Mary Nall Harrison, retired Consumer Education Specialist at the University of Florida, was one of the first 4-H club members in her community in Alabama.
She joined 4-H in 1929 and stayed involved with the club until she graduated from high school in 1936. Her 4-H projects included: food preparation, food preservation, home management, home furnishing, clothing. She was the state home improvement winner.
Harrison said, "My experiences with 4-H determined my goals in life. Without 4-H I am not sure what career I would have chosen or where I would be now. 4-H has been a very positive part of my life, and it also played an important role in the lives and careers of my children."
When Mary joined 4-H, America was in the depths of the Great Depression, and her club met at the school. The county education budget was short of revenue in 1930 and classes ended after three months. At her mother’s insistence, she completed a 4-H record book and submitted it to complement the abbreviated school year.
Years later she reflected, “That 4-H project started my understanding the value of practical skills, I could see and touch the results of my work.” My 4-H projects followed in the ensuing years. Additionally, she took a variety of leadership roles in the local 4-H program, the focus always on practical skills.
While in college, she was a member of the Collegiate 4-H Club. She interned with her 4-H agent for two summers and assisted with community 4-H club meetings and 4-H camps.
Following her college years Harrison taught in public schools and was the director of adult education in Corpus Christi , Texas. She even worked in an aircraft factory during World War II.
When she began her career as an extension agent in Nassau County, Harrison wasted no time in doing what she could for the 4-H program by organizing 4-H clubs, camps, and projects. She had a state winner each of the four years she worked in the county. She started a new program linking 4-H with the Highway Patrol, and they began the first school patrol program. A safety program was set up for bicycles, with a county-wide pass-fail program put in place.
Harrison ’s efforts always stressed the applied value of the skills she taught and there was usually an innovative approach. Sewing, canning and meal preparation on a budget were her stock in trade.
She also taught sharp shopping skills to anyone seeking to stretch a paycheck. “On several occasions my mother packed my lunch with recipes she was testing for programs,” said her eldest son Les Harrison, who is now an Extension Agent in Leon County . “My friends were always interested in what I would pull out of my brown sack and sometimes wanted to swap lunches. It was always an adventure.”
Harrison became a state 4-H specialist in 1967 at the University of Florida with a focus on consumer education and safety. She developed two widely used school enrichment programs, Buckle Up Kids, and Moneywise. She obtained grants totaling more than $900,000 to support these 4-H programs with publications, program incentives and visuals.
Supermarket Mystery, Watt Watchers, Ads Add Up, and The Money Story, were just a few of the 4-H project books Harrison developed. She developed 29 4-H project books and teacher guides. For the Consumer Choices program, she wrote 115 booklets for students.
“Kids make mistakes, that’s why it’s important to teach them to handle money very early,” said Harrison, who designed a summer financial education program, Money Mystery, offered in several counties. “Otherwise, they may have to learn through trial and error when they get out on their own, and the stakes are higher.”
In her thirty-plus year career as an extension specialist, Harrison wrote more than 1,800 judging situations with answers. She also provided in-service training annually for 4-H agents, supported state demonstrations at Florida 4-H Congress, and organized field trips and workshops.
Under her leadership, the 4-H consumer choices program grew from a two fair event in 1967 to a robust statewide program held annually in 45-50 counties with 15,000 youth participants. Pre and post tests confirm that youth participating in the program learn to comparison shop.
The effectiveness of the Consumer Choices program led to the development of a school enrichment program, Money Wise. It began with a phone call from the Attorney General of Florida, to the President of the University of Florida. The Attorney General had heard about the effectiveness of the consumer choices program, and he wanted to offer some grant funding to help. The funds were used by Harrison to develop the school enrichment Money Wise program. Within a week of its first printing, there were requests for 180,000 copies of Money Wise. It remains a popular program, with annual requests from 90,000-130,000 copies from 45-52 counties.
The Buckle Up Kids program reached 120,000-170,000 students in 48-60 counties per year. Children participating in the program increased their seatbelt use by 15-20%. A statewide poster contest for the program involved 65,000-120,000 students annually. Winning posters are printed in a calendar that is mailed to school principals throughout the state with a letter encouraging them to contact their extension agent.
Harrison was promoted to professor in 1982 by the University of Florida. She was beloved by 4-H agents throughout the state, who appreciated the materials, training, and funding she rallied to support programs.
She was recognized with numerous awards. Harrison received the Gamma Sigma Delta meritorious award in 1996. The U.S. Department of Transportation honored her work with an outstanding program award in 1996, and a certificate of appreciation in 1995.The National Safety Council recognized her with a Certificate of Appreciation in 1993, and she received a 25 Years in Service award from the National Association of Extension 4-H Agents and the Florida Association of Extension 4-H Agents in 1992. The Florida Coalition for Auto Safety recognized her work in 1988 and 1991.
Harrison was also very active in her community. She is a member First Baptist Church, the Gainesville Gem and Mineral Society, the Community Based Organizations Committee, and the Consumer Credit Counseling Advisory Board.
Mary Nall Harrison died in June 2006, only 9 days short of her 88th birthday. Her death ended a 43-year career with the University of Florida. Her contributions will not be forgotten.