The area’s first Eagle Scout was Illinois Wesleyan University freshman Albert Barnhard, who attained the Boy Scouts’ highest rank in 1921. Although such an honor assured him a place in local scouting lore, the fact that he was blind made this a much bigger story. “The phenomenal blind boy” (as one local scouting publication called Barnhard) is believed to be the first such visually impaired Scout to reach the Eagle rank in the entire U.S.
Barnhard was born in Cynthiana, Ky., in 1903, though the family eventually moved to the southeastern Illinois community of Mount Carmel. According to a May 1924 Pantagraph profile, he was blinded at age 11, though as to the cause the piece is silent. An article published later in The Argus, IWU’s student newspaper, said he was blinded at the age of 9 in a playground accident. What we do know for sure is that he attended the Kentucky School for the Blind in Louisville and from there came to IWU.
Bloomington’s first Boy Scout troop dates to March 1916, and Normal’s two months after that. Scouting leaders established the first local council in July 1920, and by the end of that year there were 10 troops in Bloomington (included an African-American one) and three in Normal.
For Barnhard, the last major hurdle to Eagle Scout was earning merit badges in pioneering, lifesaving and swimming. On Oct. 27, 1921, his scouting work faced a final review before the Boy Scout Court of Honor whose members included the Rev. J.V. Greene, pastor of St. Patrick’s Church, Bloomington, and Samuel K. McDowell, superintendent of Bloomington Public Schools.
On Nov. 13, Barnhard was publicly awarded the Eagle Scout rank. His achievements, declared IWU President Theodore Kemp, “should be a challenge to every Boy Scout and every citizen in Bloomington to make the best of everything in life.”
“Rev. Mr. Kemp,” continued The Pantagraph, “said that many things in life which we term a handicap are a part of our natural program and are often the means of greater achievement in life than otherwise would be.”
At IWU, Barnhard was a liberal arts major with an interest in economics. “All of his lessons are read to him by fellow students and he carries all of the material in his head, writing his notes on a typewriter he has learned to operate,” noted The Pantagraph. “All of his examinations are taken orally, being given the same questions as the other students.” Barnhard was also able to walk from class to class without much assistance.
“He can get around with amazing ease and rapidity and very seldom uses a cane or other means of guiding himself,” reported The Argus.
In November 1923, Barnhard tried out and won a spot on Wesleyan’s debate team, members of which were affectionately known as “loud speakers.” He spent two years on the varsity squad, more than pulling his own weight. “Barnhard has proved an excellent debater with an exceptionally strong logical mind,” noted The Argus.
He was also a fine pianist known to give recitals around town. About two weeks before he graduated, Barnhard performed a Schubert-Carl Tausig military march on piano as part of a pre-commencement IWU recital. The program included Marie Linneman singing “Calm as the Night” and Ruth Williams reading a selection from Percival Wilde’s “The Finger of God.” Barnhard was then one of 88 seniors to receive degrees on June 11, 1924. Graduating with honors, he accepted the president’s prize of a gold watch.
Barnhard, though, had bigger fish to fry, academically speaking. He went straight to Harvard Law School, where his second-year roommate was Robert Sullivan, IWU Class of 1925.
By 1930, a 26-year-old Barnhard and his wife, Mabel, were in Mount Carmel and living with his parents, Philip and Elma. Barnhard became a leading citizen of the small city, serving as the director of the Security Bank and Trust Co., president and then chairman of the Mount Carmel Public Utility Co., and a senior member of the law firm Barnhard, Schriber and Koger. He passed away on Aug. 25, 1989, at the age of 86. He was survived by Pauline Baldwin, whom he married in 1948, and a son, Philip.
Interestingly, Barnhard is not the only celebrity Eagle Scout in Bloomington-Normal history. In 1982, Alexander M. Holsinger became the one millionth Eagle Scout in the U.S., an honor that included a congratulatory phone call from President Ronald Reagan.