Getting $10,000 from selling 24 head of Santa Gertrudis cattle set Sen. Bill Nelson’s career in motion.
The year was 1960, and the money from raising the purebred herd through the local 4-H—one of the largest youth development organizations in the world—financed Nelson’s college education. Now a Democratic senator from Florida, his posts as treasurer, vice president and president of the state 4-H Council also helped to prepare him for his entrée into public life.
Nearly 50 years later, the organization that set him on his way recently honored him as a 2009 inductee into the National 4-H Hall of Fame for working throughout his career to help young people become involved in public service and community outreach.
“Florida 4-H provided me with an early training in government and politics,” said Nelson, 67, at the awards ceremony. He added that his 4-H experiences “had a tremendous impact on my life and greatly inspired me to develop my leadership skills and become personally involved in our government.”
The Florida Democrat and former space shuttle Columbia astronaut was also praised at the 4-H ceremonies just outside Washington for dedicating 30 years to public service. Nelson served in the Florida legislature and in other state positions before he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2000. Throughout his career, he remained involved with the 4-H mission.
An acronym for Head, Heart, Hands and Health, 4-H launched at the start of the 20th century to help rural youth become better educated in farming and other issues. In the 1950s, the program expanded into urban areas and focused more on youth development and civic responsibility.
Marilyn Norman, state leader for the Florida 4-H program, called Nelson “an excellent role model for all 4-H youth.” She says he’s being inducted into the Hall of Fame the same year Florida celebrates the 100th anniversary of the 4-H program.
Nelson was one of 15 people inducted, along with Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., a cochair of the 4-H Senate Caucus. He was honored for being a “true leader” who has passion and conviction for the nation’s youth.
Chambliss, 65, was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1994 and then to the Senate in 2002. He said that speaking on behalf of 4-H issues helped him in his role as a lawmaker.
About his first public speaking opportunity at a local 4-H meeting, Chambliss said: “I … gave a speech that I know began me on a 4-H career that helped me prepare for the U.S. Senate.”
This year’s other 4-H Hall of Fame recipients honored for their local and national leadership:
• Ella Graham Agnew, honored posthumously for helping rural girls and women to become more independent;
• Chester Black, a former 4-H leader in North Carolina who helped to expand 4-H youth development into cities and towns;
• Janet Blanchard, wife of former Michigan Gov. James Blanchard, who contributed to the success of a campaign that raised more than $10 million to support youth development in that state;
• Tom Davison of Texas, a former executive director of the state 4-H Foundation, which developed scholarship and other programs, and helped to support youth development and volunteer training;
• Barbara Hatfield of Oklahoma, who focused on building partnerships between young people and adults;
• Joe Hughes of Oklahoma, honored posthumously for encouraging ethical behavior among youth and quality care for youth livestock project animals;
• Fern Shipley Kelley of Washington, D.C., honored posthumously for her work in improving youth literacy and for making youth more aware of healthy living;
• Jim Kemp, who led Minneapolis to become a model for after-school and summer programs;
• Rhonwyn Lowry, honored posthumously for her role in special projects, including directing Georgia’s first People to People goodwill mission;
• Jack Odle, publisher of the Progressive Farmer in Birmingham, Ala., who was praised for dedicating his life to youth and agriculture;
• A. Lois Redman of Kansas, who promoted international youth exchange programs between Japanese students and American families;
• Tom Scott, honored posthumously for helping to establish scholarships for high school seniors in Louisiana, Arkansas and Mississippi;
• William Stevens, who helped to establish Minnesota’s shooting sports training programs, which teach young people about the safe and responsible use of firearms.
Carole Fleck is a senior editor at the AARP Bulletin.