BERLIN CENTER, Ohio – Walt Yeager eyes his granddaughter and three other 4-H’ers as they lead project lambs into the grassy barnyard paddock.
The members are mastering the same feeding and leading techniques he taught his own children, and then his grandchildren, and countless other young people two or three or maybe four generations deep who’ve passed through his kitchen, his barn, his club, his heart.
The youngsters head for the back boundaries of the Yeager property, five sheep in tow.
It’s almost fair time.
* * *
Walt Yeager has been a 4-H’er since he was 9 years old. That’s been 74 years, longer than the lives of most every other 4-H adviser around.
That longevity has earned him the unofficial title of Oldest 4-H’er in Mahoning County, but it didn’t come easily.
There used to be a competition of sorts, an easy-going debate between Walt and the late Darrel Bacon, over who had been an adviser the longest.
For decades, both men were fixtures around the coliseum before and during and after fair week. They worked on the fair board and with club members and on sale committees.
Early recordkeeping was sketchy; neither man had much proof when he started, other than his memory, Walt says.
But Darrel was a few years older and naturally had an extra year of advising on Walt.
“I was sad to see him go [in 2001] but then I caught up with him, and now I’m up two years,” Walt says.
* * *
When summertime rolls around each year, Walt gets that fairtime buzz in his system.
The 4-H members come and go all day long. Parents and boyfriends and big sisters drive them from town to the Yeager farm, where Walt and his wife, Doris, have let members raise livestock as long as they can remember.
There’s no reason a child shouldn’t have a lamb or a hog just because their parents choose to live in town, they say.
The kids come for breakfast and lunch and dinner and plot growing and showing strategy over cereal or sandwiches at the dining room table.
After the summer days cool into evening, Yeager guides his wheelchair into the back yard to offer advice to club members, keeping a close eye on each step and movement the child – or the lamb – makes.
He leaves a little piece of his know-how with every member along the way.
* * *
Walt’s father pushed him to join the Ellsworth Junior Farmers when he was 9, hoping to get the boy some experience with sheep. That eventually led to a Montadale and Corriedale flock that at one time traveled to 11 fairs in a single summer and was known all across Ohio.
But the Canfield Fair has always been home, even with the show and exhibitor changes over the years.
“We didn’t use to show like we do now,” Walt explains, recounting stories from showing alongside and against friends Lee and Mary Liming from Lou-Ida Farm.
“There was none of this fancy trimming. You just took the sheep out of the [barn]lot and trained them enough to be able to hold onto them and that was it. We didn’t even wash them. We just showed them.”
“And we had a good time.”
* * *
It takes a certain sort of person to be a 4-H adviser, and a very special one to stick with it for so long.
Oftentimes an adviser starts out as a club member and quickly finds himself too old to enroll another year. Still wanting to learn and teach more, they sign on to advise the club.
That’s how it happened for Walt.
He was a club member for 11 years and stepped up to lead the club the last two when his regular adviser went off to the military. He knew without some type of leadership his club might fall apart, and he wasn’t going to let that happen.
Over the years, the club has grown and split several times, Walt says.
One time a group of members with equine interests broke away to form the Western Reserve Rangers – today one of the biggest and most diverse clubs in the county – and another group broke away to form another farm livestock club. That one, he says, was the basis for today’s countywide market livestock club.
The Farmers, and Walt, parented several clubs over the decades. And they’re all still around today, Walt says with pride.
* * *
After Walt and Doris married nearly 62 years ago, he got her involved in advising and showing, too.
The two of them, along with their own five children, were known for trucking neighborhood kids and sheep to Columbus for the thrill of showing at the state fair. Walt and Doris rode in the truck; the children and sheep rode in the trailer.
“Oh, you’d never do that today,” Doris says.
And there are other things they did back then that are unheard of today, they say.
They used a peach in Walt’s back pocket to lure one peach-loving lamb from the show barns to the Canfield Fair’s grandstand for a shearing demonstration. Through crowds, the unhaltered lamb never strayed.
They encouraged youngsters to try different projects, to find something that truly excited them and gave them the enthusiasm to learn.
And they taught their children and their club members to do their own projects, not to rely on Mom or Dad to feed or shear or lead for them.
They continue that today: Members gathered at the farm in late July to get real hands-on experience, to get a feel for exhibition in a makeshift showring and get comfortable with using electric clippers.
For some of them – and their parents, too – it was a first. But Walt’s son, Walt Jr., and grandchildren Jacob and Monica, pushed even the rookies to try.
All the while, Walt sat nearby, offering advice and watching intently as his years of expertise passed down the line.
* * *
Walt’s excited for his 83rd fair later this month, itching with the anticipation that comes with seeing his grandchildren and other club members show.
He’s not as young as he used to be, he says. He’s slowing down. But if Doris gets him onto the grounds to see the weigh-in and sheep show, he’ll be happy for one more year.
* * *
Walt pulls out his collection of 4-H awards and mementos, bringing some from shelves and taking others from their wall hangers.
There’s an Ohio 4-H Hall of Fame induction photo, legislative citations for volunteerism, a group photo from when he went to the Club Congress in 1940, a 65-year adviser plaque.
And from a wooden box he pulls a pocketwatch the livestock committee gave him when he retired from his 40-year barn watchman position.
He holds it to his ear. It’s still ticking.
Walt gets a twinkle in his eye.
It’s almost fair time.
(Reporter Andrea Myers welcomes reader feedback by phone at 800-837-3419 or by e-mail at email@example.com.)
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