A lifetime connection: Woman inducted into National 4-H Hall of Fame
DELAVAN—Mary Kaye Merwin still owns the white confirmation dress she sewed as a 4-H project in the mid-1950s.
The neatly sewn dress is a nostalgic reminder of how the Delavan woman got her start in 4-H and how far she has come since then.
On Friday, Oct. 6, Merwin was inducted into the National 4-H Hall of Fame during a ceremony in Chevy Chase, Maryland.
She received the prestigious honor for a lifetime of achievement and contributions to 4-H and joins only a handful of others from Wisconsin to get the recognition.
“It is very humbling,” said Merwin, a well-spoken advocate for 4-H and young people, even in retirement.
Merwin believes 4-H is even more important today than when she first was a member more than 65 years ago.
“Young people need the support of caring adults and peers,” Merwin said. “In 4-H, they learn by doing. The philosophy is essential for young people to find their places in life.”
During her 38-year career, Merwin held various leadership positions in 4-H, both locally and on the state level.
In one of those positions, the 75-year-old pioneered the way for other women. In another, she brought together black and white children shortly after civil rights legislation became law in the 1960s.
LONGTIME 4-H CONNECTION
Like so many rural young people in the 1950s, Merwin joined 4-H at age 9.
As a member of the Linn 4-H Club, the oldest 4-H club in Wisconsin, the shy, soft-spoken Merwin learned life skills and how to work with others.
Her father had been a member of Linn 4-H before her, and later her nephews joined the group.
After college, Merwin began her career with Cooperative Extension in Waukesha County.
In 1967, she became the first female county 4-H agent in the state when she was hired for the job in Rock County. Merwin expanded the county's strong 4-H program to urban areas, forming four new city 4-H clubs.
Linda Funk was in the youth program during Merwin's Rock County tenure.
“She made a difference in our lives,” Funk said. “She was engaged, and she provided opportunity.”
Funk, who is president of the Wisconsin 4-H Foundation, called Merwin a force to be reckoned with.
“We appreciate her perspective, interest and expertise,” Funk said. “I can see why she is getting a national award.”
Funk also praises Merwin's continued involvement in 4-H as a board member of the Wisconsin 4-H Foundation.
In 1973, Merwin left Wisconsin to take a job as the first Texas 4-H area specialist and district home economics supervisor. She was responsible for covering 40 counties in two districts, which included 85 percent of the state's black population.
Prior to the passage of civil rights legislation, all of the counties had two Extension Services. The focus of Merwin's work was to bring together staff and 4-Hers from both programs.
“The first thing I learned is the Civil War never ended,” Merwin said. “When I arrived, the challenge was to integrate the 4-H program. It was the first time all the kids went to camp together or did any county activities together.”
She called her work “a challenge in changing long-term attitudes and beliefs” and “probably the most challenging time I had.”
Her purpose also was “to help young people see beyond the tall pine trees of eastern Texas.”
In 1978, Merwin took a job as director of programs with the National 4-H Council in Maryland.
Nine years later, she became executive director of Nassau County Cornell Cooperative Extension in New York until 2001.
RETURN TO WALWORTH COUNTY
When Merwin retired, she moved back to Wisconsin and now lives only a few miles from the family farm where she grew up.
“I wanted to be closer to the family,” Merwin said. “Delavan was a good choice. It was not hard to get back in the groove of Midwest living.”
Her home is only a few blocks from Ginny Hall, whom Merwin calls one of the most influential people in her life.
Hall came to Walworth County as an Extension agent in 1962.
“I admired her enthusiasm and tenacity,” Merwin said. “She has been a real role model for me.”
Hall remembers the first time she met Merwin.
“Mary Kaye was in her last year of 4-H,” Hall said. “She was a very helpful person. Soon her family became a part of my family.”
Merwin believes that leadership and learning are lifelong responsibilities.
Today, she remains as busy as ever with a number of activities, including humanitarian efforts at her church, working with the Walworth County Arts Council and as a citizen member of the Walworth County UW Extension Ag & Extension Committee.
“This is a time in my life when I can make up for what I couldn't do when I was full-time employed,” Merwin said. “Now I can pay it forward to the next generation.”
Anna Marie Lux is a Sunday columnist for The Gazette. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264, or email email@example.com.