Dr. James M. Stephen’s career with University of Florida had roots planted early on in his life through his involvement with 4-H. Stephen’s worked as a professor of Horticulture and Cooperative Extension Vegetable specialist for 40 years.
“Coming into my line of work having been a Florida 4-Her was a huge advantage for me,” said Stephens. “’Learn by doing’ projects, meetings and camp. I understood all that before I got the job so I was able to hit the ground running and build upon the foundation I already had.”
Stephen’s was a member of the Limestone 4-H Club in Hardee County from 1946 to 1948. He participated in projects ranging from pigs and poultry to vegetable gardening.
“I grew up in a farm community and we were farmers. 4-H introduced me to the correct procedures for farming things like pigs, chickens and gardens,” said Stephens. “But it also gave me the opportunity to develop some self-esteem that an ordinary farm boy wouldn’t have. I’d take a chicken, or a pig or a calf to the fair and win a blue ribbon. It was a chance to do something and feel good about myself.”
Stephens also enjoyed the friendships that membership in 4-H provided. “I was from a real rural area, so 4-H allowed me to mingle with others in a social setting and talk to people outside my family. It was a great social outlet and learning process,” said Stephens.
After finishing his educational degrees, Stephens began his career as a vegetable specialist with the Florida Cooperative Extension Service at the University of Florida, where he continued his involvement with the 4-H program.
Stephens developed several 4-H gardening projects and training manuals that were used statewide for more than 40 years. He also conducted many 4-H events, including the state’s vegetable judging contest from 1962 to 2001. He trained many award winning Florida 4-H teams for national competition, and in the process, passed on the same youth development principles that helped him.
“The rewards of working with 4-H have been tremendous because I’ve met some of the best young people in Florida,” said Stephens. “I was able to take fourteen state winning teams to nationals in vegetables. To work closely with them, associate with them and teach them was a wonderful experience. I felt like I was contributing to their success and development as young people.”
During his career, he provided Florida 4-H with a wide variety of challenging projects and learning activities designed to expand skill and knowledge of vegetable gardening among young people. He also wanted to cultivate their leadership skills and interest in giving back to their communities.
“My association with 4-Hers and helping them develop into active, successful, and positive thinking young adults has kept me motivated and satisfied over a long career in extension,” said Stephens.
Stephens has actively been involved with other areas of 4-H in addition to vegetable gardening, at both the state and national levels. He has distinguished himself as a leader within the horticultural field. He has provided training and publications to 4-H agents for more than forty years. He helped generate thousands of dollars from industry and private donors to support the Florida 4-H program and fund programs to help young people.
One aspect of 4-H that Stephen’s appreciates is the opportunity it gives young people to be in a safe, wholesome environment. “4-H is giving youngsters an opportunity to mingle together. Whether it it is in 4-H Council work, going to camp or meetings it’s allowing them to socialize and learn from each other in a setting with high standards,” said Stephens. “They’re learning positive lessons instead of getting involved with all the negative stuff that is out there today.”
Stephen’s especially enjoys watching youth as they evolve through the program over the years. “I see youngsters at their first demonstration give a two to three minute presentation on a little garden,” said Stephens. “Yet by their third or fourth year they stand up there with confidence and talk like they’re president of the club. I am so proud of these youngsters and the bright young people they become.”
Now at the end of his career, what are his thoughts on his choices?
“I think ‘I’m so lucky to be part of this,” said Stephens. “I often wonder ‘how did I get to be so lucky to be part of this?’ I couldn’t have had a better career and 4-H is a big reason for me feeling that way.”