Woodrow W. Brown was born in a small rural farming community in the Florida panhandle called Walnut Hill in 1914. His father was a farmer, and his wife recalls he had 4-H field crop projects involving seed potatoes and corn. The seed potato project was a special project with his extension agent, Mr. Finleyson, and may have involved in a new variety of potato or an experimental plot. It was common in 4-H in those days for 4-H members to grow new varieties and demonstrate them for area farmers.
Woodrow W. Brown spent his summers working in the Escambia County extension office. His work in the office inspired him to become a county extension agent. Woodrow credited Mr. Finleyson with encouraging him to go to college, and Woodrow was the first member of his family to go to college.
Mr. Finleyson helped Woodrow find a job after he graduated from high school so he could earn money to pay for college and Woodrow lived with Mr. Finleyson’s family while he was working that first summer plowing up cotton, which farmers were then being paid to do.
When Woodrow came to the University of Florida, he worked three jobs just so he could stay in school. He waited tables and worked in the gardens at UF’s horticulture unit. Mr. Finleyson would say to him, you need me all year long, not just in the summertime, and “the job ends, the day school begins.” Fortunately, the second year was easier. Woodrow earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of Florida with honors, which helped prepare him for his career.
Woodrow Brown was employed by the Farmers Home Administration in Crestview and worked as a vocational agriculture teacher. He worked for three years as a county extension agent in Calhoun and Leon counties. In 1946 was appointed to the state 4-H office as assistant boys club leader. In 1950, he was appointed the State Boys 4-H Leader. In 1964, he became the state 4-H program leader and he served as the department chair for 4-H until his retirement in 1972.
He met his wife, Louise, while working for the Florida Cooperative Extension Service. She met Woodrow at a 4-H poultry show in Chipley, while interning with the home demonstration office at the Florida State College for Women. They soon married. She remembers, “4-H was Woodrow’s life. He always used to say, “Plan your work, and work your plan,’” she said with a smile.
In 1949, she remembered going with Woodrow for a week to summer camp at 4-H Camp Timpoochee. “They had a wonderful staff and the meals were just out of this world. I felt like I was on a wonderful vacation. I didn’t see an unhappy child in the camp,” said Louise Brown. She remembered seeing Les Crouch there teaching poultry, and several of the county 4-H agents taught classes for the 4-H members. The 4-H’ers went swimming in the bay and played softball. They carefully raised the American and 4-H flags each morning, and lowered them in the evening.
Woodrow gave leadership to the Florida 4-H program through two of the most challenging times of its existence – combining the boys and girls programs, and the combining of races into a single 4-H program. “His openness, honesty, and sincerity in each situation opened many doors of understanding, acceptance, and compatibility at state and county levels. His ability to work with others was unique – gaining their support and cooperation toward a unified youth effort in Florida,” said his wife, Louise Brown.
“His leadership during a time of great change laid the groundwork for 4-H to become what it is today,” said Damon Miller, Sr. who was mentored by Brown and later would become the first African-American 4-H state leader in Florida.
One of his lasting contributions was his role in founding the Florida 4-H Foundation, which was chartered in 1963. Woodrow had first heard about other state 4-H programs starting foundations in 1948 when he attended National 4-H Congress, and did extensive research and laid the groundwork for a successful foundation. “Woodrow had the vision of a 4-H foundation for Florida. He also pioneered the “4-H Partner Award” to recognize Florida citizens who contributed significantly to 4-H youth development,” said Louise Brown. He served as a board member with the foundation for twenty-five years.
Under his leadership, the 4-H program transitioned from a school-based program, to a community-based club model. Woodrow understood and promoted a 4-H program that was the ideal “leader-led” program at the “roots” level. He conducted a pilot program in the late 1950s with a group of five to seven counties to recruit and train adult leaders and built on those lessons later.
While these changes were difficult, they also resulted in combining programs and ensure equal access for all children. The advent of the 4-H community club leader also deepened the quality of youth development programming offered in Florida, and served to empower adults as leaders, and dynamically impacted young people. A former dean for extension commented, “Under his leadership, Florida 4-H has gained the respect of education, agriculture, industry, and government.”
He remained involved with the 4-H program even after his retirement in 1972. He was recognized with the Florida Partner in 4-H award. Brown and his wife, Louise, funded an endowment in the Florida 4-H Foundation to promote 4-H leader development programs.
His family describes him as a loving husband and father, who would take his young daughter along with him while he was doing 4-H work. The family fondly remembers the excitement in the house on the day that Woodrow picked up Marilyn Van Derbur, Miss America 1957, from the airport and took her to speak at the Florida 4-H Congress. His daughter, Linda, accompanied him in the car and rode with Miss America.
He was a member of Epsilon Sigma Phi, the professional organization for retired and active extension workers. He was also a member of Gamma Sigma Delta, the Elks Club, and the Alpha Gamma Rho fraternity. He was an honorary member of the Board of Directors for the Florida 4-H Foundation and served as a church deacon. He is also a member of the National 4-H Hall of Fame.