Dig into the background of just about anyone involved in the agricultural industry and chances are pretty good you'll find that 4-H played a crucial role in developing their leadership skills and a sense of responsibility.

Not that all 4-H members end up in agricultural careers; many become bankers, lawyers, doctors, legislators, teachers and toil in as many other fields as there are needs for dependable employees.

R.N. Hopper, a past president of the Texas 4-H program, took a fairly traditional route from 4-H to his chosen career. After graduating from Texas Tech University in Lubbock, he's back on the family farm in Petersburg, working with his father raising cotton and cattle.

Hopper says the 4-H experience takes on a different perspective the older he gets. (He's at the ripe old age of 24.)

“I guess it was more difficult back then to appreciate what I was learning,” he says. “I know that discovering how to win and lose graciously was extremely important. Regardless of the outcome, we learned to keep on working. The magic is just being a part of the competition.”

Hopper started in 4-H as a fourth grader and stuck with it through high school. He was state president his senior year, an experience he says allowed him to travel and meet people from all over the country. “I also realized that the strength of the organization comes from the local level and moves up instead of from the state down.

“I'm convinced that some of the success I've had and some of the ambition comes from being involved in 4-H. I initially got into it because my dad had been in 4-H and I wanted to be like him,” he says.

Hopper also believes that giving back to the organization helps provide the continuity that has made the program a significant factor in rural and now urban youth service for 100 years. “Mentoring is a big part of 4-H,” he says.

He worked with livestock, cotton, food and nutrition programs.

“The rural program has been around for years and will remain a focal point for 4-H,” he says. “But it's also growing in urban areas and has much to teach people at any age and in any location.”

Participation in 4-H has taken Stephanie Crowson from Jack County, Texas, to Fossil Rim near Glen Rose, to Texas A&M for a wildlife and fisheries degree, to Botswana and finally to her career as a supervisor at the Texas Wild area of the Fort Worth Zoo.

“The organization has gotten me to where I am today,” Crowson says. “I went to Texas A&M on a 4-H scholarship from the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. I did an internship at Fossil Rim, and I spent six months in Botswana, which helped narrow my interest for a career.”

The Botswana trip was through the International Four-H Youth Exchange (IFYE) program. “IFYE sends ambassadors, from 19 to 30 years old, to other countries in a cultural exchange for peace,” Crowson explains. “A scholarship made that possible, too.”

She has always been interested in animals. “I grew up on a ranch and showed livestock through 4-H,” she says. “All my family was involved in 4-H and my mom was a volunteer leader who worked with wildlife projects. That got me hooked. I've always been interested in animals, especially exotics.”

She now works with white-tailed deer, otters, bears and cougars and will not admit to ever being bitten.

Colleen Parr, a managing supervisor with Fleishman-Hillard Public Relations in Kansas City, says 4-H played a significant role in her life.

“At 28, I look back on those experiences and realize they shaped the core of my personality and character and ultimately led to my career in agricultural communications,” she says.

She started early. At age 8 she took care of two Simmental show heifers on the Mason County, Ill., farm where she grew up. “I was barely big enough to carry the feed bucket and training a 1,500 pound animal was a bit daunting at times, but it was my first true lesson in responsibility,” she says. “By the time I turned 18, I owned my own purebred cow/calf operation and had earned enough money to pay for most of my college education.”

She says most 4-H members would agree that the basic values they learn through the organization include:

Work ethic/responsibility: “I learned early that you get out of things what you put into them. A winning animal took more than a year's work, not just a few hours before a show.”

Leadership: “Participation in 4-H gave me an opportunity to craft leadership skills by providing good role models and offering experiences in directing an organization as I grew.”

Communications skills: “Through participation in public speaking competitions and giving oral reasons in judging contests, 4-H helped me to shape my opinions, make quick, accurate decisions and learn to communicate clearly and concisely. These skills helped me become a successful counselor for the world's largest public relations firm.”

Relationships: “I formed relationships with today's agricultural leaders. These friendships and contacts continue to serve me in professional endeavors. The kids I competed with are now executives in leading companies and organizations, editors at publications and the newest generation of academia.”

Jennifer Roberson, a Texas A&M student from Vernon, Texas, joined 4-H as a third-grader and didn't realize how life- changing the experience would be. Leadership skills she learned from 4-H helped her make a difference after Sept. 11 and led her to New York City.

Roberson worked with the Red, White and Blue committee at A&M, raising about $180,000 for the rescue workers' funds in New York City. She was also traveled to New York in November to present checks to two charitable organizations - $90,000 each to the Patrolman's' Benevolent Association Widows and Children's Fund, and the Uniformed Firefighters Association's Widows and Children's Fund.

Roberson learned leadership in 4-H on the county and district levels, and in 1999, as a member of the state council. In the summer of 2000, she worked at the Texas 4-H Center in Brownwood and has served as a leader/mentor for younger 4-Hers in her area.

All that leadership was needed in the wake of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11. Like many others, Roberson wanted to do something to support both the victims of the attack and the rescue workers.

The fund-raising project included printing T-shirts, which they sold for $5 each. The committee raised thousands of dollars in support of those directly affected by Sept. 11. “People just wanted to help and didn't know what to do. We provided an outlet for A&M. I feel like we helped in a small way.”

Secretary of Agriculture Anne Veneman says 4-H provided her first opportunities at public speaking. “As a member of the Empire 4-H Club, in California, I worked with cooking, sewing and horse projects, but the most memorable experience was getting up in front of people to speak and to learn how to get comfortable doing that.”

Veneman discussed her 4-H experience and her vision for the future of the organization during a recent press conference honoring the 4-H Centennial in Washington. “We celebrate the value of 4-H,” she says.

Also on the program was Orion Samuelson, a nationally known farm broadcaster and former 4-H member who credits the organization with pointing him toward a career. “That public speaking experience got me started,” he says.

“This is a leadership building organization and provides young people with goals and opportunities to achieve those goals.”

rsmith@primediabusiness.com