Even though Troop 54 has won the Klondike Derby three years in a row, Scoutmaster J.R. Hotaling has never laid eyes on their Snowshoe Award.
In fact, the 38-year-old leader has never seen the five-member patrol that competes annually at Camp Boyhaven’s winter scouting competition in Middle Grove, or any of his 21 Scouts, for that matter. But when it comes to keeping track of the young Scouts, Hotaling is a pro.
“He can hear you and find you,” said Brandon Vine, 16, a member Troop 54. “He knows everybody’s voice well enough that he’ll catch it everywhere you go, even when you don’t think he will.”
Born without eyesight, Hotaling is the first blind scoutmaster to lead Troop 54. In his two years as scoutmaster and decade of being involved with the troop, his blindness has never hindered him from hiking, fishing or any of the outdoor excursions his Scouts embark on each year.
Hotaling even participates in a few activities some wouldn’t consider possible for someone completely blind. Several years ago at a camp outing he tried his hand at skeet shooting, even managing to hit a few of the clay pigeons.
“He’s just an amazing guy,” said Jay Stearns, a former Troop 54 scoutmaster who has worked with Hotaling for more than 10 years “He’s just one of those guys that doesn’t consider himself handicapped.”
Sometimes his movements are deliberate enough that it’s even difficult to tell he’s navigating through darkness. Scouts occasionally joke that he’s not blind at all.
“If you don’t know him, it’s really hard to tell he’s blind,” said Max Greppo, 17, another of Hotaling’s Scouts.
Born and raised in Schenectady, Hotaling works as a sales representative for the New York State Troopers Benefit Fund. On weekdays, he catches a bus from his home in Bellevue to his office in Albany; it’s the only time during the day he relies on a cane.
“It’s something that I’ve grown accustomed to,” he said.
Hotaling became involved with the Scouts when his son, Sam, joined about 10 years ago. He was named scoutmaster after Stearns, the Scouts’ veteran leader of nine years, decided to take a more active roll in Troop 54’s high-adventure group.
Since that time, Hotaling has grown accustomed to his role, and they’ve grown accustomed to him. He’s achieved a sort of symbiosis with the Scouts, where they learn from his example, but understand they occasionally need to lend their leader a guiding arm.
“I have great leaders that do a lot of work behind the scenes,” he said.
Longtime friend and Boy Scout parent Harold Claus sometimes guides the scoutmaster during parades, but often finds he needs little help at all on hikes. Somehow, he said Hotaling always seems to have a good bearing on his surroundings.
“Nothing ever stops the guy,” he marveled. “He’s probably more sure-footed than some of these kids,”
Yet the most incredible trait Hotaling displays is his willingness to cultivate the best from his Scouts. He teaches the Scouts the importance of holding high values and achieving the best of their abilities, a message he personifies.
“He’s the epitome of what a scoutmaster should be,” Claus said.
Categories: Schenectady County