AT THE COURT OF HONOR convened this month to confer on him the rank of Eagle, scouting's highest honor, Gary Drzewiecki, 18, seemed like the unlikeliest of candidates.
In presenting him for the award, his sister, Michele, briefly underscored the thought.
"He set his own goals," she said. "Gary knew that in believing in himself, he was half-way there."
Gary was born profoundly retarded. He would neither walk nor talk, one doctor told his parents, David and Joyce Drzewiecki, soon after their son was born. But another said, "Do what you can. Go for it."
And the family took it as gospel and they went for it. This month, they caught the dream.
On June 6, at Maplemere School in Amherst, fellow scouts, their families, and their guests, stood as one to applaud as Troop 444's Scout Master Ed Eisenlord pinned the Eagle badge on Gary Drzewiecki. It was not many who remained dry eyed, one observer said.
And the kid that some said was destined to become a nobody had become a somebody. And he showed it in a smile that lit his whole face. He had climbed the hill with the wind and the rain beating him in the face and on that night, he could say, "Excelsior, I have arrived."
He had beaten incalculable odds. In the Boy Scout movement, only 1 in 100 reaches the Eagle's aerie and soars into one of the most exclusive clubs in America. Among the retarded, few aspire, and still fewer ever make it. It is a much coveted honor.
It is an honor that affirms good citizenship and selfless caring. It is, in most cases, five years of hard work and study, and finally, it's working on a community project that leaves one's fellow man better because of it.
Earning the Eagle was what Gary set out to do that night five years ago when, accompanied by his dad, he enlisted as a member of Troop 444.
The scouts were playing a game of touch football outside that night when the kid who was different walked up to the door to sign in.
"Come on, play!" they shouted. And within minutes of the invitation, Drzewiecki recalled, "they were just a bunch of teen-age boys kicking a football."
Thrilled by a ready and easy acceptance and the anticipation of camping trips and sleeping under the stars, Gary announced his own priorities that night. And first among them, "I want to be an Eagle."
And no doubt there were some who smiled benignly.
For this Tenderfoot, with the uneasy gait and manner, it meant hitting the books and a learning regimen that did not come easily. But his family, especially his parents, were never far from those books and the tedious tests. For him, it was sometimes two steps forward and one step backward. And with limited physical skills, there were frustrations, too.
"He never complained and he worked harder than anybody," his mother recalled.
This month, five years and 21 merit badges later, Gary Drzewiecki reached his long-sought goal.
As a community service project, he drew the outline of a bicycle-safety program, including 500 packets of information, that was presented to the pupils of St. Amelia's School in Town of Tonawanda. It was judged a professional job by a real professional. It was the gateway to the Eagle.
His legacy to his peers in Troop 444 is an awareness of the skills of the handicapped and the knowledge that people who are different can't be dismissed or discarded as some conventional wisdom would have it, his scoutmaster said.
For scoutmaster Eisenlord, who helped shepherd Gary to the Eagle, it was the highlight of 14 years at the troop's helm. And unable to top it, he stepped down this year to become the troop's assistant scoutmaster.
And who will shepherd newcomers to the highest of scouting's rewards?
Gary is going to remain in the troop to assist its members to be all that they can be.
"I want to work with the young people, to show them what can be done," he said.
And the new scoutmaster, formerly the assistant, is David Drzewiecki, the new Eagle Scout's father.
It is, he said, his way of paying back what the Boy Scouts did for his son, for turning hopelessness into hope and, finally, into reality.