It was my freshman year in high school and I was sitting with a group of classmates at the National FFA Convention in Kansas City, Mo.
One of the keynote speakers had just taken the podium and began to address us — as members of a federal flight program, the FAA.
My heart sank, for he didn’t appear to be kidding. There he was, in front of a group of 40,000-plus FFA students and parents and a sea of blue and gold, thinking we were an aviation group — most definitely making a fool of himself.
To his credit, F-F-A are probably three of the most misunderstood letters in the alphabet. It took me a while to understand them, too.
Not the letters, but what they mean.
My sophomore year of high school, I had a difficult choice to make: continue my FFA classes, or replace them with more classes to prepare me for college. Even though I ranked in the top few percent of my class, I did not have the required credits to earn an Honors Diploma — the stamp that many college-bound students wanted.
I was prepared to drop FFA altogether, except for the advice of my guidance counselor, who said she hated to see me give up a program that had become an important part of who I was, and who I was becoming.
She was right, and I’m glad I listened to her.
For me, FFA became a composite of everything I enjoyed — the outdoors, animals and land, helping my grandparents shovel ear corn, and meeting the many faces of agriculture.
I joined the West Holmes chapter my freshman year of high school, and continued through graduation, earning both the Ohio and American degrees.
My adviser the first two years was Keith Nowels, a stern, but kind, man who died three years ago. Nowels was a Vietnam Veteran and from a deep military family. Things were done his way, but ultimately for the good of the group.
Connected to others. I remember the day he handed me my jacket, and how confident I felt when I put it on. Other than my name and chapter, its royal blue sleeves and gold lettering were no different than literally millions of other FFA jackets sewn over the years.
But that’s what I liked — the colors and emblem that connected me to more than 7,000 chapters across the nation, and roughly a half-million other students.
It reminded me of my dad’s jacket, which he wore for West Holmes at least 20 years earlier, and of the jackets worn by members clear back to 1933, when the first was produced in our very own Fredericktown, Ohio.
My projects included beef feeders, structure painting, public speaking and parliamentary procedure. I started my own painting business at 15, and even though I spilled more paint on my clothes than I got on the barns and corn cribs, I eventually figured it out and did fairly well.
One year — the drought of 1998 — I even rented a small, 7-acre field and grew corn. It didn’t grow much taller than my waist and I found out what it’s like to work hard and still lose money.
“That’s farming for you,” my grandfather would say, and he was right.
I liked watching my beef steers line up at the feed trough — their long, gritty tongues reaching out to me as I tossed them their feed. I learned how to care for them, how to select good calves and how to make money.
When I think about it, I don’t know if there’s a youth organization that is more American than FFA. It taught me to appreciate the land and its resources, its people and their passions.
You can’t get those things from a class in advanced calculus, molecular chemistry or the host of other classes I could have taken, in place of ag.
I never doubted the importance of academia; I worked my way to graduate magna cum laude at Ashland University. But I nearly doubted the program that has helped me put all that education to work.
It bothers me when I meet someone who thinks FFA is a federal aviation program, or that it is just for farmers, or that it is not truly a science.
I am encouraged by the number of FFA programs in our area, because I know students in those schools are getting an education they will use, no matter their direction.
And I’m grateful to the FFA, for providing me a deeper appreciation for American agriculture — its people, its products and its jobs — and yes, even my own career.
(Reporter Chris Kick can be reached at 330-403-9477, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.)