ENON VALLEY, Pa. — For the first time in more than 40 years, Howard Leslie won’t be returning to the classroom in the fall. While, he could be riding around in a golf cart hitting golf balls, he has a distinctly different approach to taking it easy. He is spending his summer milking cows.
After spending 39 and half years as the vo-ag teacher at Blackhawk School District, Howard is retiring because the vo-ag program and FFA has been discontinued due to budget cuts.
The program had been on the chopping block in the past, but Leslie thought it would come through again. However, the budget deficit was just too much to overcome this time.
Leslie started teaching agriculture in January 1973 and estimates he’s taught more than 3,000 students since then, including two generations in some families.
Teaching was more than a job to him — it was a passion to share life skills and to provide students with the knowledge they needed to survive in the world beyond what they could learn in books.
“You just hope they learned things that would be practical in life,” Leslie said.
He took his teaching seriously and aimed to help students mature into adults by the time they graduated.
Leslie said the greenhouse at the school building gave him additional opportunities for teaching science lessons and lessons to students on how to present yourself to the public.
He said the one thing he will miss from his teaching days will be the students themselves.
“Seeing their face after they did something they thought they couldn’t, like speaking in public, it’s those type of memories I won’t forget,” said Leslie. “When they realize they did something they never thought they would do, that’s what made the memories for me.”
Lessons learned. Leslie said he also learned lessons from his students. The biggest one was patience.
“Sometimes, you just have to wait and see how things develop. Many times, the students surprised me at how they matured over the four years of high school,” he said.
Beyond the greenhouse, the students also gained knowledge over the years about composting and worms, hydroponics, biodiesel, and raising tilapia.
Leslie said as the world changed, so did the curriculum.
He and wife, Tina, even spent their honeymoon chaperoning a field trip.
Every January, Leslie made the trip to the Pennsylvania Farm Show in Harrisburg with the FFA members.
“We made it there every year,” he said, no matter what amount of snow that was forecasted or actually fell year after year.
Leslie said there is a strong tradition in western Pennsylvania to do well at the Pennsylvania Farm Show and his students worked hard each year to uphold that tradition.
In fact, Blackhawk Local Schools brought eight demonstration championships back home over his tenure.
One of his memorable demonstrations involved a group of students who created a “redneck hot tub.” It utilized heat created from a barrel stove kit and a hot tub made out of a watering trough for cattle.
The demonstrations had to revolve around something agriculture-related, but the students came up with a way to tie agriculture into the idea.
“The students told the judges that it was related to agriculture because the person working on the farm needed time to relax, so that’s how the hot tub would be of use on the farm,” said Leslie.
He added some of the participating schools weren’t happy, but the judges decided the project was worthwhile.
Leslie said that his classroom was blessed with many good youth throughout the years. This year, in fact, two of the honor graduates were FFA members.
“We have a had a lot of good kids come through the program over the years,” said Leslie.
He added students have returned over the years to share their success as members of the Pennsylvania State Assembly, veterinarians, dairy farmers, milk truck drivers and entrepreneurs.
“My hope, year after year, was that I instilled in them how important it was to be a productive member of society. I hope I did that,” said Leslie.
Leslie had grand plans when he graduated from Penn State. He would take the job teaching for a few years and then quit to farm full-time.
He said he can’t believe that “few” turned into almost 40.
In that time period, Leslie built a house from the remnants of the original barn where he first milked on the farm. He and Tina tore down the structure and moved it to its current location.
The couple raised three children, Nathan, 27; Alex, 23 and Sarah, 20. Nathan is a minister and Alex is an agricultural engineer who has returned to the farm. Sarah is in college.
Leslie came from a dairy family and so did his wife. They knew they were going to milk, it was part of who they were and remain today.
Today, they rotationally graze the cattle and seasonally milk the herd.
When asked what Leslie likes about milking, a smile comes across his face.
He quickly responds it is the peace and quiet that can only be found in the barn. He said the sounds of milking just seem peaceful to him.
“It’s a nice switch from the hustle and bustle of the world,” Leslie said.