Every Good Rule Needs an Exception

for the week of February 11, 2002
by Rubel Shelly

Congratulations to Burton Watring. He is an Eagle Scout who received his special recognition January 18, 2002. Watring was honored at a Boy Scouts of America ceremony for him in Racine, Wisconsin. But an exception to a perfectly good rule had to be made in order for it to happen.

Under Boy Scout rules, potential Eagle Scouts must earn 21 merit badges and satisfy other essential criteria set by the organization by age 18. If all the tasks have not been completed by the deadline, the honored rank eludes him.

It wasn't that Watring didn't make a good-faith effort. And he certainly couldn't claim that he didn't have family support. His mother in particular seems to have encouraged him to pursue the ideals and goals of Scouting. Why, he was ever so close. All the merit badges had been earned. But the final arrangements with forms, location, and ceremony slipped through the cracks.

Sure, I can hear somebody now. "He knew the rules, and I'm against ever making exceptions! Where does it end?" Another person weighs in: "I feel the same way. The rules have to mean something, or they don't mean anything. Whatever they did to let this kid slide by teaches him and everybody who knows about it the wrong lesson. Why, it fairly flies in the face of what Scouting means."

Hold on, now. Wait until you get all the facts on the floor before staking out too hard and fast a position. It could get embarrassing before we're through.

Burton Watring is 72, and he failed to follow through on arranging for his awards ceremony because of polio. He was diagnosed with the disease in 1945. "I had complete paralysis," he said, "everything except my arms. It took me two years to get back on my feet." By the time he had recovered at age 20, the fixed deadline had passed. It was a disappointment. But he had to get on with his life.

Watring inquired about the possibility of being awarded his Eagle Scout badge after reading a newspaper story about an elderly Illinois man who had received his under similar circumstances. At his awards ceremony, some of his original paper badges from the 1940s saved by his mother were on display.

I'm all for honor codes, team rules, and clear company policies. Fair and equal enforcement of the law is a valued American principle. When dealing with real people in the real world, in your family, or at your church, meticulous zeal in upholding rules must be tempered by a modicum of compassion.

A good rule enforced by decent people can honor its exception gracefully.

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