As eight-year-old Marylou Shirar made an apron and hemmed a tea towel for a 4-H project, she had no idea that she was setting in place the foundation for the rest of her life. Shirar joined 4-H in Madison County, Indiana and was actively involved with the 4-H program until her retirement from cooperative extgension work in 1992.
The program’s influence on her life was significant. “4-H was a huge part of forming my life,” says Shirar. “It helped me establish some goals and was instrumental in my having a career.”
Shirar was an active 4-H member for ten years before becoming a junior 4-H leader and then an assistant 4-H leader. The summer before her senior year of high school, her extension agent took her to Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana.
It was a trip that would affect her course in life. “We walked around the campus, had lunch, and that’s when I decided to go to college,” said Shirar.
Upon graduation from high school, Shirar attended Ball State, where she received her Bachelor of Science degree in Vocational Home Economics. Her first job after college was as a home economics teacher. She stayed very active in 4-H programs as a judge and consultant.
After moving to Florida, Shirar became an extension agent in Hardee County for a year, and then moved to Palm Beach County, where she remained for 29 years until her retirement in 1992.
She found great satisfaction in her work. “Working for extension was such a great opportunity for me,” said Shirar. “I liked working with people. I got to develop new programs and pilot new programs. Being an agent, I met and worked with some very wonderful people, and have had the opportunity to see kids grow into very functional adults. And, best of all, it was something I liked to do. I can’t imagine these people who go to work every day and don’t like their work. I enjoyed my career very much.”
While working as an extension agent, Shirar hosted a local NBC program called “South Florida Almanac” for eighteen years. The show highlighted local 4-H and other extension educational programs and events, as well as happenings in the community. She also wrote a weekly column for the Palm Beach Post newspaper about 4-H and other extension topics.
While working for 4-H, she also completed a Master’s of Education in counseling and guidance. The coursework for her degree taught her even more about how to work with people and motivate them..
Facilitating professional development for extension youth workers was important to Shirar, who advocated for continual learning and development opportunities throughout her life. Shirar served as president and vice president of the Florida Association for Extension 4-H Agents. She assisted in hosting the national meeting for 4-H agents in Florida in 1981, which was no small task. As a result of the meeting, 4-H agents returned to their work refreshed and with new knowledge to help young people.
Her work in Palm Beach County was creative and useful to 4-H volunteers and youth. She worked extensively to initiate a school enrichment program involving many disciplines. Local schools could choose from more than twenty classes, and program assistants were hired to teach and support these programs. Shirar and her staff also developed several project books including “Adopt a Tree,” “Growing Radishes,” and “Flower Arranging”. Shirar also served on several statewide planning and policy committees for 4-H.
When asked if she still believes 4-H is important for kids today, Shirar just laughs. “Oh yes,” she says. “4-H teaches a lot of skills that many other kids don’t have. These kids learn decision making, comparison shopping, and even functional skills like hemming a skirt. In today’s society kids go off to college and don’t know how to start a washer – basic day-to-day living skills are in 4-H.”
Shirar says growing up in a rural area made 4-H participation vital to her social and emotional development. “Growing up in the country, 4-H gave us an opportunity to communicate and be involved with people in different situations,” said Shirar.
Drawing from her own experiences, she sees great promise in today’s 4-H programs. “While 4-H has now expanded into urban environments as well as the school system, it still serves that need. There may be more subject matter, more versatility, more educational materials available to people, but 4-H is still helping kids and that’s the first thing.”
Shirar believes 4-H helps young people in profound ways, and even the adults and volunteers who work with them. “It helps them develop skills and exposes them to new situations. It helps build confidence. And many times it’s not just the kids who learn these things. I’ve seen many leaders and volunteers over the years who have grown right along with the young people. 4-H is still a people program.”