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Paul Perry at Camp Oakes
Paul Perry with camper at Camp Oakes

Rags & Leathers

Rags are outward symbols of the acceptance of an inner challenge for personal and Christian growth. Those wishing to accept the challenge of a particular Rag must be first receive one-on-one counseling by a qualified counselor. A qualified counselor for the Blue Rag is a program/directing staff member or a cabin counselor at least 16 years of age who is a Ragger. Campers may not counsel other campers for the Blue Rag. For the Silver, Brown, Gold, Red and Purple Rags, a qualified counselor is a fellow Ragger who is at the same or further step than the Rag the candidate is accepting. For those accepting the challenge of the White Rag, a qualified counselor is a fellow White Ragger.

Each Rag, identified by a specific color, entails two distinct sets of challenges: 1) to grow closer to God by living and understanding a specific set of Christian attributes (themes), and 2) a personal challenge for growth and improvement. The first set of challenges are universal to all Raggers of the same step (color), while the second set of challenges is unique to each individual. With sufficient notice, a Rag may be tailored to a specific faith other than Christian (i.e., Jewish, Hindu, etc.). However, the central focus remains the same: becoming closer to God by living and understanding specific virtues (themes) and self-improvement by accepting and accomplishing personal challenges/goals.

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Candidates who wish to accept the challenges of a Rag must meet minimum age requirements. These are listed in the table below, along with the specific set of Christian attributes associated with each Rag. It should be noted that physical age alone does not determine the minimal age requirement for Rags. These numbers are the minimal ages when candidates may consider pursuing a particular Rag. In order to be eligible for any Rag, the candidate must possess the proper level of maturity to fully understand and take serious responsibility for the challenges contained in a particular Rag step.

Rag Corresponding Challenge Age
Blue Loyalty to God, country, one's best self and the Raggers' Creed 12
Silver Respect and appreciation for the principles that Christ gave to the world, your country, other people, and yourself 13
Brown Serve God, humility, become more aware of the needs of others 14
Gold Understanding of others, concern for others 15
Red Sacrifice of time, talent and personal will (high and noble living) 16
Purple Challenge to live the best life possible (high and noble living) 18
White Dedication to a life of Christian service 21

 

History of the Rags & Leathers Program

In 1914, Thomas Caldwell, boys' secretary of the Oakland, California YMCA was searching for a method to deal with certain discipline problems at camp in a positive, rather than negative, way. At the time, the method used by many YMCA camps was to present awards for participation in athletics and other activities. Caldwell considered this, but discarded the idea because a handicapped boy, who would be unable to win such an award, was expected to attend camp.

Caldwell's aspiration evolved into the idea of rewarding positive character traits, such as good heath habits, promptness, cheerfulness, morals, trust and helpfulness. To symbolize these positive qualities, Caldwell bought some very simple blue bandanas he called “Rags.” Their simplicity signified that, in and of themselves, the rags had no value--rather, they were just a symbol of positive qualities the person had demonstrated. During an evening campfire program, Caldwell called several of the boys forward. As he tied the Rag around each boy’s neck, he explained to him, and the camp, the reason for receiving it. Thus a tradition was started.

The story of the Rag

The Rag Program has undergone numerous changes over the years, and many important YMCA leaders continue to strengthen and improve the original idea. The concept of “award” has evolved over the years, and challenges now focus on personal growth. The program is designed to encourage campers to take an in-depth look at their beliefs, their strengths and their weaknesses and invites them to accept the challenge to grow in spirit, mind and body.

An idea born of simple beginnings has transformed thousands of lives in the past 88 years. What was true nearly a century ago, holds true today: the recognition of positive traits provides an incentive for others and the understanding that we grow by challenging ourselves, setting realistic goals and trying to be our best self. Rags and Leathers aren't magic. They're merely tools used by YMCAs throughout the world to help youth, as well as adults, find direction in their lives. They serve as counseling tools that encourage sharing and the assertion and successful completion of challenges. They're recognized by a simple symbol—an outward sign of an inward goal.

The Rag Society - Its First 50 Years

Without surprise, but certainly with understandable disappointment, we have discovered that it is virtually impossible to write an accurate history of the YMCA Rag Society.

This is precluded by the very nature of the Society's evolution. It was founded by one man and developed by hundreds. Practically every secretary or layman who has used the Rag in camp has in some way applied his own interpretation to it.

For 50 years there has never been any kind of permanent committee on the Rag, either in the old State or the present Area organizations. Hence, the extreme scarcity of documentation.

