Hillcourt, William (“Green Bar Bill”)
Hillcourt, William (“Green Bar Bill”)
(b. 6 August 1900 in Aarhus, Denmark; d. 9 November 1992 in Stockholm, Sweden), outdoors writer and professional scout who contributed to numerous revisions of the Boy Scout Handbook wrote a camping advice column for Boys’ Life, a scout magazine; and was an ambassador for the world scouting movement.
Born Wilhelm Hans Bjerregaard-Jensen to Johannes Hans Bjerregaard-Jensen, a building contractor, and Andrea Kristina Pedersen, a homemaker, Hillcourt joined the Danish scouting movement, Det Danske Spejderkorps (DDS), as a boy. In 1920 he attended the first world jamboree of scouts, held in London, which was a gathering of around 8,000 scouts from thirty-four countries. There he first met scouting’s founder, Lord Robert Baden-Powell. The Danish contingent so impressed the jamboree leadership
that Denmark won the honor of hosting the second world jamboree four years later.
After completing his university training with an M.S. degree from the Pharmaceutical College in Copenhagen in 1924, he chose writing over pharmacy and became an assistant editor for the Ferslaw Newspapers in Copenhagen. One of his first jobs was to cover the second world jamboree in 1924. Ever the adventurer, Hillcourt left the paper the following year and toured Europe before arriving in the United States in February 1926. He later visited the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) national office while in New York City, where Chief Scout Executive James West offered the precocious Dane a position in the BSA Supply Service, which was in charge of scouting materials such as uniforms, camping equipment, and handbooks. Hillcourt’s first two months on the job were reportedly spent watching up to three movies a day in Times Square theaters to improve his command of colloquial English.
Hillcourt served as the managing editor of Scouting, a magazine for adult leaders, from 1927 to 1931. During this time he challenged the BSA’s failure to implement the patrol method, where six to eight boys worked together, as the fundamental building block of the scouting program. As a corrective, he wrote the first Handbook for Patrol Leaders in 1929; its basic nature endured through numerous revisions. Hillcourt then became a contributing editor to Boys’ Life, a magazine for BSA youth, in 1932. During this time he took the sobriquet “Green Bar Bill” for his long-running camping advice column. Hillcourt superimposed the name “Bill” on the two green bars of the patrol leader identification badge, probably because the bars represented the essence of boy leadership within the patrol, a concept to which Hillcourt was fundamentally committed. His column was immensely successful because it was relevant and easily understandable; it helped build both self-confidence and teamwork in literally millions of young men. Hillcourt married Grace Constance Brown, chief scout executive West’s personal secretary, on 3 June 1933; they had no children. Soon after, they moved from New York City to Schiff Scout Reservation in New Jersey. At nearby Mendham, New Jersey, Hillcourt formed Troop 1 and served as scoutmaster. From there he could witness firsthand the patrol method in action. Hence, the advice he offered in his Boys’ Life columns came from direct interaction with his intended audience. Concerned that adult leaders needed to be as knowledgeable of the patrol method as their scouts, in 1936 Hillcourt helped revise the Handbook for Scoutmasters.
At Schiff that same year, Hillcourt served as senior patrol leader for the first Wood Badge training course held in the United States; Wood Badge was a British adult leader training program based on the patrol method. Hillcourt received the coveted Wood Badge beads in 1939, the same year in which he became a naturalized United States citizen. Earlier, he had legally changed his name to William Hillcourt, recollecting that when “they started pronouncing it ‘beer garden,’ I decided the time had come to change it.” While implementation of the BSA Wood Badge program was interrupted by World War II, Hillcourt ultimately served as scoutmaster in 1948 for the first two American courses offered to nonprofessional scouters. He also wrote the course training materials. During World War II, Hill-court was a special instructor for the U.S. Army’s Second Service Command Tactical School. Returning to civilian life, Hillcourt became the BSA national director of Scout-craft, a position he held until 1954, when he became the assistant to the director of program resources. The need for more specialized scoutcraft knowledge resulted in his coau-thoring the first Scout Field Book (1944) with James West. From 1956 until his official retirement from the BSA in 1965, Hillcourt was the director of program resources. During this period of increasing scout enrollment he was responsible for writing the sixth and seventh editions of the Boy Scout Handbook in 1959 and 1965. When the scouting movement foundered in the antiestablishment climate of the Vietnam-Watergate era, the near-octogenarian Hill-court came out of retirement and, without remuneration, revised the BSA handbook in a 1979 edition. His uncompromising call for a renewed focus on outdoor activity, scoutcraft, and the patrol method helped to reinvigorate a lethargic program.
Between 1910 and 1990, more than 33 million copies of the Handbook were printed, making it one of the world’s most popular books. But because Hillcourt wrote as a paid BSA employee, his “royalty” compensation amounted to only six free copies of the Handbook for every 400,000 sold. His most popular non-BSA publication is the definitive biography of scouting’s founder. Baden-Powell: The Two Lives of a Hero (1964), written with the cooperation of Lady Baden-Powell, remained in print at the beginning of the twenty-first century.
Hillcourt’s passion for the ideals espoused by the scouting movement knew no bounds. He attended most world jamborees and all BSA national jamborees through 1989. Hillcourt never tired of meeting with the boys and adults who were already his friends through scouting. Even the youngest of scouts had no fear of reprimand for calling a man old enough to be his grandfather by the name “Green Bar Bill.” With a twinkle in his eye, an endearing grin, and decades of stories to tell, Hillcourt, next to Lord Baden-Powell, was the most beloved figure in scouting. His contributions were recognized by five Freedoms Foundation George Washington Honor Medals; a Medal of Merit from the DDS; the Silver Buffalo, the BSA’s highest honor; the Silver Wolf from the British Scouts Association; the Youth of the Americas award, for inter-American scouting; and the Bronze Wolf, World Scouting’s highest honor. Despite these and other honors, however, he typically wore his scout uniform unadorned in the same humble manner in which he carried himself. Yet Hillcourt relished every opportunity to speak out for the importance of the scouting movement in developing responsible youth. When he passed away from natural causes, Hillcourt was on an around-the-world trip. He is buried next to his wife in St. Joseph’s Cemetery in Mendham.
Friend, mentor, adviser, teacher, writer, prankster, storyteller, and lover of the outdoors, “Green Bar Bill” Hillcourt helped define the world scouting movement through decades of selfless service to youth. In doing so he earned the title “Scoutmaster to the World.”
Hillcourt was in the process of writing an autobiography when he passed away. Lawrence van Gelder, “A Work of Love For ‘Boy Scout,’ 78,” New York Times (4 Feb. 1979), offers an insightful look at Hillcourt during a controversial time for the BSA. Obituaries are in the New York Times and The Post-Standard (Syracuse, New York) (both 14 Nov. 1992).
William E. Fischer, Jr.