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Leading 4-H

Mildred Fizer

Questions by Jake Stump
PHOTOGRAPHED BY SCOTT LITUCHY

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Wherever you go in the state, 4-H and the West Virginia University Extension Service are ingrained in the fabric of our communities. This year, Extension is celebrating a milestone — 100 Years of 4-H Camping. Possibly no one knows more about 4-H and WVU Extension than 93-year-old Mildred Fizer. The Culloden, W.Va., native began her WVU Extension career as a Cabell County 4-H agent in 1946, after a stint as a schoolteacher and graduating with an elementary education degree from Marshall University. (“I went to Marshall. You don’t say that very loud around here.”) Fizer rose through the ranks over the next two decades, and in 1966, she made history. She became the first woman in the nation to direct a state 4-H program. She retired in 1978 and lives in Morgantown.

What was 4-H like back in the 1940s?

Its purpose was the same. But there weren’t as many available projects. Now there are more than 100. The girls mostly did clothing and food projects. There were also a lot of boys and girls who did electric projects, making lamps and extension cords. Others did gardening.

You’re known for being the first woman in the nation to direct a state 4-H program. Tell us about that experience. 

Well, I broke the mold. Some woman had to do it.

That was 1966. Long overdue, don’t you think?

Traditions don’t change easily. There wasn’t anything wrong with men doing the job. But when [former state 4-H leader] C.P. Dorsey retired, the opportunity arose. I turned it down at first because I knew no woman had ever done it. But I was persuaded, and I’m glad I changed my mind.

I remember my first national meeting of state 4-H leaders. The man in charge said, ‘You‘ll notice we have a woman in our midst. I’d like you to treat her just like you do the other guys.’ That was a good way for him to introduce me.

I didn’t dwell on the fact that I was the first. At other national meetings, women would want to meet with me informally to talk about how I responded to the job and what prospects there were for other women. After I led the way, there were other women who came along very quickly. They saw that it could be done.

Talk about the longevity of 4-H. What keeps it relevant after all these years? 

Having camps and [first statewide 4-H camp in the nation] Jackson’s Mill is a highlight. The camping programs were there when I started and now it’s still a major force.

Mostly, the objective is on the child. That has kept 4-H strong after all these years. There was an early 4-H leader named William “Teepi” Kendrick. He once said, “It’s not the pig but the boy that’s the emphasis.” That mindset has followed all the way through today. They put emphasis on the children rather than the projects.

How is 4-H crucial in the development of youth? How do those skillsets benefit them? 

It gets them involved in communities and that follows them through life. If you go down to the state Legislature, you’ll find a lot of 4-H alums among its members. Not only in the Legislature but in important roles across the state.

For me, 4-H has been very important in my life and personal development. I enjoyed the benefits of learning from my associates in Extension, such as the value of taking interest in other people. That’s the kind of thing that’s pushed my development.