Even various "ad-hoc" committees and commissions which have been charged with specific assignments on the Rag have left little documentation.

So we have had to rely upon memories to a great degree. The fact that memories play tricks, particularly when the subject involves emotion, has made the task even more difficult.

We realize that some will accept the presentation as fact and others will have legitimate quarrel with certain facets. Where there were differences of opinion, we accepted that version given by the greatest number of people or that which conformed most closely to known facts. In any case where there seems to be no particular "weight of opinion," it has been noted.

So the rather large number of qualifying words and phrases have been inserted in the interest of accuracy - if that word can be applied.

To the many who helped, we are deeply grateful.

Robert K. Hutchison,
Ralph Broms
December, 1964 

Founder

Thomas S. Caldwell was a good YMCA secretary.

He devoted his life to his work. He was dedicated to the Christian purposes of the YMCA. He was effective. Adults who knew him loved and respected him. Youngsters who were fortunate enough to come under his influence benefited from the love and Christian example he gave them.

But Tom Caldwell was never the influential general secretary of a large YMCA. He was little known in Y circles outside the West. His counsel probably was never sought by the Movement, either nationally or internationally.

However, it is safe to say that Tom Caldwell's influence will remain long after the contributions of many far better known YMCA secretaries have been forgotten.
He founded the Rag Society.

Compared with other YMCA creations that have involved tens of millions of persons and have been accepted around the world - basketball, volleyball and even organized camping itself - Caldwell's creation might seem insignificant. It has involved only hundreds of thousands and, for all practical purposes, is used today only in the Western United States, where it was started.

Even in a recent history of the YMCA in California, Caldwell is mentioned but twice and the Rag Society is given only two paragraphs.

But never has the YMCA invented anything more consistent with its Christian purposes than the Rag. During the past 50 years several hundred thousand youngsters in YMCA camps have been led blindfolded to Raggers' Point to have triangular kerchiefs tied around their necks in a simple, dignified religious ceremony.

There are boys and girls - adults now - who will tell you that these ceremonies were the most profound Christian experiences of their lives.

And there are youngsters who are still youngsters who have accepted the challenges of the Rag and will be better men and women because they have.

After 50 years Tom Caldwell's contribution remains strong and effective in the YMCA program. There is no reason to believe it will not remain so indefinitely.

If greatness is measured by the influence for good a man leaves behind, then Thomas S. Caldwell was certainly a great YMCA secretary. 

The Beginning of Tradition

It started as so many good things start: a man sees a need and has the experience and imagination to meet it.

In the spring of 1914 Thomas S. Caldwell, 38 years old, was the boy's secretary of the Oakland YMCA and making plans to take a group to summer camp.

At the time the Oakland YMCA owned no permanent campsite, and for reasons now obscure, the site of the previous summer's camp, near San Gregorio on the ocean side of the San Francisco peninsula, was unavailable.

Caldwell scouted the same area and about three and one-half miles inland from the tiny town of Pescadero found a wooded site along Pescadero Creek. He entered into a simple contract with the farmer who owned it: "You let us use this land free and we'll pay you to haul our food and supplies up from Pescadero."

With that out of the way, Caldwell turned to another problem: during the previous summer's camp he had encountered some disciplinary problems among a group of boys from a lower income area.

Caldwell was looking for a device, he wrote later, "to meet certain problems of discipline by placing action upon a positive rather than negative basis."

His first idea was to present awards for "participation in activities." This followed a method being used at the time in the San Francisco YMCA's camp and was based primarily on athletics.

Many years later Caldwell wrote that presented this idea to his leaders at a meeting before camp started, but it was discarded because they expected a crippled by, Charles Von Konnigsburg, to be in camp and he would be unable to win an award under the system.

The leaders do not remember this meeting. But almost unanimously they recall a meeting, either in the Pescadero camp or before they left Oakland, at which Caldwell presented a plan for giving awards for health habits, promptness, cheerfulness, morals, trustworthiness, industry and helpfulness. There seems little doubt that the conception was Caldwell's alone. There is no evidence that he consulted anybody prior to this meeting. *

The first Rags were purchased for 10 cents each at the Williamson's Country Store in Pescadero and were nothing more than simple blue bandanas made popular by the cowboys of the West. In fact, so many youngsters habitually wore these bandanas that Caldwell was obliged to request that they not be worn in camp.

It is significant that almost from the beginning Caldwell called the kerchiefs Rags rather than bandanas. T his was to signify that in themselves they had no value. Rather they were only a symbol of the qualities a boy had demonstrated.

