John Claerhout

As chief executive of the Boy Scouts of America from 1976 to 1985, John Claerhout championed the organization in inner-city Los Angeles and recruited local and national celebrities to benefit the Scouts.

John Claerhout, a former Boy Scouts of America executive known for his finesse at fundraising and his promotion of scouting programs for thousands of inner-city Los Angeles teenagers, has died in a Northridge hospital. He was 85.

Claerhout underwent quadruple bypass surgery two weeks before his April 4 death from complications of pneumonia, said his son Kevyn Claerhout.

Claerhout was a masterful networker who recruited a stream of local and national celebrities for gala dinners benefiting the Scouts. With honorees and A-list guests including former President Gerald Ford, John Wayne, Frank Sinatra, Jimmy Stewart, Loretta Young and Michael Jackson, Claerhout raised enough to quadruple the Los Angeles Area Council's annual budget when he was its chief executive, from 1976 to 1985.

"He was one of the best fundraisers in the Boy Scouts or probably anywhere," said Chuck Keathley, the council's current chief executive.

Toward the end of Claerhout's tenure, local Boy Scout fundraising was so successful that United Way asked him to give other charities a break by dialing back the dinners, The Times said in 1985. He did, in exchange for a larger United Way allocation.

Also active in Rotary International, Claerhout moved easily in corporate circles, bringing together top business and political figures for brainstorming or simply socializing.

"When I started, some of the leading executives in Los Angeles had seen each other, at most, only six times and their wives didn't know each other at all," he told The Times.

Claerhout organized plenty of get-to-know-you opportunities, at one point shepherding 50 executives and their spouses aboard donated corporate jets to a retreat at Philmont, the Boy Scouts' 137,000-acre ranch in northern New Mexico.

"I called him 'the human engineer' — he loved that description — and that's what he did best," said Dave Tomblin, a Los Angeles Council board member who was a young Eagle Scout when Claerhout recruited him onto the Scouts' local governing body.

Tomblin said his sudden rise into a world populated by powerful executives was daunting, especially when his mentor pointedly told him he was on his own. Behind the scenes, though, Claerhout silently smoothed the way for his newest board member.

"Later, he told me that if he'd coddled me, I never would have gone out and networked, and become a real part of the board," Tomblin said.

Some of the money Claerhout raised through his high-level networking helped youngsters in struggling areas that the Scouts had long overlooked. At least 60% of the children in Claerhout's territory, which included inner-city Los Angeles and the industrial suburbs to its east, were from families in poverty. Many were living without the fathers who traditionally served as Scouting volunteers.

Despite his initial skepticism, Claerhout became a big booster of In-School Scouting, a coed program run in conjunction with Girl Scout and Camp Fire organizations. Many students wore kerchiefs, though not full uniforms, and volunteers, often college students, ran discussions about skills like setting a table, planning a party, and staying safe on neighborhood streets.

Previous efforts at organizing in poor areas had flopped, Claerhout once said, echoing the sour words of a school principal who told him: "The do-gooders will be here soon — the Y, Camp Fire, Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts — making all sorts of promises and the children will be excited and nothing will happen."

In Claerhout's Los Angeles years, some 18,000 students, including many girls, were drawn to In-School Scouting and other unconventional programs he advanced.

Born in Toledo, Ohio, on March 16, 1929, Claerhout became an Eagle Scout in the 1940s. After graduating from the University of Toledo, he held his first job with the Boy Scouts in 1951 and rose within the hierarchy to chief of national operations before taking the top job in Los Angeles.

He retired from the Boy Scouts organization in 1987, becoming president of the Hugh O'Brian Youth Foundation, a nonprofit group founded by the actor best known as TV's Wyatt Earp.

Claerhout's wife, Carolyn Anne, died in 1994.

In addition to his son Kevyn, his survivors include daughter Vicki Claerhout, 10 grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren.

steve.chawkins@latimes.com