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SEELEY LAKE - Ryan Richards probably could have sold popcorn to Orville Redenbacher.

In fact, the late guru of popcorn sales would probably have been even more successful if Richards had been on his staff.

In the last six years, the Seeley Lake Elementary School seventh-grader has sold more than $16,000 worth of the popcorn offered annually by the Boy Scouts of America.

But this year, the likable 14-year-old with the engaging smile outdid himself by selling 439 cans of corn to 285 customers with total sales surpassing $5,700.

His troop topped the state's 10,000 Scouts in sales by averaging $1,000. As the top producer for a Scout troop that led the state in average sales, Richards earned an expense-paid trip for four to Disneyland in addition to financial rewards.

"A percentage of the gross sales of each Scout are returned to the troop and to the council to help fund activities and support the program," said John Manz, Mullan Trail District BSA chairman. "His contributions place him in the top rank of adult and youth contributors throughout the state, and the platinum-bordered special issue council shoulder patch he wears proclaims that he is a Scout who gives back to the program so that others may be helped."

While he was hesitant to reveal some important sales strategies, Richards said his customers mostly buy popcorn from him because of their loyalty.

"But the popcorn is really good, I think," he quickly added. "If you start eating it, you can't stop. I like all the popcorn."

Sold yearly by Scouts statewide in tins that range in price from $7 to $30, the popcorn comes in numerous varieties and combinations. A few are best sellers for Richards.

"Chocolate caramel crunch, and gourmet caramel corn with almonds and pecans," he said, "that's usually my No. 1 seller."

Richards attaches a printed and personalized thank you card to each tin before it's delivered.

Often inquiries come in before Richards has even started taking orders. But most sales require more effort. Mike and Lynn Richards truck their son around during nine-hour sales days to achieve his goal - which increases each year. His regular customers welcome his annual sales blitz.

"They're always happy to see me," Richards said.

"They even call and say, 'When are you going to come around with popcorn?' " said Lynn Richards.

Soon to receive his Life Scout and well on his way to achieving his Eagle rank, Richards has claimed a good measure of scouting acclaim.

But the first-aid skills he learned proved to be a life-saver two years ago at basketball practice in the elementary school gymnasium.

Another Scout began choking after getting a piece of candy stuck in his throat during a lay-up drill.

Richards applied the Heimlich maneuver and, after a couple of tries, the candy came free.

"It made me feel good," Richards said with a smile.

For his efforts he received the Boy Scouts of America prestigious Certificate of Merit.

Mike and Lynn, themselves emergency medical technicians, are proud but hardly surprised.

"You can be good at anything if you put in the time to be trained," said Mike Richards. "When you turn it into action, that's when it really counts."

At the Richards home, a log house on the Double Arrow Ranch east of Seeley Lake, scouting is a family affair.

Mike, a former Scout and assistant scoutmaster with Troop 19, followed in the steps of his father, Ron, himself a Star Scout.

Ryan's sister Ronnie, a sophomore at Seeley Lake High School, is a former Girl Scout who along with her mother is trying to start a Venture Crew, a co-ed scouting group for ages 14 to 21.

Besides scouting, Ryan played drum in the Five Valleys honor band and participates in football, basketball and track. He's considering attending a military academy.

Mike Richards, who collects old Scout uniforms, insignia and about anything else Scout-related that he acquires off eBay, said the family's time in scouting has been incredibly worthwhile for Ryan.

"Personally I'm very proud of the work that he's done and the skills that he's learned. To me, they're life skills. I believe he will develop into a very productive and useful part of our community and the state," he said. "He's learned an awful lot about citizenship and patriotism. I think it's taught him a lot about self-confidence and also to be an individual - don't just follow along with the group."

"I think it's just an opportunity a lot of young men don't get to try," he said. "It's fun with a purpose, it really is, and it's a yearlong program."

As for Ryan's popcorn sales, "This pays for everything, his whole scouting year," Lynn Richards said.

A $2,000 college scholarship program also has been set up by the Trails End Popcorn Co. which supplies the popcorn for the program.

Next up for Richards is achieving his Eagle Scout rank. He would be the first Eagle Scout in his third-generation scouting family.

Richards has decided on his Eagle project but must wait for approval before starting on it.

The "Trail of the Eagle" he hopes to construct will consist of six half-log benches along the paved walking trail through the Seeley Lake business district. Each will be adorned with two points of the Scout's Law and a single Boy Scout rank.

"My grandma has a hard time walking so we walk from her house to the ice cream place sometimes and she always has to stop a lot to take a breath," he said. "I thought, looking at it, that it would be nice if there was some place for people to sit down."

Reporter Mick Holien can be reached at 523-5262 or at mholien@missoulian.com

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