He was only 13, but Boy Scout Paul Banwart listened intently to the talk at a Jackson Town hall meeting about the mosquito problem in Jackson Park, where the scouts hold their own meetings. The skeeters weren't only pests. There was a public health concern as well: West Nile disease and meningitis.
"How can I help?" Banwart, now 18, recalled thinking at the time. "How can I solve this problem?"
That gave young Paul the idea in 2003 for his major Eagle Scout project -- building bat houses for about 550 mosquito-gobbling bats. But he didn't stop there.
Banwart already has 2 1/2 years of college under his belt, even though he just graduated from high school. He learned 102 merit badges -- five times as many as needed to become an Eagle Scout. He's headed up numerous community projects for environmental causes.
And now, this Shakopee teen is being honored nationally this month as the top Eagle Scout by the American Legion, which also gave him a $10,000 college scholarship.
"Paul Banwart represents the best in scouting, and the American Legion is proud to have selected him as its Eagle Scout of the year," said Commander Marty Conatser, the national leader of the organization.
Banwart began his scouting career at age 5 as a tiger cub, and he soon showed leadership skills.
By 10th grade, he was attending Normandale Community College part time while going to Shakopee High School part time. Last December, he earned his associate of arts degree with honors. In the spring, he moved to a dorm room at the University of Minnesota to study business at the Carlson School of Management.
Compared to study time, Banwart has spent even more time camping, about two-thirds of a year altogether, he figures. He's used outdoor and leadership challenges to build life skills. And he vows to live by the old motto, "Once an Eagle Scout, Always an Eagle Scout."
"It's not just going through and earning a rank," Banwart said in a recent interview. "It's a standard you have to live up to. The merit badges show you have worked to achieve that honor, and now you have to work the rest of your life to keep up the standard."
The Eagle Scout is the highest rank attainable, achieved by only 2 percent of the boys who start in scouts. Banwart earned his at 13, the youngest age possible.
In all, he's received about $26,000 in scouting scholarships, including a $1,000 scholarship from the Northern Star Council for Boy Scouts, based in St. Paul, and a $6,000 scholarship in an essay contest sponsored by the Sons of the American Revolution for Eagle Scouts. Last week, he received $1,000 from the National Eagle Scout Association, adding to his long list of more than 20 scholarships, which altogether exceed $70,000, Banwart said.
In May, he was honored in San Diego at a scouting convention as one of five Eagle scouts in the nation to receive the highly prestigious "Young American Award" for outstanding commitment to community and country,
His scoutmaster, Steven Thomas, met Banwart when he became a cub in Pack 218 in Shakopee. "He's above and beyond anything you could ever imagine -- an exceptional young man," Thomas said.
For his major Eagle Scout project, Banwart showed how public health threats such as West Nile disease could be addressed by reducing the mosquito population.
"By constructing boxes to be used in bat habitats, Banwart's project can assist in defeating serious health problems such as meningitis and West Nile," Conatser said. "This project has the potential to save lives."
Banwart has been heavily involved in the Scouts, including as a chapter chief of its honor society, the Order of the Arrow, which celebrates Native American tradition and fosters community service. For public cable television, he produced a video based on a Powerpoint presentation that gave the public tips on cutting their energy use and saving money. A Shakopee utility also published his information in a newsletter.
A few years ago, Banwart directed dozens of people as they planted 300 trees. Cub scouts used it as a lesson, and the Department of Natural Resources and deer hunter associations helped out.
And last year at Lake Minnewashta, he led 135 people in landscaping, tree-planting and cleanup. Banwart has had adventures, from the arid Cimarron, N.M., where he trekked through the mountains and desert -- to the snowy Boundary Waters Canoe Area, where he's slept under the northern stars on a winter night, when the wind chills dropped more than 60 below.
"You learn the limitations of the human body and what it can do," Banwart said. "You can challenge yourself mentally, academically, but there's also physical tests of strength. That's all about developing yourself."
The American Legion, formed in 1919, has always supported scouts.
"Many of the same precepts that the scouts follow we also believe in and follow as well," said Mike Buss, youth program manager for the American Legion in Minnesota. "God and country, community service, helping our fellow men and women, love of the flag, and patriotism."
Banwart said scouting has given him freedom to explore on his own, to do what he wants to do, and to grow.
"It's not so much the achievement that matters to me," he said, "but it's more of what I've learned, and how I've changed through the experience, that I value."
Joy Powell • 952-882-901