B.J. Allen was devoted to the 4-H youth program throughout his life. His involvement with 4-H began in 1939 in Boyd County, Kentucky, where he was a member of a 4-H club that met in a one-room schoolhouse in Ashland.
Living in rural eastern Kentucky during the Great Depression, Allen’s family did not have electricity until his junior year of high school. But he was never short on enthusiasm. Showing an early entrepreneurial spirit, Allen secured a personal bank loan at age 11 to purchase and raise a Guernsey heifer through the 4-H program. He also raised pole beans and raised poultry. He sold chicks to a hatchery, and worked in dairies near his family’s home to earn money to pay for his 4-H project.
Allen distinguished himself early in his 4-H career with awards at the local, state and national levels. His interest in 4-H continued into adulthood. He graduated from high school in 1947 and Allen’s ambitions were already growing.
“In high school I had an idea of what I’d like to do, extension service or medicine,” said Allen. He worked while in school and started his college education at Georgetown College in Kentucky and then transferred to the University of Florida. He received his bachelor’s degree in 1951. He pursued coursework that led to the awarding of the first Master’s degree at the University of Florida in 1953 in agricultural extension.
4-H was never far from his mind. While in college, Allen worked at 4-H Camp McQuarrie as the camp manager. The camp was used for adult and youth educational programs, and Allen kept the ledger from his days managing the camp for decades as a reminder. At the camp, boys and girls alternated weeks on-site for many years as programming was not always co-educational.
Citrus Institute programs at 4-H Camp McQuarrie and 4-H Camp Cloverleaf taught Florida’s farmers how to nurture the state’s burgeoning citrus crops. Specialists from the University of Florida would conduct training programs for farmers, young people, and industry workers at the camp in beekeeping, citrus, and agricultural practices.
Allen became a 4-H agent in Palm Beach County. He served in the military in counter-intelligence for a period of time, and then returned to 4-H. He joined the state 4-H staff at the University of Florida as an Assistant and Associate.
Allen was one of the most visible professional images of Florida 4-H over a thirty-year period. His professional knowledge and skills combined with a willingness to serve made him a prized and helpful contact for county and staff specialists. He worked with 4-H programs throughout the state, supporting efforts by county extension workers to help young people. District and state 4-H events, awards and recognition programs, Florida 4-H Congress, State 4-H Council, and camping programs all flowed through his office.
They were also challenging years for the 4-H program. Society was changing and so was 4-H. The boys state 4-H staff at the University of Florida was combined with the girls state 4-H staff from Florida State College for Women (now Florida State University). 4-H programs were completely overhauled and in 1964, they pulled completely out of the public school system and converted to a community based club model.
With help from Allen and the rest of the state 4-H staff, county extension agents began training volunteers to run 4-H clubs and rely on extension agents mainly as resources and support. The club and camp programs became co-educational and were racially integrated. The State 4-H Council programs, which had functioned separately for decades, were also combined in 1964. Summer leadership programs at the University of Florida for boys and at Florida State University for girls were also combined in 1964 into what we know today as Florida 4-H Congress.
Like Ruth Milton, Woodrow Brown, and others on the state 4-H staff at the time, Allen found that managing programs during a period of tumultuous change was challenging. But Allen recalled that the guiding principle the staff held onto through it all, was their love for young people. He said, “What got us through it was an attitude - among both the men and the women - that the interests of the boys and girls who were in 4-H, whether they were boys or girls, or black or white - they came first. What we wanted might not always come first.”
4-H’s residential camping programs were also integrated during this time period. Allen remembers going to both 4-H Camps McQuarrie and Doe Lake with Bill Hill to diffuse racial incidents with 4-H campers. Allen remembered, “We would talk to the kids-both black and white. Bill would say look, when you came to camp you became a camper, you are not black or white, you are a camper.”
Because the 4-H program needed additional support, Allen was very involved in the early days of the Florida 4-H Foundation. He raised funds to support 4-H programs and established many of the early donor relationships, some of which are still active today and providing support for 4-H programs for young people. Allen established a $500 endowed scholarship through the Florida 4-H Foundation to assist 4-H agents in programming.
He served as the acting assistant dean for 4-H programs and even coordinated a program for extension agents working with Viet Nam. Allen remained an enthusiastic supporter of 4-H camping programs. 4-H Camp McQuarrie and 4-H Camp Doe Lake fell into disrepair in the late 1960s and required significant maintenance. The Florida 4-H Foundation obtained a 99-year lease from the US Forest Service for 4-H Camp Ocala. “The program makes the camping experience,” said Allen, who remained committed to 4-H camping programs throughout his life.
Even in retirement, Allen remained actively connected with 4-H and extension programs. At the request of the extension administration, he conducted several audits of county level 4-H foundations and prepared follow-up reports.
His work was instrumental in establishing the Florida 4-H Hall of Fame, which he devoted hundreds of hours to. “4-H has been my life. The only part of my life that’s more important to me than 4-H has been my family and church,” said Allen. “The greatest reward has been letters and comments from former 4-H’ers and friends.”
“No one I knew was more concerned about the welfare of our organization and its mission, nor worked harder in support of it,” wrote James Brasher, former associated dean for extension at the University of Florida and fellow Florida 4-H Hall of Fame member.
In a 1985 letter congratulating Allen on his retirement, Brasher wrote “I appreciate you and what you have done for Extension, for 4-H and for literally hundreds of thousands of young people during your service to the Florida 4-H program. Yours has indeed been an outstanding contribution.”
Allen’s work was praised by Doyle Conner, a 4-H alumnus and Florida Secretary of Agriculture. “It has been my distinct personal privilege to be acquainted with you and your work for many years, and I am pleased to say that I know of no one who has been more dedicated an committed to the important mission to which they are assigned.”
Conner added, “The knowledge that you have been able to play a significant role in the education and guidance of 4-H’ers must surely be one of the most fulfilling experiences that anyone could have.” Allen would definitely agree.
Fellow 4-H and University of Florida alumnus, Bill Gunter, who served as Florida State Treasurer and Insurance Commissioner also lauded Allen’s work. He wrote, “The time that you have invested in the lives of young 4-H’ers will be abundantly repaid to the community in their qualities of leadership and good citizenship.”
Allen passed away in 2007, but his legacy through the 4-H program is deeply cherished and remembered.