A fifth generation Floridian who grew up in the citrus and cattle business, U.S. Congressman Adam Putnam spent ten years as a 4-H member. He began as a 4-H member at age 8, showing a Hereford bull.
He was exposed to the University of Florida early on through 4-H, staying in Gainesville dormitories during Florida 4-H Congress and attending 4-H Camp Cloverleaf for summer camp and 4-H Camp Ocala for state 4-H executive board. “My experiences shaped my outlook on life and prepared me for the world way beyond county fairs and livestock shows,” said Putnam.
For the now experienced politician, his early experiences in campaigns and elections came through participation in 4-H leadership development programs and the State 4-H Council, where he was elected president. He was also heavily involved in the State 4-H Legislature program, where he learned how government worked, how to build coalitions to support a measure, and the ins and outs of parliamentary procedure.
He became president of the Florida 4-H Foundation and was among the organization’s strongest supporters in Tallahassee for several years. He served in the Florida House of Representatives before running for Congress in 2000.
He says that the University of Florida identifies capable young people early in life through 4-H. “Coming up through 4-H exposed me to the opportunities UF had to offer,” he said.
Those opportunities help young people develop skills that help them for the rest of their lives, Putnam said. “4-H taught me the citizenship and leadership skills I use today,” wrote Putnam in an editorial for the youth development organization’s centennial. “From public speaking to leading a meeting, 4-H continues to instill a set of life skills in today’s youths.”
He also has high praise for his 4-H leaders. “My 4-H volunteers were some of the best teachers I had growing up. The dedicated souls who labored in the show rings, drove us across the state and gave us so much, shaped my life in a positive way and instilled a commitment to service in us all.”
Today, 4-H needs more volunteers, like the ones he remembers, who are willing to work with our young people. “Now, more than ever, young people need caring, responsible role models to mold them and prepare them for society, the workforce and their own future role as parents.”
When it was time to apply for college, UF was the only school to which he applied. Putnam remembers many of his professors and the interest they take in students. “No one falls through the cracks in UF’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences,” he said. “Everyone – from the dean down to the 4-H club leader – nurtures students.”
When he first went to Capitol Hill to take office at age 27, Adam Putnam was more likely to be mistaken for a page or a student than a respected U.S. Congressman from Florida’s 12th district. At the time he took office in 2001, he was the youngest member of the U.S. House of Representatives.
When asked if his age poses a challenge to get people to take him seriously, the UF College of Agricultural and Life Sciences graduate said, “I could write a book of funny stories about being kicked off the members’ elevator or asked to go fetch coffee.” He sees being young as a help, not a hindrance.
Putnam, who completed his bachelor’s degree in food and resource economics in 1995, said senior citizens are more likely to support young people in leadership positions than many other voters. It’s because of their experiences during World War II, he said.
“When they were young, they defeated Nazi Germany and Japan, and then they came home and rebuilt America,” he said. He sponsored an event on the 60th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack in 2001, where young people met veterans and heard their stories firsthand. Did
Putnam take the credit? Not a bit. He told The Ledger newspaper in Lakeland, Fla., that hewanted to bring young people together with American heroes.
Putnam is modest, but he has played an important role in Washington, D.C, even though he is no longer the youngest congressman on the Hill today. He was with U.S. President George W. Bush on Air Force One on Sept. 11 when terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and kept a short diary of his experiences on that fateful day.
Putnam made his mark on Capitol Hill early, playing a critical role in homeland defense against terrorism as vice chairman of a key congressional subcommittee on national security. The Bartow, Fla., native was one of the few congressmen with four committee assignments and was the only freshman congressman to serve on the Joint Economic Committee.
Because he believed it would negatively affect Florida agriculture, Putnam made waves when he broke party ranks and voted against a trade bill giving the president broader authority. The bill passed by a narrow margin, but instead of deflating the young congressman’s career, his steadfastness earned the respect of colleagues and even President Bush, who cited Putnam’s resolve to do what was right for his district.
The Washington in which Putnam works today is very different from the one he arrived at in 2001. The concrete barricades outside his office and the anthrax scares are reminders of the changes, but Putnam remains optimistic about the future.
He believes that youth development is all the more important now, in a post-9/11 America. “The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 challenged Americans to redefine the role of “hero” and “leader” in our culture,” said Putnam. “We now understand more fully that the leadership qualities exhibited by adults are initially cultivated during youth through activities emphasizing citizenship, teamwork, character, and self-confidence.”
“In this changed environment it is important that we stop to consider who will become our leaders of tomorrow? While the answer seems simple – today’s youths – there are innumerable paths to acquiring the leadership skills necessary to become tomorrow’s police and fire department captains, teachers, ministers and rabbis, mayors and presidents, and corporate CEOS. There are many adults who play an important role in helping our youths develop those skills , including parents, teachers, and volunteers, “ said Putnam.
Putnam remains proud of his 4-H involvement in his youth. “I am proud to be one of more than fifty million 4-H alumni who benefited from this fantastic public-private partnership.”
He sees great hope in the future for 4-H. “The 4-H motto is to “to make the best better.” Not only has 4-H continued to make our youths better citizens over the years, the organization has successfully challenged itself to meet the changing needs of the communities it serves. At a time when the need for leadership has never been greater, I cannot imagine an organization serving a more important role in our society.”