Within several days after the camp period got underway, Caldwell called several youths out at campfire and, as he tied the Rag around each boy's neck, told him in front of the other campers why he was receiving it. Before they returned to Oakland a rather large percentage of the boys (about 25 of them) became Blue Raggers, and one, Edmund DeFreitas, became the first Red Ragger.

Contrary to common belief, there was at the beginning no religious significance attached to the Rag, although the rest of the camp program contained strong Christian emphasis. Instead, the tying ceremony reflected the legend of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. ** As a result, that summer Tom Caldwell received the nickname "King," which he was to carry the rest of his life.

Among the leaders in that 1914 camp were Caldwell's assistant, Fred Abbot, who would succeed him several years later as boy's secretary of the Oakland YMCA and who is now retired; Homer A. Gould, now assistant general secretary of the Los Angeles YMCA; George Hjelte, retired general manager of the City of Los Angeles' Recreation and Parks Department and a lifelong YMCA layman; Roland Ure, retired general secretary of the Nashua (N.H.) YMCA; Robert K. Hutchison, retired general secretary of the Fresno YMCA; and C.F. Martin, then physical director of the Oakland YMCA and now retired Director of Physical Education, Pasadena City Schools.

Although the Rag was first given exclusively to boy campers and none of these young men was to receive it for a few years, several of them were to contribute significantly to the spread and development of Caldwell's creation.

* It should be noted that Charles Von Konnigsburg was in the 1914 camp and was crippled. Though the years some people have maintained that indirectly he was responsible for the original conception of the Rag. It seems more probable that the boy's presence in camp was responsible for the dramatic legend that persisted, and Caldwell was himself willing to give credence to it in later years.

** Caldwell, however, realized quite early that there was a place for religious challenge in the Rag program. Also, although he first looked upon it as an aid to discipline, he came to see within a few years that it had the substance to be much more. 

Early Spread and Development

Caldwell returned to Oakland highly enthusiastic about the Rag. He considered the camp on Pescadero Creek the most successful he had ever conducted. In later years he wrote with satisfaction that there were practically no disciplinary problems and attributed that fact to the Rag.

He lost no time in telling his colleagues in nearby YMCAs about it. His friend A.S. Barrows, boys’ secretary in Sacramento, used the idea at a camp later that same summer. Although Barrows was to change jobs and move on the following spring, he can be given credit for its early use by Associations around Sacramento.

Caldwell also urged colleagues in Berkeley and San Francisco to try his idea. Berkeley did in 1915, but the San Francisco YMCA was to continue its emphasis on athletic awards for several years.

For the next few years the Rag spread slowly throughout the Bay area and Northern California, and by 1918 or 1919 was in use at the Sequoia Lake camp used by Fresno City, Fresno County, Tulare County and Kings County YMCAs. It was here that the earliest version of a Ragger’s Point was constructed. It consisted of a clearing with an altar and a triangle marked off on the ground.

Caldwell continued to use the Rag until he moved to Los Angeles as citywide boys’ secretary in the fall of 1918. There he found that one of his leaders in the 1914 Pescadero camp, Homer Gould, had introduced the program in 1917.

In 1920 Caldwell invited James A. McDill, boys’ secretary of the Long Beach Y, to the LOS Angeles Y’s camp on the West Fork of the San Gabriel River and put him through the Red Rag ceremony. That summer Long Beach became the second YMCA in Southern California to make the Rag a part of its camp program. While the early spread of the Rag was taking place, the development of Caldwell’s idea continued.

In 1916 the hymn “I Would Be True” became the Raggers’ Creed. There is a difference of opinion as to how this happened.

Caldwell recollected that Ray Ogden found the hymn in a magazine and suggested it for the Rag. C. F. Martin, another man who was in tile 1914 camp, remembers that his wife sent it to him at camp in 1916 as possible material to be used for a campfire talk.

Although the song is not a church hymn in the usual sense, it was then and still is used in church services. Its acceptance by Caldwell marks the first time, so far as can be determined, that the idea of religion came into the Rag concept.

A year later, in 1917, however, Ogden and Martin collaborated in writing the Red Rag ceremony to make one of the two or three most significant contributions to the development of the Rag.

The ceremony was religious in nature and presented for the first time the idea of a challenge in addition to a recognition.

