them. I'm sure that we did, indeed, help many of them. Hal didn't want Troop 777 to be just an "Eagle Scout Factory" - he wanted to make a positive difference in the lives of boys on their way to becoming men. And so he did, many times over. I know he was proud of our earliest young men, some of whom have begun to bring their boys into Scouting.

At one point, early in our Troop 777 history, I found myself at a campout and we adult leaders were gathered around the campfire after the boys had been sent to their tents. We had a problem with one of the young men, and I was astonished to find myself part of a group of adults putting their heads together to help a young man find a way through his problems. I didn't have a lot to contribute, but I was so proud of the group concern for a boy to whom none of us were remotely related, except through Scouting. That exemplified Hal's approach - the Troop was not about the adults and their problems. It was all about the boys and how we could help them learn to become responsible adults. Done the right way, Hal's philosphy about Scouting accomplishes just that: helps boys become responsible adults.

Another aspect of Hal's philosophy clearly was to involve whole families in Scouting - not just the boys. Fathers and mothers were encouraged to participate in all activities, including leadership roles. Of course, Hal set a high standard in this respect by sharing his fantastic wife JoAnn with us, and she clearly was important to the Troop's success. A fine example of this was the institution of the annual Father-Daughter campout. Those of us with daughters realized that our girls were missing out on the wonderful outdoor experiences associated with hiking and camping, so Hal and JoAnn created this special campout to address the concerns of fathers about neglecting their daughters. It has proven to be a tremendous success, but its most important contribution - as I see it - is to underscore the commitment Hal (and JoAnn) had to full participation by entire Scout families.

Group photo of the first ever Father-Daughter Campout in the fall of 1993. Left to right - Hal Belknap, Loren and Rich Ice, Sarah and Don Carter, Rachael and Mike Lee, Heather and Chuck Doswell, JoAnn Belknap

That brings up the notion of our "Scout Family" - in effect, Troop 777 became an extended family for many of us. It was more than just Scouting - the program was the vehicle for creating this fantastic circle of adults, all working together to achieve something for the whole Scout family. I know JoAnn has told me - and I believe it myself - that if ever a problem arose, her Scout Family likely would be more supportive and more caring than most anyone else in her life. This is the nature of Hal's philosophy. This is what he built from the modest beginnings of Troop 777.

Yet another thing Hal emphasized was that if my own son needed discipline, it should not be up to me to administer it. Rather, my job was to provide that for other people's sons. And I discovered that my patience with the sons of other people far exceeded my patience with my own son. This has turned out to be an important lesson and I was able to learn to enjoy the experience of working and playing with the boys of other adults in the Troop. I've come to see the achievements of the children of our Scout families (the Carters, the Ices, the Goodwins, the Grahams, the Harrises. the Nelsons, the Smiths, the Schmitzes, ... this list could go on for a long time) with the same pride as if they were my own children. Thanks to Hal (and JoAnn), I'm blessed with a fabulous circle of friends with whom I've shared some wonderful experiences. They've also entrusted their children to my care at times, and those children have been a joy to be around. I could participate in the Scouting program with my son, but without having to badger him constantly about his behavior. I knew I had many other adults I could count on who would be able to see him objectively and give him whatever help he may have needed. I trusted those people because we - or at least most of us - bought into Hal's way of doing things with the boys (and the rest of the families). Moreover, through the experience of Philmont Scout Ranch, participation in which Hal encouraged, I learned that it was important to let the boys make mistakes, even when it caused us adults extra hardship. We were to interfere with what the boys were doing only when it was absolutely necessary. It's only by doing that young people learn, and in doing anything, they'll make mistakes and learn from them. Hal made all of us see how this was a life lesson, not simply a Scouting philosophy.

Finally, I saw that Hal applied many of the things needed to make boys into men on us, the adult participants - to make us into better men (and women). I believe he was successful there, as well. And he kept on becoming better himself as time went on, learning by experience what worked and what didn't. We learned a great deal by interacting with other scouters, including Troops in Taverham and Burnley in England, with whom we established a very special relationship. Hal was not a saint, by any means, and I'm confident that his mischievousness contributed enormously into making the experiences we shared into such wonderful times. For the first time in my years of Federal service, I had a good and satisfying way to spend all of my annual leave every year - enjoying incredible times with the boys and families in Scouting. Thank you for that, Hal.

Hal and JoAnn became role models for me - I know I've come up well short of the standards they've set, but among people I know well, only my late aunt and uncle can be said to be on an equal footing with Hal and JoAnn in my eyes. Not only have they been successful in their lives by anyone's reasonable standards, but they've set incredibly high standards as human beings. Love without qualification. Forgiveness without rancor. Commitment to others before self. Service to friends and community. High professional standards. Family values in their truest sense. Gratitude for life's gifts. Hal was a relatively wealthy man virtually all of his life - but nothing about his wealth gave him more pleasure than sharing it with others. I'm confident there is much in terms of their donations I don't know about, but what I do know about is inspirational. He's the only wealthy man I've ever known, but he's been so far from the stereotype of wealthy people that it can't remotely be applied to him. Perhaps from time to time people took undue advantage of his generosity, but it never occurred to him as a result to reduce that generous spirit - although in some cases, he may have applied a little "tough love" to a few of the recipients. In the cases of that I know something about, it was the right thing to do. He was constantly doing right by everyone in his acquaintance. That never changed in all the time I knew him.

There are other aspects of Hal's life about which I know relatively little. One year, though, when Vickie and I were home alone for Christmas, Hal and JoAnn invited us to participate in their family's Christmas. Despite my fears of being an intruder in their holiday, it turned out to be an absolute delight. We were truly honored to be able to experience their family holiday with them. It was fun to see that Hal's family reminded us of our families, which made this invitation "just what the doctor ordered".

Hal's been my family doctor ever since we joined the Troop. Having your friend be your family physician has been an amazing experience - and about as good a relationship between a doctor and patient as it's possible to have. For instance, submitting to a prostate exam is not exactly something you imagine with eager anticipation, and to have a friend conduct it definitely has a strange feeling. But Hal made light of what could have been uncomforable and, in so doing, put the experience in perspective. He called the KY jelly 'goose grease'! - which will make me chuckle for the rest of my life. I'm pretty confident his career as a physician in Internal Medicine has been a successful and rewarding one. Undoubtedly, it's been an avenue by which Hal has helped many people outside of Scouting. Hal and I shared many hours at his Fort Davis, TX vacation home, talking about professional life and its twists and turns, as well as the joys and disappointments of trying to serve as a mentor for young people.

Hal and JoAnn on the driveway at their Fort Davis vacation home in the late summer of 2005. They generously shared this wonderful place with friends and family, where we enjoyed their company in a delightful setting.

All of us left behind have suffered a loss, but the things Hal did for us so far outweigh my own sense of loss that it seems wrong to be concerned with my own personal feelings. He wouldn't want me to be that selfish. He'd want me to continue to try to live up to the standards he showed me (by his deeds) that a decent human being should seek to achieve. Farewell, Hal. Your legacy will long be remembered and cherished.

That man is a success who has lived well, laughed often, and loved much;

Who has enjoyed the trust of pure women, earned the respect of the intelligent men, and gained the love of children;

Who has filled his niche and accomplished his task;

Who leaves the world better than he found it, whether by an improved poppy, a perfect poem, or a rescued soul;

Who never lacked appreciation for Earth's beauty or failed to express it;

Who always looked for the best in others, and gave the best he had.

-- Robert Louis Stevenson