Twenty years ago, I was a high school kid. I showed cows at the fair. I participated in 4-H. I have fabulous memories of it all. What's more, those memories include one of this year's Master Farmers, smack in the center of much of it. I'm kinda proud of that.
Indeed, my earliest memory of Neil Fearn is of him leaning on the tailgate of his truck on Monday morning of the Edwards County Fair, as the beef superintendent of the open show: "OK boys, let's get this rolling." Every year. For a lot of years.
Recently, I joked with Neil that he'd been on the Fair Board for pretty much forever. In my mind, that's not entirely inaccurate; he's been a board member since I was 2 years old.
Even more, Neil and his wife, Debbie, were leaders of our county's 4-H Senior Federation. Their kids were young back then - the age mine are now - and we used to meet in their living room. It was homey and fun and memorable. It's the kind of community and leadership I wish every young person could experience.
And as I think back on all this, I wonder: do folks like Neil and Debbie have any idea of the impact they have on the young people around them? As you may have read, many of them are involved with young people. In Neil's case, it's 4-H and the fair and his church's youth group.
Do they realize how closely those young people are paying attention? As an adult, I look back at the Fearns and see lives modeled on service. They gave time they probably didn't have - but they made the time. Somehow.
In truth, it's the mark of the Master Farmer; their consistent commitment to a committee or a board or an organization over time is envious and unparalleled. Look through a Master Farmer nomination and you'll see a record of service to particular organizations for 20 and 30 and 40 years. I shouldn't need to say it, but that sort of consistency is uncommon outside agriculture.
Indeed, the farmer's commitment even made it into the Dodge Super Bowl commercial celebrating 2013 as the "Year of the Farmer." Paul Harvey intoned, "God said, 'I need somebody willing to get up before dawn, milk cows, work all day in the fields, milk cows again, eat supper and then go to town and stay past midnight at a meeting of the school board.' So God made a farmer."
Yes. Farmers like Neil Fearn sacrifice time and energy to do a job that (to them) doesn't feel like a sacrifice. And that's saying something, considering fair board service may be one of the most thankless jobs on the planet…second only to serving on the school board during a consolidation vote.
Do they know that, as they're fielding the 482nd question (read: complaint) about cattle stalls or tie outs or grandstand seats or electricity or queen contests, that the young people are paying attention? Even when we as young people didn't realize we were paying attention?
Because here I sit, 20 years later. We've become youth group leaders, and often find gaggles of teenagers gathered around our living room, their (enormous teenage boy shoes) piled at our back door. I serve on our county's 4-H Youth Committee. We coach t-ball and baseball and basketball, and that just scratches the surface.
No one ever told me I should do any of that. Not in so many words, anyway. But that's the way the best example works, isn't it?
Looking back 20 years, I don't remember a particular piece of sage advice or wisdom that Neil said to me, nor do I recall anything about his farm operation or its success.
I remember that he made possible something I enjoyed doing.
I remember that he was there, with a smile on his face.