Oddly enough, the ceremony for the Blue Rag, the first Rag, wasn’t written until about 1919, and it is thought that Caldwell himself made this contribution. It is also probably true that the Rag Society’s founder wrote the first challenges for both the Blue and Red Rags about the same time.

By 1919 the Oakland YMCA was holding its summer camp at Morgan Hill near San Jose, and it was decided that another step for the Rag was needed. Kenneth Lowell, a high school age leader, wrote the Brown Rag ceremony. Robert Hutchison, another alumnus of the 1914 camp, suggested the poem “Four Things a Man Must Learn to Do” as part of the ceremony.

A minor point of interest is that although this step was always called the Brown Rag, the first kerchiefs used were actually olive drab. They were made of surplus handkerchief material from World War I.

That same year the White Rag came into being. Three boys in the camp at Morgan Hill had expressed the desire to enter YMCA work, and Caldwell conceived this step for them. Although he was in Los Angeles at the time, they were “his boys” and he wrote the ceremony. Those first White Raggers were Louis J. Meillette, who at the time of his death in 1959 was senior secretary of the Armed Services Department of the National Council of YMCAs; Lesleigh Davis, currently executive secretary of the YMCA-USO in Temple, Texas; and Benton Holmes, who did not enter Y work and whose whereabouts are unknown today. *

So by 1920 there had been established four steps in the Rag Society — the Blue for boys 12 years old, the Brown for 14-year-olds, the Red for age 16 and the White for older youth and adults who committed themselves to Christian Service.

The fact that 13 and 15-year—olds could not receive Rags during these odd years in camp led in 1922 to the first “intermediate steps.” This apparently was also Caldwell’s idea. He established the Red Triangle for boys 13 and the Blue Square for those 15. These were felt patches sewed over the emblem of the Rag a boy had.

Caldwell wrote the ceremony for the Red Triangle, and Homer Gould wrote the Blue Square ceremony.

This marked Caldwell’s last significant contribution to his creation, although he was to remain active in the Society until his retirement as general secretary of the Riverside YMCA in 1939.

* In about 1924 Meillette, then physical director of the Hollywood YMCA, tied the White Rag on Caldwell, it was probably the only Rag the Society’s founder ever formally received. 

Influence of Ralph Cole

There is no doubt that the second most important man in the Rag Society’s first 50 years was Ralph Cole, State Boys’ Work Secretary from 1919 to 1928.

By nature, Cole was a gregarious promoter and tenacious salesman. By background and experience, he was a highly effective boys’ work secretary.

These qualities and abilities, together with the fact that his job required extensive travel to YMCA's throughout the state, gave Cole all he needed to make his great contribution to the Rag.

He became a Ragger in the summer of 1920 at the Oakland YMCA’s camp on the Feather River. Apparently he was deeply moved by the experience. From a more practical point of view, he recognized in the Rag a tremendous potential for the YMCA camping program in particular and the youth program in general.
First, he set out to “sell” the Rag to Southern California Associations. Although in somewhat general use up north, only the Los Angeles and Long Beach YMCA's were using it in the south.

In 1921 Cole obtained use of Long Beach YMCA’s “Kamp Kole,” which had been named for him in recognition of his accomplishments as Boys’ Work Secretary of that Association, and conducted the first Southern California Hi-Y Officers’ Training Camp. In attendance were most of the boys’ secretaries.

In characteristic fashion, Cole put many boys and, more important, every secretary there through either the Blue or Red Rag ceremony. Thus at one time he introduced practically every boys’ work secretary in Southern California to the Rag.

The fact that by the following summer all Southern California YMCA's had adopted the Rag was a tribute both to the inspiration of the ceremonies and the great influence of Ralph Cole himself. The latter point is sharpened when you consider the speed with which he was able to overcome the natural resistance to new ideas which exists among all people and organizations. *

There is no doubt that by use of different, but similarly effective methods, Cole introduced the program to Northern and Central California YMCA's not then using it and to new Associations as they came into being during his nine-year tenure.

It was Cole (probably with Caldwell’s encouragement) who first had Rags manufactured in quantity and distributed by the State organization. He was also responsible for reproduction and distribution of ceremonies and the requirements candidates had to learn, which tended to make methods of presentation as uniform as they were to become for many years.

Not content with limiting his promotion of the Rag to California, Cole took advantage of an invitation to speak at a summer school for YMCA secretaries of the Pacific Northwest in 1922 or 1923 and introduced it up there. **

It is also thought that Cole was either directly or indirectly responsible for introduction of the Rag Society to Arizona. It first appeared in the Phoenix Association in the early twenties, a time when his influence was being increasingly felt throughout the West and even into the Midwest and East.

