At a weekend ceremony to honor their achievements, 10 newly inducted Eagle Scouts from Chicago Troop 79 were given a final memento: a bumper sticker that read “I Survived Mr. Z.”
That’s because although they spent years working up through the ranks and completing a community service project to become Eagle Scouts, their hardest challenge just might have been meeting the high expectations of Jim Zoiopoulos — better known as “Mr. Z.”
The bumper stickers were given out Saturday after the scouts’ induction at Fourth Presbyterian Church, which featured a speech by state Senate President John Cullerton. Zoiopoulos was given a surprise Lifetime Achievement Award for his longtime work shaping dozens of boys and teens for the more than 80-year-old troop. The troop currently has 70 scouts and parents involved from around Chicago and the suburbs.
Zoiopoulos, a soft-spoken, Greek immigrant in his late 60s who now lives in the Gold Coast neighborhood, has spent most of his life involved with the Boy Scouts. He was a Sea Scout, a branch of scouts that focuses on boating and water activities, as a teenager in Greece, and immigrated to the U.S. in the early 1970s to go to college in Michigan. In the early 1990s, he settled on the Near North Side in Chicago, where he worked for many years in the insurance and financial planning industries before retiring eight years ago.
He joined a local Sea Scouts troop before getting involved with Troop 79 nearly two decades ago, including while his own son became an Eagle Scout. Unlike many parents and scout mentors who are involved only while children are in the troop, Zoiopoulos worked with the program before and after his son’s participation.
“I never thought of Scouts as my purpose in life, but I suppose it became a habit,” Zoiopoulos said. “I just try to instill for [the boys] to do the best they can, to have an ethical approach to life and everything they do.”
Zoiopoulos works hand in hand with each aspiring Eagle Scout in Troop 79, and spent at least 100 hours with the 10 boys last year as they planned and completed community service projects that ranged from fixing up a flooded library at a CPS school to revitalizing community gardens in Uptown and West Garfield Park. It takes the average scout about six months to conduct an Eagle project, which scouts must complete before they turn 18. They also have to receive badges in areas ranging from forestry to emergency preparedness to reach the rank.
Anywhere from two to five boys in a troop usually become Eagle Scouts in a year, but the 10 boys from Troop 79 were the most in the troop’s records, which go back to the ’90s. Around the country, it’s rare for more than a dozen scouts to reach the rank at the same time.
“Mr. Z is a standard bearer for Eagles, as well as ranks and advancements,” said Dave Keats, a Troop 79 scoutmaster. “He’s an integral part of making sure that nobody is just handed a rank in their long journey to Eagle. These aren’t meaningless patches to kids.”
Wearing his full scout uniform and badges, Zoiopoulos was surrounded by several scout parents following the weekend ceremony. “You’re a legend around here, Mr. Z,” one said.
“I expect perfection, but I’m not going to change,” Zoiopoulos said. “It’s rewarding to see the boys transform from little Cub Scouts at 10 or 11 years old, to confident young men.”
Recent health problems have prevented Zoiopoulos from going camping or hiking with the scouts. But even from a hospital bed, Zoiopoulos said he gives the boys his “two cents” about their Eagle projects.
For Kenny Larson, an 18-year-old Eagle Scout from Troop 79 and student at Northside College Prep, Zoiopoulos was a foundational component in his Eagle Scout project revitalizing Uptown’s Ginkgo Organic Gardens, which provides fresh fruit and vegetables to people with HIV/AIDS.
“Without him I would not have been able to stay on task or have the necessary materials and experience to lead the project,” Kenny Larson said. “I think Mr. Z represents the epitome of boy scouting and that brotherhood that ultimately guide each other along a path to maturity.”
Alex Zoiopoulos said his dad didn’t go easy on him, either, during his days as an Eagle Scout.
“He wants these kids to show the world what they can do,” Alex Zoiopoulos said. “And while it might seem like [my dad] is all tooth and nails, this award means a lot to him because he’s able to see the fruits of his labors.”
Despite his health, Mr. Z hopes to continue to work with scouts for another couple years, although guiding a repeat of this year’s record 10 Eagle Scouts would admittedly be challenging.
“I did not expect this award. I feel appreciated,” Zoiopoulos said. “I have received many awards in my life, but from my own troop it’s special. It’s always been worth it.”