Ellis Tolman: A Scout for All Seasons

“Ellis Tolman: A Scout for All Seasons,” Ensign, Dec. 1987, 60–61

Ellis Tolman: A Scout for All Seasons

“Well, howdy there, Sister Hull.” The stranger’s voice boomed out of his smile as he stood in my kitchen. “I just thought I’d bring you a few tomatoes from the garden. You weren’t here so I brought ’em inside for you. Some nice zucchini in the sack, too.”

I had just walked in, and there he was. After getting over the initial shock, realizing he wasn’t a burglar, I became acquainted with perhaps the most interesting person in my new neighborhood. He had been practically an institution in the Pocatello (Idaho) First Ward since 1910.

John Ellis Tolman, now in his eighties, seems to have walked out of another, far simpler time. His clothes are timeless—a blue cotton work shirt, denim bib overalls, leather boots, and a bright red bandanna around his neck. When it’s cold outside, the scarf is pulled up to mask his face like a western bandit’s.

Brother Tolman’s appearance is crowned with a flat-brimmed Mounties’ hat, the type Scoutmasters wore in the 1930s. When the sun is bright, he dons sunglasses. It doesn’t matter to Brother Tolman that the modern glasses don’t match the rest of his outfit. Most mornings he carries over his shoulder a long stick with a big gunnysack attached to one end as he walks east, past our window. Hours later he returns, walking westward, the sack bulging with empty aluminum cans.

Brother Tolman is the proud possessor of Scouting’s Silver Beaver Award and has been a dues-paying member of the Boy Scouts of America for more than fifty years now. He is a Boy Scout who lives the Scout law. He and my son Sam were soon close friends.

A Scout is thrifty …

“People are very wasteful,” he told me one day. “But if you gather aluminum cans faithfully, in about a period of a month and a half you can gather about fifty dollars’ worth of cans. In about four months’ time I can save enough from selling cans for my wife and me to go to Sacramento and back. The pop and beer drinkers pay for it.”

Did he feel it a personal duty to keep the town clean of cans? I asked.

He smiled. “Somebody’s got to do it.”

A Scout is clean …

Frequently, Brother Tolman waxes philosophical. “Let me tell you something about this here gathering cans,” he told me. “If you’re going to be a can collector, you gotta open yer eyes and keep ’em open, and keep yer eye on the can. If you play baseball, or any kind of ball, isn’t that what you gotta do? Keep yer eye open for that ball, every second.

“Same thing with cans. Look out fer cans and nothin’ but. Soon that’s the only thing yer eye’ll stop on. Like Scoutin’ the hills fer rabbits … ‘Cept with cans, you look for every weed and telephone pole a can might be hidin’ behind. And concentrate on what yer doin’. Don’t stop to count how many you got in yer sack or it’ll never fill up. That’s clock watchin’.”

A Scout is brave …

In coldest winter storms Brother Tolman diligently gathers up what cans he can find, kicking them out of the snow while the rest of us huddle inside around a fire.

A Scout is friendly …

We have had flowers and vegetables from the Tolman garden, and so have many others, especially widows. We have had rhubarb tonic (as my husband calls it), raspberry bush starts, and homemade fudge.

One winter morning, years later, as he walked by without his sack over his shoulder, I called and invited him in from the cold. He said that his back was bothering him, so I asked what he would do. “I’ve got to get busy,” he answered. “I’m going to do a little wood-burning. Tell me the date Sammy got his Eagle Award, will you?”

A few days later he knocked again, late enough to be sure Sam would be home from school. He had a glorious smile on his face and was carrying a ten-inch cross-cut slab of red cedar, beautifully varnished. On it was emblazoned Sam’s name, the date he received his Eagle Award, the complete Scout Law and Oath (and everything else he could burn into it pertaining to Scouting ideals: “Be Prepared … Do a Good Turn Daily …”).

This is something to help you remember your duty, Sammy,” Ellis Tolman said proudly. “I’ve made them for my grandsons, too.”

A Scout is …

On and on. There isn’t a Scout Law Ellis Tolman doesn’t keep.

Eleven years have passed since I first found him standing in my kitchen. His step has slowed some, but I still have to pick up my pace to keep up with the aging Boy Scout. Most mornings I still see him in his overalls, thirties-style Scoutmaster’s hat, red bandanna, and sunglasses, carrying a gunnysack on the end of a long stick as he walks downtown to fill it with cans careless people have thrown by the wayside. As he said, somebody’s got to do it.

  • Marilyn Nash Hull, a homemaker and free-lance writer, is now a member of the San Jose (California) Third Ward.

[photo] Photography by Philip S. Shurtleff