When Eagle Scout John Claffey celebrated his 18th birthday on Dec. 14, he also received a big honor – one that only two other people in South Carolina have earned in the past 106 years. Claffey collected the last nine of 141 Boy Scout merit badges that he has worked for since becoming a scout in 2010. He has earned every single merit badge available to him, including four merit badges that were available only during the Boy Scouts of America’s Centennial anniversary year in 2010.
In the 106 years since the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) program started, there have been 321 scouts to have completed all of the merit badge requirements available to them, according to MeritBadgeKnot.com. By contrast, more than 4,000 people, including close to 600 Americans, have climbed Mount Everest.
The Boy Scouts of America national office could not confirm the total number of scouts who have earned all available merit badges, but said that it’s “an extremely rare achievement” and BSA congratulates Claffey on his “amazing accomplishment in Scouting.”
Each Boy Scout merit badge can take between six hours and three months to complete, says Tim Poole, assistant scoutmaster for Claffey’s Troop 9 at Buncombe Street United Methodist Church.
Scouts must earn 21 merit badges, starting around age 11, to become an Eagle Scout. It might take a scout more than 1,000 hours of work to earn all of the merit badges, and the deadline is a scout’s 18th birthday.
“When you turn 18, you can’t move up in rank or earn any more merit badges – so everything has to be done before your 18th birthday,” Poole says.
Claffey’s inspiration for the daunting task of learning everything from “American Business” to “Woodwork” was his mother, Shannon Kelly.
“My brother was a Boy Scout and Eagle Scout, and my mom was really involved,” Claffey says. “She said it would be cool if I pushed myself harder to doing more than just getting the Eagle Scout.”
So he did exactly that, and along the way he discovered his passion for engineering, which is what he’ll major in next year in college.
“These merit badges have broadened his understanding of the world,” his mother Kelly says.
With each badge work, Claffey learned what he liked and disliked about various careers. To earn his dentistry badge, he read information about dental decay and gum disease, but he also visited a dentist.
“He doesn’t just go to the dentist, he knows what the dentist does because of the dentistry merit badge,” Kelly says.
The reason so few scouts achieve the goal of earning every merit badge is because it’s difficult to find instructors without traveling to various Merit Badge University events, which typically are one-day classes that teach a particular merit badge, Poole says.
Claffey has taken merit badge classes locally, but also in North Carolina, Georgia, Florida and Virginia.
“A number of scouts lose interest in earning merit badges when they’re in high school,” Poole notes.
Claffey’s merit badge achievement might have required a single-minded determination, but it wasn’t the only thing he has done for the past six years. “He’s an interesting boy,” Poole says. “He’s well-rounded — on student council, plays sports, and he stays busy with school. But he’s also had time to do scouting.”
Claffey will be recognized for his achievement in February at the BSA Blue Ridge Council banquet in Greenville.
In Poole’s 40 years of being involved with Troop 9, including his time as a Boy Scout who earned his Eagle Scout rank in the 1980s, he says he has had a handful of boys who said they wanted to try to earn all of the merit badges. Claffey was the only one who made it happen. Poole’s first inkling that the teenager might reach this goal was earlier in 2016 when Claffey had only the nine badges left to earn.
Of the remaining badges, there were two that Claffey says were most challenging: cycling and bugling.
“Bugling was definitely the hardest because I’m not a musician, and learning the songs was difficult,” Claffey says. “Cycling was hard because of the long bike rides and the physical toll.”
To earn the cycling badge, a scout has to follow seven lengthy requirements, including knowing how to clean and adjust a bike’s brakes, taking two rides of 10 miles each, two rides of 15 miles each, two rides of 25 miles each and taking one 50-mile trip, completed within eight hours.
Claffey also received his 15th palm award — a silver one — for having earned more than half of his merit badges after he became an Eagle Scout in May 2013.
The Eagle Scout rank, the merit badges, the palm awards — all are nice, but it’s not the only reason Kelly, a single mother, has driven her third of four children around the Southeast to attend classes. “The volunteers who teach the badges, who work with the scouts, are great role models,” she says. “If anything good happens in the world, you can bet there’s a Boy Scout there.”
Boy Scout Merit Badge and Eagle Scout Facts
- Since the Boy Scouts of American was founded in 1910, there are 321 confirmed cases of Boy Scouts earning all of the merit badges available to them.
- The first confirmed Boy Scout to earn all of his merit badges was Stephen Porter of Fayetteville, NY, who earned 57 merit badges in 1914.
- South Carolina Boy Scouts who earned all of their merit badges: a scout from Winnsboro in 2013 and a scout from Greenville in 2009.
- Merit badges continually are added, changed and retired, so the total number available varies from year to year. Currently there are more than 140 badges available.
- The new merit badges include badges for animation and robotics.
- There are 2.4 million youths involved in Boy Scouts; 54,366 scouts became Eagle Scouts in 2015.
Sources: Boy Scouts of America and MeritBadgeKnot.com