Bill Hill, will be inducted into the 4-H Hall of Fame next month
Everyone’s heard of the Football Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and others like those, but I doubt that anyone outside of the agriculture business or the 4-H organization has heard of the 4-H Hall of Fame. Unlike inductees into those other halls of fame, the people inducted into the 4-H Hall of Fame aren’t famous. However, these folks are the unsung heroes who have given outstanding service to the 4-H youth of their region. They devote hours of their time, including weekends, to guiding and teaching our young people. These 4-H agents do everything from organizing livestock shows at the state and county fairs; camping out with the young people, and mentoring them; to teaching them how to fish, sew and cook; and a myriad of other skills.
Bill Hill is one of these people. On August 3rd, Hill, along with just four others, will be inducted into the Florida 4-H Hall of Fame at a ceremony at the University of Florida. He is highly respected and loved by many people in Hernando County, where he spent thirteen years as a 4-H Agent.
4-H is the country’s largest youth development organization for young people ages five to eighteen. The Florida 4-H Youth Development Program uses a learn-by-doing approach and caring adults to help youth gain the knowledge and life skills they need to be productive, responsible citizens.
Many people associate 4-H with youngsters raising animals and showing them at fairs, but there is much more to it. The 4-H logo is a 4-leaf clover with an H on each petal. Those stand for Head, Heart, Hands, and Health. They are the four values members develop through fun and engaging programs. The 4-H members even recite a pledge: “I pledge my Head to clearer thinking; My Heart to greater loyalty; My Hands to larger service; and My Health to better living, for my club, my community, my country, and my world.”
Hill didn’t grow up on a farm or ranch. However, his father was a leader in New Farmers of America, a precursor to Future Farmers of America (FFA), a school-based counterpart of 4-H. Hill was a member of FFA and learned gardening, public speaking, and even tractor driving, among many other skills. He graduated from college with a degree in Animal Science and went to work in the restaurant business in Lake County.
It was Bill’s wife, Elnora, who urged him to use his degree, so he got a job as an agricultural technician testing irrigation systems. Then he started volunteering with 4-H and later started a 4-H club in his community. Eighteen months later, he applied for a job as a 4-H agent in Citrus. He was one of two candidates chosen for an interview. When he didn’t hear back for several weeks, Bill called someone higher up the chain to see what was going on.
The gentleman apologized and said he didn’t get the job because “there was no way they were going to make a black man a livestock agent during an election year.” However, the gentleman told him, “Give me six months, and I’ll find a position for you somewhere.” Three weeks later, he called Bill and asked him if he could go to Hernando County and meet with Al Dawson, the agricultural extension director. Bill Hill had a job.
That was in 1983. Bill began by driving all over the county, learning about the area, and meeting people. He worked under Alice Ayers, the 4-H agent at the time. Bill would drive to school bus stops, talk to parents about 4-H and recruit children, especially those from the Black community, for the program. He also worked hard to recruit leaders.
He was instrumental in changing the local 4-H club from basically just the kids raising steers to a wide variety of programs, such as sports fishing and rifle/shotgun shooting. “We made sure that any kid could participate, even the kids that couldn’t afford the steers. We raised money to make sure we had funds to send kids different places,” Bill remarks.
It wasn’t easy for him to fit in or be accepted by the Hernando County community at large. When he first got here, he was told that Hernando County wasn’t ready for a Black 4-H agent. His comment was, “You might as well be ready because I’m here, and I’m not going to leave.”
Rick Ahrens, who came to the area from Upstate New York, was an FFA advisor and agriculture teacher at Hernando High School. He recalls an incident that depicts this prejudice.
“Bill and I were sitting in the Hernando County Cattleman’s Association kitchen at the fair with the Home Economics teacher, Helen Fleming, discussing some business. One of the old-time cattlemen came up to them and said, ‘This is a hell of a thing, our agricultural youth in Hernando County is entrusted to a Black man, a woman, and a damn Yankee.’ And he wasn’t joking.”
Bill gradually won everyone over. In fact, later on, he was invited to join the Cattleman’s Association.
Rick continues, “4-H had a lot to do with the success of the FFA at my school. For twenty years, we were one of the top ten chapters in the nation.”
Be sure and check next week’s paper for my follow-up article in which I discuss more of Bill’s achievements and contribution to the Hernando 4-H program, along with interviews with some of his co-workers and students discussing the impact that Bill had on their lives.
In Hernando County, the 4-H is under the auspices of the University of Florida Extension Services. The office is located at 16110 Aviation Loop Drive, just west of the post office. The phone number is 352-540-6229. To find out more about 4-H in general and the local program in particular, go to: https://sfyl.ifas.ufl.edu/hernando/4-h-youth-development/