Longtime 4-H volunteer still preaches ‘learn by doing’


PORTERSVILLE, Pa. – After more than six decades of 4-H involvement, 77-year-old Marge McElwain-Miller has finally called it quits.
She is not giving up on the 4-H program, just passing it to the next generation of volunteers.
McElwain-Miller started clubs and pioneered activities across Lawrence County, Pa.
She started the first bowling club and walking-on-stilts club in Pennsylvania, started a Lawrence County organizational night, and got the county involved in a Japanese exchange program.
Childhood. As one of nine children growing up on a 175-acre farm in Beaver Falls, Pa., McElwain-Miller joined 4-H as soon as she could.
From childhood, she was taught to “learn by doing”, the central theme of 4-H, and has passed that message along to thousands of 4-H’ers.
“We weren’t home schooled,” she said. “It was better than home school.”
She learned more at home by helping her mother than she ever did at school, she said.
At 10, she started attending meetings with her older siblings, took sewing projects and raised market hogs.
At 16, she volunteered as a 4-H helper and, at 18, she became a junior leader.
She attended Eastbrook camp, a former 4-H camp located near Eastbrook, Pa., for many years as a camper, then as camp counselor and, finally, as director.
Darn sock. Her favorite memory of her own 4-H days was when she was 11 and she won the prize for darning a sock.
Her mother had bought yarn that matched the sock perfectly, she said, and that helped her win.
After winning the county competition, she went on to place third in Harrisburg, a regional contest.
When she thinks back on her life, so many of her memories surround 4-H, like that “darn sock.”
“4-H has been my life,” she said.
Diaries. Since the 1940s when McElwain-Miller graduated from high school, she’s recorded all of her 4-H memories and daily activities.
Every day, she writes in a diary about her life, the good and the bad. She has recorded history through her eyes for nearly six decades. The pages are filled with 4-H entries.
Farm life. Marge was a homemaker and helped her husband around the farm, driving tractor, baling, canning and anything else that needed done.
Her first husband, Carl McElwain, died in 2000. She and Clair Miller, her husband of three years, don’t do any farming now but stay busy in their vegetable garden.
Club life. McElwain-Miller has been the leader of 14 clubs, some of which have lasted for more than 30 years.
Some of her most memorable were the baby care, walking on stilts, bowling, roller skating, maple syrup making and outdoor cooking clubs.
“Everybody doesn’t have the money for horses or steers,” she said.
McElwain-Miller gave youth the opportunity to have fun and learn at a minimal cost. She tried to start fun projects that would interest more youth.
She started an organizational night in Lawrence County so all the youth in the county could learn about the different clubs and pick the ones they wanted to join.
Starting clubs. For 30 years, she taught her philosophies to the bowling club.
“Bowling was my big thing,” she said.
In June 1974, she started the first and only bowling club in Pennsylvania.
Members would meet Thursday nights, and for a half hour between bowling she would teach them about 4-H, the pledge, mottos, and colors.
There are almost 100 4-H’ers in the bowling club.
Her first husband, Carl, was a 4-H leader with her in the bowling club for 25 years.
She has now passed it on to other leaders and is happy to see it still thriving.
When her daughter Julie was three months old, McElwain-Miller started a baby care club. Eight 12-year-old girls would come over to her house and she would show them how to take care of a baby, change diapers, burp, feed, and hold Julie.
Like her parents taught her, she taught the girls to learn by doing.
Memories. The walking on stilts club was another one of McElwain-Miller’s favorites.
Its seed grew from a family trip to Florida when her daughter saw someone walking on stilts, and wanted to try it.
Her brother-in-law made and repaired stilts for the club. They would learn tricks on the stilts, such as how to jump rope, and club members would walk in parades, entertain at nursing homes and other gatherings.
“We brought back a lost art,” she said.
Japanese exchange. She also pushed for Lawrence County to participate in a Japanese exchange program, where youth would come over to America for a month and participate in activities the 4-H family was involved in.
Her family hosted Japanese children and taught them about their culture for a couple of summers and daughter Julie traveled to Japan through the exchange program.
Hall of Fame. McElwain-Miller is the first and currently the only inductee into the Lawrence County 4-H Hall of Fame, although she had no idea she was going to receive the award when it was presented earlier this year.
McElwain-Miller is honored by the induction into the hall of fame, but said the best reward is watching the 4-H’ers she taught become leaders themselves.
“I enjoy watching them become mothers and fathers and leaders,” McElwain-Miller said. It shows that 4-H was important to them and they want to help others have the same learning experiences.
Changing times. Lots of things are changing, she said, and like all things, 4-H is running its course.
“I think 4-H has seen its best days,” she said.
“4-H was our big out; now kids have so many other activities to get involved in they don’t have time for 4-H, and volunteers are harder to find,” she said.
Marge enjoyed working with the youth and they treated her with respect.
“I tried to stay back and let the kids shine,” she said. “They are the ones that had to learn by doing.”
(Editorial intern Katy Wuthrick can be reached at 1-800-837-3419 or kwuthrick@farmanddairy.com.)


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