COLLEGE STATION, Texas – Chester Fehlis, who has devoted his entire 35-year career to Texas Cooperative Extension, plans to retire as the state agency's director on Aug. 31.
Dr. Fehlis, who has led the day-to-day operation of Extension since 1998, made his retirement plans known to the Texas A&M University System Board of Regents on Friday.
"Chester Fehlis has made Extension his life's work, and many Texans are the better for it," said Erle Nye of Dallas, the vice chairman of the regents board. "He completed 35 years of exemplary public service, and he will certainly be missed."
"Chester has been an outstanding leader for Extension and a trusted adviser and friend to me," said Ed Hiler, vice chancellor of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Texas A&M. "He is a visionary who has positioned Extension to serve wider audiences with higher levels of excellence. He is not only a great leader, but also a great team player."
Fehlis, 56, last year led the agency through a major restructuring that sought to streamline the organization and place more emphasis on educational program development at the local and regional levels. He provided leadership for the development of Extension programs in urban areas, expansion of 4-H and youth programs, and creation of the Texas Community Futures Forums, grassroots meetings of citizens in each of Texas' 254 counties to help identify community education needs.
Fehlis also led the effort to change the agency's name from Texas Agricultural Extension Service to Texas Cooperative Extension in 2001. The name change better reflects the wider array of educational programs that the agency offers to all Texans, urban as well as rural. He improved performance appraisal, promotion and professional development systems for Extension agents, and increased base salaries for better recruitment and retention of high-caliber educators.
In addition, Fehlis has been a leader within the national Cooperative Extension System. Since 1998, he has served on the national Extension Committee on Organization and Policy, chairing the panel during 2002-03.
He was promoted from deputy director to director of the agency in 2002. Since 1998, he has also served as associate vice chancellor for the Texas A&M Agriculture Program.
Fehlis said he is retiring with mixed emotions, saddened to be leaving the "best job in the best agency" in the Texas A&M System.
"I also feel a deep sense of pride in that I will leave Texas Cooperative Extension knowing that it is the most significant and effective outreach educational agency in Texas, among the most respected programs in the nation, and that even with a 90-year history of thousands of successes, they represent only a fraction of the potential opportunities that lie in the future of this agency."
Extension offers research-based educational programs to help meet community needs in every Texas county. The agency extends its educational efforts through a 900-member faculty and a network of 150,000 volunteers; it reaches more than 1 million youngsters with its 4-H program each year.
A native of Beeville, Fehlis earned three degrees from Texas A&M University: a bachelor’s in animal science in 1969, a master’s in agricultural education in 1977, and a doctorate in agricultural education in 1987.
He worked his way up through the ranks of the agency, starting as an assistant agricultural agent in Jackson County in 1969. He also served as agricultural agent in Willacy County before moving on to a similar position in Victoria County, where he served from 1975 to 1982. He directed the South Central Extension district based in Bryan for five years until 1988, when he moved to the state Extension headquarters on the Texas A&M University campus for a series of executive positions with increasing responsibilities.
Fehlis has been honored with numerous top awards, including the Distinguished Achievement Award given in 2003 by the Texas A&M University Association of Former Students, the national Diversity Award given to the agency by units of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2001, and the national Visionary Leadership Award, given by Epsilon Sigma Phi in 2000.
Fehlis said he plans to remain in College Station after retirement where he will assist in the transition of leadership for a new Extension director and the new vice chancellor for agriculture and continue to be active with several national Extension assignments. He also hopes to spend time fishing, hunting and on the golf course.
Fehlis has a wife, Jan, and three grown children and one granddaughter.
Dave Mayes is a writer for Texas A&M University.