Soar Like an Eagle (Scout)

Zach Conley’s father and Troop 79 Scoutmaster Gary Conley places the Eagle Scout neckerchief on his son. Photo: Bette Conley.

What does it take to become an Eagle Scout? Only earning at least 21 merit badges (13 of which are required), active leadership for four to six months, proficiency in outdoor skills, many hours of community service, and a major community project—all of which take years to complete. “Eagle Scouts exemplify the spirit of scouting,” explained Zachary Simon Conley, who received this high honor at his Eagle Scout Court of Honor Oct. 28 at the Crozet United Methodist Church (CUMC), “which is based on leadership, service, and good citizenship.”

Eagle Scout is the highest rank in scouting, achieved by only 4 to 5 percent of all scouts. “Becoming an Eagle Scout means more to me than a Ph.D. from Harvard or Yale,” explained Zach. “I don’t just have book knowledge; I have life skills. I know how to lead and succeed.” Besides his Eagle Scout project, Zach has volunteered with the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank and planted many American Chestnut trees, a tree he loves. He also serves via the Order of the Arrow (more info below), helps other scouts work toward their Eagle Scout award, and attends their Courts of Honor. “Once you reach Eagle Scout, you not only represent all scouts but also every other Eagle Scout”—which include the likes of former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, astronaut Neil Armstrong, and President Gerald Ford. “Achieving this rank helps them in higher education, business, the military, and life,” said Scoutmaster Gary Conley in his remarks. The sanctuary was nearly full with scouts, parents, and other Eagle Scouts. After the Color Guard presentation, all scouts stood to recite the Scout Oath and the Scout Law: “A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.”

Zachary Conley presents remarks at his Eagle Scout Court of Honor on October 28 at Crozet United Methodist Church. The Order of the Arrow sash can be seen across his chest. Photo: Clover Carroll.

Zach has more than lived up to these goals since he became active in scouting nine years ago. He has systematically moved up the ranks from Cub Scout in 2007 to Scout in 2012, through Tenderfoot, second class, first class, then Star, and finally Life Scout in 2017. Each level is reached by mastering specific skills or performance-based requirements. But he was living the scouting life long before that. When asked when he decided he wanted to become an Eagle Scout, Zach responded, “the day I was born.” He attended his first Apple Harvest Cub Scout Field Day with his brother at the age of six weeks! This life in scouting has shaped Zach’s outlook. “I like the back country, rugged, Mother-Nature-wants-to-hit-you kind of hiking,” Zach confessed. “I hope to spend the rest of my life doing this—maybe living and working at the Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico,” where the troop goes for occasional “high adventure treks.”

Zach’s Eagle Scout project took form about a year ago. “I wanted to do something for my church [Hillsboro Baptist in Yancey Mills], but I wasn’t sure what,” he explained. “The year before, my friend Dave Carrazana built a fire pit for the church, but to enjoy it we had to either stand or sit on the ground. So I decided to build benches to go around it.” He realized that they also needed picnic tables, so he built six “convertible” benches, the backs of which flip up and over to join with another to become three picnic tables. Pastor Jim Hardwick of Hillsboro Baptist Church thanked Zach at the ceremony and complimented him on both his thorough and professional project presentation to the church’s governing council as well as the quality and usefulness of the project itself. “We used them just last night at a fellowship event around the fire pit,” he said.

Zach Conley and Jordano Bakalian build one of the six convertible bench/picnic tables that comprised Zach’s Eagle Scout project for Hillsboro Baptist Church. Photo: Gary Conley.

Zach financed the project himself through donations. “I wrote a lot of fundraising letters for supplies,” he said proudly, “and gave the leftover funds to the church.” Enlisting the help of family, close friends, and fellow scouts, Zach’s team racked up 95 hours of volunteer labor to complete the project. They started in February and finished August 5. “I plan to go back and treat the wood,” Zach said. “I want them to last a long time.”

Zach’s father, Gary Conley, is a Crozet Boy Scout institution. He has been leading Troop 79—one of the most active in the Stonewall Jackson Council—for 15 years this spring. Before that, he was an Assistant Scoutmaster and a Cub Scoutmaster. He shares the leadership with eight Assistant scoutmasters, plus a committee of eight volunteers and parents who handle the business and finance of the troop. There are approximately 45 boys currently in the troop. The older group of 16/17-year-olds just graduated, so this year they are basically starting over with 11-14-year-olds. Troop activities are focused on backpacking, including weekends at Big Levels, Ramsey’s Draft, St. Mary’s Wilderness, and Three Ridges to the Priest. They include one car camping event each year for those who prefer that. They also do a yearly canoe camping trip on the James or Shenandoah Rivers, usually over Memorial Day, for which they prepare and practice for two months beforehand. Other troop activities include rock climbing, cycling, and swimming. They sometimes take long-distance backpacking trips on the Appalachian Trail or in the Adirondacks.