Another Cole contribution took place in 1928 when he and Homer Gould wrote the first formal White Rag ceremony. Caldwell had written an earlier version for specific young men in 1919 as mentioned previously.

When Cole left in 1928 to become Boys’ Work Secretary of the World’s Committee of YMCA's, it was obvious that his enthusiasm for the Rag had been contagious and his sales job superb. The Rag was firmly established and, perhaps even more important, it was crystallized into a meaningful, important part of the YMCA youth program in California. ***

During Cole’s tenure and into the early thirties, the generation of YMCA secretaries that followed Caldwell — those directly involved in YMCA camping — began to give the Rag its rich tradition. In this period most youths in YMCA clubs attended camp together, which provided a continuity and fellowship that gave the Rag more meaning.

It was this generation that initiated a number of refinements in ceremonies, requirements and interpretation that would later become standard.

In almost every Association where the Rag was to become strong and rewarding both to individuals and to the YMCA, could be found a secretary who believed in the Rag, appreciated its value to youth and used it intelligently.

Among these secretaries were J. B. Wilbur in Oroville; Thomas Schumacher in San Diego, Conrad Jongewaard and Arch Raitt in Orange County; A. C. Preston in Long Beach ; J. Delmar Branch in Burbank; Earle Dexter in Fresno; L. B. Schaefer in Oakland; John Holt, E. P. Hunt and John Titsworth in San Francisco; Paul Flegel in Berkeley; Fred Dye and Merle Waterman in Hollywood; Paul Somers and H. J. Payne in Pasadena; Harold A. Wagner, Lorne Bell and Homer Gould in Los Angeles; L. E. (Speed) Lashbrook in Pomona; Kenneth Knights in Aihambra and Charles Crumly in Tulare County.

Wilbur and his wife were the first to give Rags to girls, and their extended tenure in Oroville produced a number of White Raggers among both boys and girls.

Merle Waterman can be given credit for constructing the first Raggers’ Point as it is known today in 1925 at the Los Angeles YMCA’s Camp Little Green Valley.

As many of these men moved into administrative posts in the YMCA, they were followed by another generation of secretaries — those of the depression years.

During the early thirties YMCA's were forced to reduce staffs drastically. Generally, the program secretaries remaining were the superior men, and due to the lack of opportunity for advancement, tended to remain in their jobs longer than had been true previously.

As a result, the program secretaries of the depression were able to make an important contribution by giving the Rag the meaning and continuity that can come only when one man takes many of the same youngsters and leaders to camp year after year.

One of the two or three most significant contributions to the Society came from one of this group, Paul Delp of the Hollywood YMCA.

For a number of years many laymen and secretaries had complained that 13 and 15-year-olds felt “cheated” when they received the Red Triangle or Blue Square rather than Rags during their odd years in camp. They were looked down upon as “half steps” and therefore lacked significance.

In 1934 Delp conceived the Silver and Gold Rags to replace the Red Triangle and Blue Square and the Purple Rag as an intermediate step between the Red and White. It should be noted that while these changes were apparently made for the exclusive use of Hollywood, and perhaps several other Los Angeles branches, they were adopted by practically all other Associations within three or four years.

The first two Purple Raggers were Ben Alexander, then and now a well known entertainer, and Carl Olson, currently physical director of the Westchester YMCA.

Delp obviously met a need, because the steps of the Rag have not changed since.

* A bonus that resulted from the quick and abrupt spread of the Rag in Southern California, according to a number of men active at the same time, was a new, richer fellowship and spirit of cooperation among Associations.

** The Rag remains in use in the Northwest today, but in most Associations colors of the Rags and ceremonies differ considerably from the Pacific Southwest pattern.

*** It should be noted that while this presentation deals exclusively with Ralph Cole’s contributions to the Rag Society, his contributions to other facets of YMCA youth program were outstanding and left an indelible mark. This marks the first time he has received formal recognition for his work on the Rag. 

Surviving Controversy

ONE summer evening in 1937 Camp Director Sheldon Swenson stood before the Hollywood YMCA group at a campfire program, took off his White Rag and dropped it into the campfire.

With one gesture this highly respected YMCA secretary gave frustrated expression to a controversy which had raged around the Rag Society for almost 20 years.

A highly emotional act that to many bordered on the sacrilegious, it nevertheless came from a man who loved the Rag deeply and who would later do much to convert the frustration he and others felt into a far reaching change of philosophy.

