Excerpted from MHS Newsletter 2022 Q4

St. Mary’s College Walking Tour: Daniel Berkes’ Eagle Scout Project (John Kaiser)

The Eagle Scout service project is the culmination of an individual’s involvement with the Boy Scouts of America. It must provide a benefit outside the BSA, typically for a community or organization with no commercial purpose. It cannot boil down to routine activity or simple fund-raising for a worthy cause; it requires the individual to plan the project’s logistics and demonstrate leadership in achieving its execution. There is no minimum time commitment, but an Eagle Scout service project can take 1-2 years to complete. It is not merely a display of proficiency like passing a test, but a journey of discovery and overcoming unexpected challenges.

Most Eagle Scout projects involve creating or improving a physical structure such as a bench or staircase that has a lasting benefit, but Daniel Berkes of Moraga Troop 212 wanted to do something of a more cerebral nature. He drew his inspiration from fellow troop member, Mason Fara, who in 2021 as his Eagle Scout project placed a plaque across from the Moraga Barn to commemorate the former train station now occupied by Outdoor Supply Hardware. That happens to be the first stop in the Old Moraga Town Site Walking Tour Susan Skilton and John Kaiser created in 2022.

Daniel, who attends De La Salle High School, turned his attention to St. Mary’s College, a cornerstone Moraga institution with a rich history many Moraga residents know little about. He had some inkling from his Moraga elementary school days which provided a Moraga History unit that includes a hugely popular Third Grade Moraga History Tour that is making a post-covid comeback in 2023. What if he researched SMC’s history and isolated three themes that could be represented by three stops on a walking tour? What if he turned it into a history learning quest whose reward was finding the marker plaque for each stop? When his former elementary school teacher told him this was a no-brainer candidate for a Moraga History field trip, he knew he had a winner. But would his troop counselors approve? An Eagle Scout service project must be feasible, and Daniel’s proposal had a lot of moving parts not likely to bend to elbow grease, a hammer and a bag of nails alone. Intrigued by his idea and its challenges, they granted approval in July 2021.

The first challenge was to secure SMC support for the idea of placing physical markers on the campus. The next challenge was to sort out what aspects of SMC’s history to commemorate. Brother Charles Hilken helped Daniel overcome the first challenge, and then passed him on to Brother Raphael Patton for a crash course in SMC history. Brother Raphael helped immerse Daniel in the history of SMC out of which emerged three key themes that became the stops on the SMC Walking Tour: the station in front of SMC for the electric train that ran from Oakland through Shepherd’s Canyon Tunnel past Valle Vista and the Moraga Barn to Lafayette and beyond, the period during World War II when SMC was turned into a “pre-flight” training base for pilots/technicians destined for the Navy’s aircraft carrier fleet, and, plugging into Daniel’s interest in football, SMC’s illustrious history as a football powerhouse under Coach Slip Madigan.

Daniel had already figured out who would create the marker plaques and where they would be located, but a key challenge was to make his Eagle Scout project accessible beyond visitors to the SMC campus. That meant making it exist online and an obvious means was the Moraga Historical Society. Fortunately, MHS had undertaken a complete remake of its web site in 2019 which shifted control of its content in-house, with John Kaiser taking on the role of webmaster in 2020. Conveniently he lived right across from Daniel’s home in Moraga, and, even better, by the time Daniel approached MHS in 2022 John and fellow MHS director Susan Skilton were already well advanced in creating the Old Moraga Town Site Walking Tour so there was no new web page wheel to invent.

Daniel came up with the idea of creating a collage of text and images for each walking tour stop, but he soon discovered an unexpected challenge in the form of copyright law. MHS had hosted a May 3, 2019 Speaker Series Event featuring David Newhouse, whose book The Incredible Slip Madigan covered the history of SMC football and which was the source of key graphics for Daniel that turned out not to be available. And there were questions about the source of other images, which luckily turned out to be from Brother Raphael’s photo collection. MHS director Susan Sperry seized the opportunity to introduce Daniel to the archives at the History Center, making Daniel perhaps the youngest person to have done archival research at the History Center. The result is the MHS hosted SMC Walking Tour.

The final challenge proved to be the physical part of the Eagle Scout project, getting the marker plaques paid for, built, and put in place. But first there was the challenge of teaching an old dog new tricks. The plaques included QR codes intended to make the physical SMC tour interactive with the web site page for each tour stop.

When Daniel introduced the QR code concept to John Kaiser he triggered a meltdown of fear and loathing within a person who rather liked it when he used to be able to order from a physical menu while chatting with a waiter or waitress. But Daniel’s teaching moment quickly paid off and before he knew it the MHS webmaster had incorporated QR codes into the Old Moraga Town Site Walking Tour. This proved very handy for the Walking Tour poster displays during the July Fourth and Pear Festival events at the Moraga Commons.

Fundraising proved surprisingly easy. Daniel’s peers, like his troop counselors, were intrigued by the history aspect of his project, and he soon had more than enough donations to pay for the plaques. He was ready to roll after July 4, but bumped up against something called small business summer vacations. No matter, the plaques got made a little later, but then it turned out he had erred in the size specification. So they were made again, just in time for a California outlier, heavy rain in mid September which is not good for setting cement footings. Who was it that dismissed physical Eagle Scout projects as cakewalks?

When asked, what was the most difficult part of your Eagle Scout project, Daniel said it was his SMC history mentor Brother Raphael passing away on December 6, 2021, well before all his help gelled into a visible form, though he acknowledges this likely never mattered to Brother Raphael, a journey lesson in its own right. Daniel’s greatest hope is that the SMC Walking Tour inspires young people to take a greater interest in local history, which he believes will foster interest in more general history. His enthusiasm for an upcoming DC trip suggests that his SMC Walking Tour is already one point in the struggle to make history matter.

Postscript from MHS Newsletter 2023 Q3: Daniel Berkes, who designed and created the St. Mary’s College Walking Tour as his Eagle Scout project, was among ten members of Moraga Troop 212 who were awarded the Eagle Scout Honor on March 26, 2023. His Eagle Scout project was notable in that it focused on promoting history rather than more conventional projects building things such as park benches or book exchange bins. Daniel’s project involved researching SMC’s history, establishing 3 markers on the campus acknowledging the football, train station and naval pre-flight training base history, and creating explanatory web pages accessible by scanning QR codes on the plaques placed on the campus for visitors to track down. The SMC Walking Tour is hosted by the MHS web site. He also received the Pop Clarke Eagle Scout of the Year Award where the previous class of Eagles chooses one person from the current class to be the caretaker of the Pop Clarke Eagle pin for that year. We thank Daniel for his contribution to highlighting our local history and making it accessible to a younger generation. We wish him well as he heads to college this year.