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Boys State: Lessons in leadership turn boys into men
By Charles Swenson
Their campaign promises were empty, but it wasn’t entirely their fault. They just got caught up in the spirit of the occasion. “We got to go to the statehouse in Columbia and the House of Representatives and got to sit in the actual state House in the chairs,” said Matthew Maixner. “And we passed a couple of bills.”
He was one of nine rising seniors who attended Palmetto Boys State this summer, sponsored by American Legion Post 197 at Pawleys Island. The post started out sending one Waccamaw High student in 2013. With this year’s group, 27 have gone through the week-long program held on the campus of Anderson University. That’s one for every member of the post. With over 1,000 boys attending, South Carolina is second to Ohio in participation.
Past students have been elected to the supreme court (Jack Monroe), as county sheriff (Jonah Crosby) and to city councils (David Gleaton). This year, Maixner won a seat in the legislature and Racye Gibson was elected to the Catawba city council. The cities form the core of the Boys State structure. They organize parties, Nationalists and Federalists, and elect officials for local and state offices.
Gibson, who attends Lowcountry Prep, attended city council meetings, but said the campaigning was the biggest part of the process. “I gave a speech about service and how I served on my previous team. Like soccer, I was the guy that if you told me to do something, I got it done,” he said.
Gibson said he was drawn to Boys State for the chance to learn more about South Carolina. His goal after school is to join the Army and he hopes to become a Ranger. Boys State will help. “I have more confidence in speaking in crowds,” he said.” I’m more confident that if I go for it, I’m going to get it done. Believing in myself, I guess.”
At Boys State, they tell parents “you’re dropping off a boy; you’re picking up a man,” Maixner said. “I really do feel that happened.”
To get to the legislature, he was first elected as a Nationalist Party official in Saluda city. He was one of four nominees for a house seat from the three cities that made up Rutledge County. “It was a huge honor,” Maixner said. “To run for house I had to speak in front of about 500 people. That was the biggest crowd I’ve ever spoken in front of before, and that’s definitely helped my confidence.”
With the support of his party and his city, he campaigned for votes by building relationships beyond his city and county. “You have to make an impression, get that name and face recognition,” Maixner said.
He didn’t have much interest in politics before Boys State. He’s now paying more attention.
“It’s all mock government, so people were talking about how they’re going to improve the roads and all that stuff,” Maixner said. “It’s funny because you do make empty promises, but you’re so in the moment that, ‘Yes, he’s going to fix the road. We’re going to go from last in education to first. Yes.’ ”
“I’m a little bit powerless now,” he added. “But maybe in the future I’ll be able to fulfill those promises.”
That’s what Post 197 is counting on. “It may have been the spark to create a lifetime of community service,” Glenn Hero, the post commander, said. “Whatever the future holds, we are certain that each of these teens will carry the lessons learned at Anderson.”
The legislature debated and passed two bills: one would give tax breaks to urgent-care facilities that locate in rural areas, the other would expand motorcycle helmet laws. “Baby steps,” Maixner said.
Other participants from Waccamaw High were Hanes Grafe, Cole Dorn, Jaret Montenery, Tanner Smoak and William Stackhouse. Lowcountry Prep was also represented by John Augustino and Andy Williams. The post also gave academic awards to four applicants from Waccamaw: Hunter Cline, James Moody, Stephen Russell and Bradford Thompson.
The bond between the participants from across the state is a key feature of Boys State. “I went to Boys State an only child, and I left with 41 brothers,” Maixner said. He wanted to recapture some of the excitement that comes with the closing rally at Boys State. He organized a Pep Club at Waccamaw High.
“Everyone in my school complains about how, ‘Oh, it’s Waccamaw, no one really cares,’ ” he said. “The first day of registration I had over 150 people sign up. That was showing that there was a want, but no one was taking the initiative.”
Before Boys State, Maixner thought about a career in the medical field. “Now I’m really conflicted because there are two very different things I’m interested in,” he said. He is now thinking about degrees in political science and law. “It’s definitely been the most significant event in my life,” he said.