This controversy revolved around the question, “How many boys or girls in a camp should receive the Rag?”

On one side of the dispute were those who believed that to receive the Rag was a high honor and therefore only a few youngsters could measure up to it. To award it freely, they said, was to cheapen it. These secretaries believed that no more than 25 to 40 percent of the youths should be accepted into the Rag Society. And some of them limited it to 10 percent or even less.

In the other corner were those who believed the Rag was so meaningful that all the campers possible should have the inspiration of the ceremonies and the value of the fellowship. If you had a good camp with good spirit, they said, most of the boys would be caught up in that spirit and therefore merit the Rag. When a youngster did not get his Rag, there should be tangible reasons, and if this were true, the door was open for careful and beneficial counseling. These men gave the Rag to most of the youngsters in Camp. The first group came to be called the “Phi Beta Kappas” and the second the “Liberals.”

In addition, there was disagreement over how campers should be selected to receive the Rag. Numerous ways were tried. In some camps the director made the decision based upon his own judgment. In others he made the decision in counsel with his cabin leaders. Sometimes a committee of leaders was given the responsibility. And there was a “secret committee” of other Raggers. Often the blackball or thumbs-down method was used, no matter what group made the decision.

A contributing factor to the controversy which cannot be ignored were the new concepts of character education as they applied to the YMCA. Adherents to these ideas were highly critical of the Rag program.

Stripped to its essentials, this new school of education said it was harmful to single out an individual or individuals for awards or recognitions because of the effect upon the youngsters who didn’t get them.

Had the YMCAs of California completely embraced this philosophy when it first swept across the country, the Rag Society might well have been antiquated and completely unacceptable by 1930. *

But Tom Caldwell’s creation had proved itself to be so effective that it was strong enough to withstand controversy from within and criticism from without.

All of these differences of opinion — the number who should be taken into the Society, how they should be selected and even the requirements, ceremonies and interpretation — were discussed, sometimes heatedly, around campfires after the youngsters were in bed, at social gatherings, in committees . . . wherever men who loved the Rag and believed in it congregated.

The important point is that they believed in it enough to have strong opinions. Had this not been true, the Society could easily have succumbed.

They were arguing about degree. In one respect their basic philosophy was the same. Whether ten youths or all the youths in a camp received the Rag, in one way or another they were selected to receive it. It was given to them.

When Sheldon Swenson burned his White Rag, he was apparently reacting to the methods of selection and showing concern for the effect upon the youngster who was not “tapped” for membership in the Society.

A few years later his thinking had progressed to the point where he believed that differences of opinion over selection and the concern for the unaccepted campers were only symptoms of the real cause of the problem. It was, he was convinced, the philosophy that was wrong.

In December of 1945 Swenson, then executive secretary of the Park Presidio Branch of the San Francisco YMCA, accepted appointment to a Commission charged with studying existing practices and presenting a new set of “Suggested Standards for the Rag Society.”

This group met four times in December, January and February, and Swenson attended the first two meetings.

At the second meeting he presented a paper titled “Some Elements in the Use of the Rag Which Cause It to be a Negative Method in Christian Education.”

It was a damning indictment that consisted of fourteen points. He wrote that two weeks of camping represents a sharply different experience than a youngster gets the other 50 weeks of the year and his actions, therefore, could not be a true gauge of his basic character; that the Rag was often used as a crutch to discipline; and that the judgment process in awarding it was subject to all of the known human frailties.

With his fourteenth point he documented for the first time a sweeping change in philosophy:

“Rag ceremonies, in themselves, are high experiences in Christian education. We have no right to set up a way which selects those who should have this worship experience. The kinds of things which these ceremonies convey should be available to all campers.”

In effect, he was saying that the decision to accept the challenges of the Rag should be the youngster’s and his alone.

After discussion the Commission voted to make Swenson’s document a part of its minutes. A study of the group’s report, however, indicates that although he made a marked impression on it, his colleagues were not ready to accept his philosophy.

As a result, the Commission’s report was somewhat ambiguous. From the report:

“A system of recognition for all campers be also used which shall be based on a factual understanding of the boy.”

“Camp Directors should be challenged to give everybody the same opportunity for vital religious experience as have Raggers.”

“Recommendations for Rags should be initiated by leaders, approved by a Rag Committee, and subjected to the final approval of the Camp Director.”

It is known that Swenson or somebody else distributed his document, because it shows up in files of men then working in Southern California and therefore not familiar with the Commission’s work.

