“He looks like he could still play” is a common term among the sports world, reserved for an ex-athlete who has kept himself in top shape. And when former San Marino resident John Semcken trotted onto the stage at San Gabriel Country Club in a flight suit he wore almost four decades ago, he looked as though he could easily crawl into the cockpit of the F-14 Tomcat he once piloted and buzz a few enemy aircraft.
Semcken was on hand last Saturday as keynote speaker for the 16th edition of ‘Wind Under Their Wings,’ an annual brunch celebrating the wives, mothers and – in at least one case – the grandmothers who have supported young men on their path to achieving the rank of Eagle Scout, the highest honor in the Boy Scouts of America.
“I can still fit into it,” Semcken said. “But it sure takes a lot longer than it used to.”
That drew a roar of laughter from the 180 in attendance, which was announced by event coordinator Valerie Weiss as an all-time high.
Semcken then illuminated a tiny pen light and asked the crowd what he was attempting to portray. One guessed right.
“This is what an aircraft carrier looks like in bad weather,” he said, as the audience gasped.
He would know. Semcken performed 250 aircraft carrier landings as a member of the United States Navy Air Force and later became an advisor to the blockbuster major motion picture ‘Top Gun.’ If anyone doubted, Semcken provided video clips, including one of him standing behind Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer as the group belted out the film’s famous final number, the Righteous Brothers’ ‘You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin.’ Semcken even dropped to his knees a la Cruise to demonstrate the passion with which the song was performed.
Calling himself “the luckiest man in the world,” Semcken explained how one twist of fate after another placed him in the airplane he wanted to fly (the F-14) in the city where he wanted to fly it (San Diego) and led to the movie advisory role that nobody else wanted.
“There is a saying in the military that if you can’t die doing it, never volunteer for it because it can’t be good for your career,” he quipped, explaining that he was “told” to help out with ‘Top Gun.’
Since his military service was performed after Vietnam and before the Gulf War, Semcken said that the closest he got to “real duty” was when the Russians shot down Korean Airlines flight 007 on September 1, 1983.
“Three United States aircraft carriers were sent to the same waters for the first time since WWII and it has never been done since,” he said as the room became silent. “The Enterprise, the Midway and the Coral Sea. We were on what is called Alert 5 for 44 days, which means that we had to be prepared to take off in 5 minutes at a moment’s notice. It was at that point I realized we couldn’t do what we did without everyone else. There were so many others who were a part of the team. And it’s the same way with the Boy Scouts. You realize how much you depend on others.”
He also said that more than 50 percent of his class at the United States Naval Academy were Eagle Scouts.
“It’s exactly the same in the military as it is in Scouting,” he explained. He addrfessed the mothers, commending them, saying “what you are doing for your boys, you don’t know it today, but they will remember.”
Weiss presented Sue Newton, a former Boy Scout executive who recently retired, with a bouquet of flowers for her many years of service to the local Council.
Phyllis Crandon presented a report on the state of the Los Angeles Area Council, which serves 26,000 young people at 650 sites, generated more than 200,000 volunteer hours and saw 507 boys reach the rank of Eagle.
“Now that’s pretty amazing,” said Crandon as the group loudly applauded. She also referenced a three-year Tufts University research study on Cub Scouts that concluded that Scouting has measurable impact in the field of character development.
“We all knew that, but it was nice to the study verify our beliefs,” Crandon said.
Austin Janisch, a senior at Loyola High School who will matriculate to the University of California, Santa Barbara, provided thoughtful and humorous reflections of his road to the Eagle, saying how he entered the program “way back in 2009. It seems seem long ago, but to you guys, probably not.”
That one brought down the house.
On the day before Mother’s Day, Austin thanked his own, saying that “If not for my mother’s encouragement and the dedication she had for me, I wouldn’t be standing in front of you today.”
An annual ritual is seeing which mothers have the most Eagle Scouts. Mrs. Weiss and Pam Osgood tied with four apiece, an honor which earned them…hearty applause!