Zach Conley prepares to deliver the finished benches to the church for placement around the fire pit. Photo: Gary Conley.

“I’ve hosted about 25 Eagle Scout Courts of Honor in my career, but this is the first time I’ve gotten to pin the badge on myself,” Gary said proudly at the ceremony, “because I believe the parents should do that.” Zach’s mother, Sandy, pinned on the Eagle Scout badge, but Gary presented the neckerchief and pinned on the Bronze Palm, which Zach won by earning five more merit badges than required. “I left it up to him to decide if, when, and how he would complete this rank,” Gary said proudly.

Last year, Troop 79 graduated 12 Eagle Scouts in 13 months. Some of the other Eagle Scout projects in the Crozet area include a storage building and benches for sports fields at Miller School, landscaping and storage shed at Crozet United Methodist Church, and a wheelchair accessible fishing pier and trail improvements at Mint Springs Park. And there are more in the pipeline—Johnny Martin is currently working with the Crozet Trails Crew to build a bird blind at Lickinghole Basin. The Boy Scout program is entirely based on youth leadership; the adults just supervise. “We just stand back and let them run the meetings,” said Gary. “This results in a higher than average level of chaos. No one can do it for them; they have to do it themselves.”

New Eagle Scout Zachary Simon Conley with his father, Troop 79 Scoutmaster Gary Conley. Zach says he wanted to be an Eagle Scout “since the day I was born.” Photo: Clover Carroll.

Another honor Zach earned was to be elected in 2016 by the members of his troop to join the Order of the Arrow, and he was elected Secretary of the Saponi Chapter in August 2018. The OA is a national brotherhood of honor scouts who have been recognized for their selfless leadership and commitment to “cheerful service” to others. Members are drawn from throughout the Stonewall Jackson Council, and they must undergo an “ordeal” to earn this high honor. “The OA is more than a badge; it is a state of being,” explained OA Chapter Advisor Larry Linebrink. The OA meets at Camp Shenandoah in Swope, and Arrow members do all the work to set up, clean up, improve and maintain the camp for these meetings. “Being a member has been a big part of my life in scouting. It represents the true meaning of scouting,” explained Zach.

Zach is a senior in high school and has been home-schooled for the past two years. He currently takes classes in U.S. government and English at PVCC, while studying trigonometry and personal finance online via CTC Math. He also works at Rockfish Gap Outfitters—where his Scout knowledge serves him well in advising customers. Hoping to graduate this December, he plans to join the Marine Corps and enroll in welder training. “When you apply to the military, being an Eagle Scout gets your name highlighted on the list of applicants. After boot camp you will receive a higher ranking and be paid more because you already have the skills and discipline to be a successful Marine.” In his spare time, Zach plays guitar and loves fly fishing.

Troop 79 Scoutmaster and father Gary Conley with his son Zachary Simon Conley at Zach’s Eagle Scout Court of Honor on Oct. 28. Photo: Bette Conley.

Scouting runs in the Conley family. Gary became an Eagle Scout himself with troop 1104 in Clifton, Virginia. His father was an Assistant Scoutmaster, so he and his brothers were raised in this healthy, wholesome culture, and by raising both his boys in it—his older son Hank achieved the Star rank—he continued the family tradition. “The most rewarding aspect of being Scoutmaster is that it gives me the opportunity to watch the boys grow, to help them become mature and independent leaders,” said Gary. “They learn to lead by example. It is a maturing process that prepares them for life.”

Several guests spoke at the ceremony—including other scouts, mentors, and former Henley math teacher Trish Walker, who said “he is one of the reasons teachers teach.” Assistant Scoutmaster Mark Adams told several humorous “Scout tales” about Zach, saying “Zach is a Rock” and nicknaming him “Nature Boy” because of his many observations and questions while hiking from a very young age. “You’re a marked man now,” Adams told Zach. “May you continue to hike forward, climb higher, and fly on eagle’s wings.”

Troop 79 meets Tuesday evenings from 7 to 8:30 p.m. at CUMC. Interested parents may contact the Stonewall Jackson Area Council office in Waynesboro, 540-943-6675, which will put them in contact with the appropriate Cub Scout pack or Boy Scout troop. More information about Scouting programs is available at


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