Two years later a committee composed of Los Angeles YMCA secretaries under the chairmanship of Hubbard Russell, Jr., undertook essentially the same task as had the Northern California group.

Its report very strongly reflects Swenson’s concept:

“. . . The Rag is not a substitute for ‘poor’ counseling. No one can be voted into membership. No one can be voted out of membership. To become a member is entirely of one’s free will and choice.

“Candidates choose membership in the Society by their own personal willingness to accept the challenge of each Rag.” **

By the early fifties practically every Association in the Pacific Southwest Area had accepted the new concept. Rags were no longer given; they were accepted. By the middle of the decade all ceremonies had been rewritten to reflect the new philosophy.

Second only to the introduction of the religious commitment in Rag ceremonies beginning in 1916 and 1917, this change is without doubt the most important in the Rag Society’s first 50 years.

As for Swenson, who served on the Area Staff at the time of his death in 1959 whether his thoughts were completely original or whether they evolved from concert with others, the fact remains that he was the first to document the new philosophy, and that document had great influence.

After Caldwell and Cole, Sheldon Swenson must become the third most important man in the history of the Rag Society.

* Ultimately some of these ideas did exert influence on the Rag and on the YMCA program.

** Authors’ italics. 

The Rag Society Today

It has been said that the Rag Society has never been adequately explained to anybody who is not a Ragger.

Perhaps the most valid reason for this is that the Spirit of the Rag is deeply personal — it represents a private partnership between an individual and his God.

It is known that many boys and girls return home from camp with their Rags and do not tell their parents anything about them, probably because they can’t. Even adults who have been Raggers for many years are unable to interpret their feelings about the Rag.

The ceremonies, which are simple and dignified, are so highly inspirational and emotion-charged that individuals can’t find the words to express their experiences.

But despite the deeply personal aspect of the Rag, there is a meaningful and enduring fellowship among Raggers — one that is most often expressed in the Raggers’ handshake, which is not unlike some fraternity handclasps.

It is, however, a fellowship that is rarely expressed in words. Each Ragger knows the other has accepted the same challenges he has and that he is trying to meet them. Beyond that its meaning again becomes personal. *

Usually in a YMCA camp or on a caravan trip the Rag is first explained when the group is at the campfire. Directors will tell of its history and of Tom Caldwell and some of the men who followed him.

Sometimes in attempts to interpret its meaning they will tell about the times when they received their first Rags. All non-Raggers in Camp are invited to accept the challenge of the Blue Rag.

Youngsters are told they should give it serious thought and, if they are interested, to make it known to their cabin leader or to the director himself.

If a youth expresses interest, he is given what is called a requirement card, which by means of passages from the Bible, poems and quotations explains the challenge of the Blue Rag.

Generally, it is not required that the prospective Ragger memorize the card, only that he understand it. He must, however, memorize the Raggers’ Creed. If there are things on the card he doesn’t understand, he is encouraged to ask for help.

Many directors ask youths to use the thoughts on the card as a basis to list ways which they can improve their own lives and thereby to set for themselves some personal goals.

There follows a counseling session with an adult during which the challenges, requirements, history and spirit of the Society are reviewed, Then in groups of about ten the youths are blindfolded and led to Raggers’ Point for the tying ceremony, usually at dusk. **

What is it about Rag ceremonies that so deeply affect both youth and adults?

It has to do with a youth carefully considering the challenges of the Rag, accepting them and then telling a Ragger he has made the decision.

It has to do with setting some personal goals for himself.

It has to do with the unknown. Youngsters are led blindfolded by people they trust to a new, lofty experience.

It has to do with a setting of natural beauty, a setting created by God, not man. It has to do with dedicated leadership. When an adult whom a youngster loves and admires ties the Rag around his neck and whispers words of welcome and encouragement, that adult is sharing with him what is often one of the most emotional moments of his life.

And it has to do with God and a youth’s religion. ***

Requirements and ceremonies for the other six steps of the Rag differ, although the counseling and goal setting remain important factors. One would think that having been through one or more steps of the Rag, the camper would tend to be less emotionally involved. The opposite is true. The continuity, the fellowship that comes from it, and the progressively deeper and more meaningful challenges have driven boys and girls and men and women to seek and accept the next steps year after year until they have become White Raggers.

