The story of Delaware’s Mr. Positive and the childhood pain he still carries with him
Editor's note: This story has been updated to add more details about Al Kraft's involvement in Boy Scouts
He was born in 1948 in the West End neighborhood of Louisville, Kentucky, where Jim Crow still reigned and terrorized. He learned to fight in the same boxing gym as a young Cassius Clay. His grandmother taught him how to love. His country sent him to Vietnam to kill. He almost died. He came home to jeers and racism. He drank. He recovered.
He became homeless. He became a businessman. He became a motivational speaker and a chaplain.
He became Mr. Positive.
If the American dream exists, you might be able to find it in the life of Al “Mr. Positive” Kraft. For years, many in the state of Delaware have marveled at how a man with such a past can be so positive – even now during a pandemic.
The Smyrna resident can talk a mile a minute, often going back and forth between an inspirational quote and a self-deprecating joke. His joyful energy draws a crowd at public outings. And over the years, he has often been there for fellow veterans in their darkest moments.
There is a pain that has stayed with Mr. Positive since he was young despite overcoming so much. At age 17, Kraft was denied becoming an Eagle Scout. He had the badges and the work ethic, but he was Black and a local scout troop leader told him he was not allowed. It still makes him cry. It was only recently that he shared this pain publicly.
“That bird, the spiritual concept of it, I just love that eagle,” Kraft said. “There's no more an Eagle Scout could achieve than what I have dealt with.”
Kraft, 73, is among the generations of Black men who faced discrimination and racism in the Scouts. In the decades since, the eagle has become a defining symbol (and obsession) in Kraft’s life.
There are eagle figurines throughout the house he shares with this wife of 30 years. In his voicemail message, he recites Isaiah 40:31 (“Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles ... .”). His blue 1966 Thunderbird has the license plate “ISOAR.” He knows all the best spots to catch a quick glimpse of a bald eagle.
To him, the bird represents freedom. But only recently has he spoken of the pain this love originated from.
“He says he’s not looking for recognition. That’s the one lie he tells,” said longtime friend Frank X. Schwind. “But it’s his fuel in the tank. It keeps him going. He would tell you, no, it doesn’t matter.
“And back in 1965, so long ago, it is surprising that it hangs on. He has gone through so much. To this day, it hurts him. He’s not past it.”
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In the past 20 years, there have been nearly a dozen stories profiling Kraft, his moniker of “Mr. Positive” and his work with veterans and children. Yet none detail his Eagle Scout rejection.
They do all tell a similar story: Kraft served in the Marine Corps for nearly 17 years. He had two tours in Vietnam, experiencing combat in Da Nang. An explosion overturned a Jeep, trapping his leg underneath. He still has trouble walking.
He was treated for post-traumatic stress disorder in 1984, when he spent time in several VA hospitals. After being discharged, he lived on the streets for weeks before moving to the Cecil County Men’s Shelter in Maryland. It was during his period of homelessness when he earned the nickname of “Mr. Positive.”
He was able to get his hands on a hot dog cart and stood for hours outside the Elkton Post Office in Maryland, charming and serving residents. He told each customer to have a “positive day.” Overhearing Kraft at the cart one day, a scientist at W.L. Gore Associates invited him to join him at an upcoming Toastmasters Club meeting.
This kicked off a yearslong relationship with Toastmasters and helped him launch his organization, Positive Eagles Soar. He regularly speaks at schools and became the first African American chaplain for the statewide American Legion.
In recent years, he’s become a major figure in the Delaware veterans community, delivering framed flags to other veterans, fixing wheelchairs and helping many find housing during a crisis.
When Rosely Robinson, the director of A Hero’s Welcome Delaware, needs a favor for a veteran – and needs it quickly – Kraft has become her first call. Over the years, she has watched Kraft become a magnet at veterans events, as groups of people just swarm around him wherever he is.
He’s known to pick up veterans from the emergency room late at night. Or, he’ll walk into a Burger King to be warmly greeted by the staff. One time, an employee gave him a metal cane, knowing Kraft might need it.
It wasn't until this past February that Kraft first started talking openly about how much the Eagle Scout rejection hurt.
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In March, Robinson was on the phone with Kraft, who was helping her find emergency housing for a veteran experiencing homeless. During an aside, she mentioned how she was working with the Boy Scouts.
Kraft became choked up, his words getting caught in his chest. He told her his story and began to cry.
He’s scarred, Robinson remembers thinking. And his connection to eagles finally made sense.
“Having this man give so much of his heart,” she said, “and then being hurt and he never said anything before.”
Kraft has told only a few friends over the years about being denied an Eagle Scout in 1965. He isn’t sure why it has bothered him so much, or even why he hasn’t talked about it. But Mr. Positive has also found he’d rather laugh than cry.
“It hurt me bad,” he said, “but it didn't hurt me that bad to knock me to my knees I couldn't get up.
The pandemic has forced Mr. Positive to stay mostly at home. He’s had ongoing health issues, slowing him down. He spends his time tinkering with electric wheelchairs for veterans and listening to music. One of his favorite songs is Alan Jackson’s “The Older I Get.”
The country crooner begins the song with the words: “The older I get, the more I think.”
Kraft seems to have kept every article written about him, every certificate earned and every award bestowed. In one manila folder, in a stack of documents, there’s a printout of the Boy Scouts of America’s website, outlining Scout Law.
A Scout is trustworthy, it reads.
A Scout is loyal. A Scout is helpful. A Scout is friendly. A Scout is thrifty. A Scout is brave. A Scout is clean. A Scout is reverent. A Scout is courteous. A Scout is kind. A Scout is obedient. A Scout is cheerful.
Contact Meredith Newman at (302) 324-2386 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @MereNewman.