Involvement in 4-H came naturally to Wilmer Bassett. He grew up on a dairy farm in Monticello, Florida in the late 1920s and early 1930s. In addition to his involvement with 4-H dairy and agricultural projects, Bassett excelled in leadership and public speaking projects.
He graduated from the University of Florida in 1937. The following year, Bassett was hired as Assistant County Agent in Lake County. During his time there, he organized and trained the Lake County 4-H Club Poultry Judging team that won the state contest.
He also organized a trip to 4-H Camp McQuarrie for swim team members so they could earn their American Red Cross Life Saving Badges. One of the boys on that trip remembers Bassett well. “That trip to Camp McQuarrie made it possible for me to get a job as a life-guard which helped me pay for college,” said Joe N. Busby, retired Dean of Extension and fellow Florida 4-H Hall of Fame member.
“Wilmer was a direct influence on the lives on many youth in 4-H and was a dedicated supporter of the program through a lifetime of personal and financial contributions,” said Busby.
Bassett was chosen to go to work in Washington D.C. for one year. Highlights of that time included receiving an award from First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, as well as having dinner at the White House and tea with Mrs. Roosevelt.
“Wilmer learned a lot of leadership and really learned to love and appreciate those kids,” said Melda Bassett, Wilmer’s widow. “He was an absolute pied piper with kids. Kids loved him and he loved them and they knew it.”
He came back to the University of Florida, where he joined the boys’ state 4-H staff. Bassett and longtime friend and fellow 4-H leader Billy Matthews worked together running 4-H camps. “Billy and Wilmer could be a real handful together,” said Melda.
“Billy and Wilmer loved to play pranks on the kids. Usually at the end of camp Billy would get the 4-H’ers together and say he was going to hypnotize Wilmer,” said Melda. “Those two would ham it up like Wilmer was walking into the water in a hypnotic trance until he was up to his nose with the kids screaming ‘Stop! He’s going to drown!’ I still hear from kids who tell me they thought he was really going to drown and how funny it was when they realized it was just a prank.”
One young man who attended those camping programs with Bassett and Matthews was John Finlayson, who was a young boy involved in Jefferson County 4-H in the 1930s. On August 1, 1936, a hurricane with 90-100 mph winds took aim directly at 4-H Camp Timpoochee, where the 4-H members from Jefferson County were staying.
Warning signals that exist today, were not in place back then. Because there wasn’t enough warning to evacuate the camp, Matthews and Bassett loaded the campers and leaders in the school buses that had brought them there. They parked the buses in the large field in the center of the camp, away from trees and facing the wind. As the eye of the storm move through, they reoriented the buses.
Their plan worked - for everyone except the camp cook who refused to get on the buses. After the storm passed, the staff found the cook inside the camp kitchen in his oven. Though a few cabins were blown off their foundations, everyone was safe, including the cook.
When the Second World War began, Bassett left cooperative extension work and served in the military. As a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army, Bassett earned a Bronze Star for meritorious service.
Following the death of his father, Bassett returned to Monticello to manage his family’s dairy farm. As president of the Florida Dairy Industry Association, he was a state leader, aiding in the transition from the use of milk cans to modern milking parlors. He served on the board of directors of the Farmers and Merchants Bank and Florida Power Corporation.
Although his life took him other directions, his dedication to 4-H never ended. He continued to support 4-H financially, and generously donated his time and leadership to help the boys and girls in 4-H. He was also president of the Florida 4-H Foundation and vice chair of the SHARE Council at IFAS.
His friendships in 4-H lasted throughout Bassett’s lifetime. “Billy Matthews went on to become a Congressman in Washington D.C. and Wilmer went home to run the farm, but they both remained very loyal to the 4-H program and to one another,” recalled Melda Bassett. “They were best friends forever. 4-H is where they grew up, so it remained very important to them.”
Bassett died in 1996, but his contributions to 4-H live on. He and his wife, Melda Bassett, established an endowed scholarship at the University of Florida to help 4-H members and students studying dairy science.