Here are the challenges of the Rag:

Blue — acceptance of the Raggers’ Creed.
Silver — to follow Jesus and His Way of Life.
Brown — leadership among youth the Ragger’s own age.
Gold — concern for the welfare of all people everywhere.
Red — commitment to Christian leadership and humility.
Purple — a challenge to lead the best life.
White — commitment to lifelong Christian work with youth.
Together they constitute the Spirit of the Rag...the striving of individuals, each seeking God’s Will and His Way for himself.

The Ragger doesn’t always succeed in living up to the challenges of his Rags, but he tries. And because he does try, he’s a better person.

Therein lies the meaning of the Rag.

* It has also made for a fellowship among YMCAs, one that has given an added element to the lofty purposes which bind Associations together. An example of this fellowship is illustrated by the fact that funds for this booklet were contributed voluntarily by numerous individual Raggers and by Associations in the Pacific Southwest Area Council of YMCAs.

** Although each ceremony differs, the procedure for each of the other steps of the Rag is very much the same, except that the need for detailed explanations diminishes as a youngster gets older and moves into further steps of the Society...and the counseling and commitment is intensified.

*** There are some Raggers who do not consider the ceremonies “secret.” There are others who would object to a detailed description of the ceremonies. The authors have deferred to the latter group. 

Rag Society Symbol

Doubtless somebody fairly early in the history of the Rag designed the Society's symbol. Who he was is unknown today. But he blended four of mankind's best known shapes into his design: the Cross, symbol of Christianity; the traditional YMCA triangle; the square, to signify the four square life; and the circle, a circle of friendship uniting the hearts of all men everywhere.

Raggers' Points are permanent at YMCA camps, but they have been constructed by Raggers all over the United States and all over the world. Usually built of rocks at remote and private view sites whenever possible, they are rarely destroyed.

Perhaps one of the most unique places a Rag Ceremony ever took place was in Austria, just a few yards from the Hungarian border. A group of touring high school boys accepted Rags with the communist armed guards viewing the ceremony through a barbed wire barricade.

Testimony to the Blue Rag Ceremony

The late Methodist Bishop Bruce Baxter was invited to speak at a Raggers’ Reunion many years ago when he was professor of homiletics at the University of Southern California. Before his presentation he accepted a Blue Rag. From his speech: "I have been a member of two national honorary fraternities and a national social fraternity; I have taken every degree in Masonry save one, and I have been ordained as a minister of the Methodist Episcopal Church, but I have never experienced a ceremonial as impressive in its simple dignity and beauty as this Blue Rag ceremony."

Leathers

As resident campers can be as young as the age of 8 and the youngest age at which a child can accept a Rag is 12, the YMCA developed the Leathers program. This program focuses on many of the same characteristics of the Rags, but is age-appropriate. By attaining the three levels of leathers (the Triangle, Square and Circle), children younger than 12 will be well prepared for involvement in the Rag program.

Accepting Leathers

The Leathers, like Rags, are outward symbols of the acceptance of an inner challenge for personal and Christian growth. Those wishing to accept the challenge of a particular Leather must be first receive one-on-one counseling by a qualified counselor. A qualified counselor is a program/directing staff member or cabin counselor. Campers may not counsel other campers for Leathers. Each Leather entails a personal challenge directly linked to the universal theme of the specific Leather step. Candidates who wish to accept the challenges of a Leather must meet minimum age requirements. These are listed below, along with the specific set of Christian attributes associated with each Leather.

Triangle Leather - To grow in Mind, Body and Spirit
Square Leather - To grow in Mind, Body, Spirit and Friendship
Circle Leather - To become close to God through appreciation, love and concern for all of His creation. This includes the earth, all living things, and all people

 

"I Would Be True"

I would be true, for there are those who trust me;
I would be pure, for there are those who care;
I would be strong, for there is much to suffer;
I would be brave, for there is much to dare;
I would be friend to all - the foe, the friendless;
I would be giving, and forget the gift;
I would be humble, for I know my weakness;
I would look up, and laugh, and love and lift.

The Author of "I Would Be True"

Howard Arnold Walter was a 23-year-old missionary serving in Japan when he wrote "I Would Be True" in 1906. It was not written as a song or hymn, but as a personal message to his mother.

Poor health shortly afterwards forced his return to the United States, where he continued his studies and was ordained into the ministry. In 1912 he went to India as a YMCA secretary, where he died in 1918 of influenza at the age of 35.

The eight lined of poetry, which were to set to music about 1908, have placed Howard Arnold Walter among the immortals of hymn writers. There is little doubt that his lines have proved to be one of the most appealing hymns for young people...and particularly for Raggers!