Bob Norris, a 4-H agent in the early 1930’s, probably had no idea that he would play an enormous role in shaping the life of a young 4-Her. Henry F. Swanson joined the Lake County Boy’s 4-H club in 1939. During his five years in the club, Swanson worked with Bob Norris, Wilmer Bassett and R. W. Blacklock. These men influenced Swanson and became an inspiration and a role model for him.
“These men showed a real interest in me and really encouraged me. They really influenced me to pursue a course of study to become an Extension Agent myself someday,” said Swanson.
These leaders helped Swanson as he worked on many award-winning dairy and poultry projects. Swanson credits the social activity of 4-H, and the opportunity to work hard and be rewarded, for instilling a sense of self-confidence in him.
“When someone shows interest in you, that’s a big thing,” said Swanson. “4-H was a great chance to win awards, win trips to Short Course and have someone think you’re special. 4-H was a wonderful club activity for me.”
Shortly after Swanson graduated from high school his father passed away. Swanson said that remembering his old friend Bob Norris, and pursuing a degree that would allow him to become an Extension Agent, gave him a purpose during this difficult time in his life. But the United States entered the Second World War and Swanson decided to put his studies on hold. He enlisted in the U.S. Navy and spent nearly three years in military service.
Swanson enrolled in the University of Florida in 1941 where “extension folks” helped him secure room and board in a “CLO” (Cooperative Living Organization) where he found room and board for one dollar a day.
He returned to the University Florida, where he earned Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in horticulture. During his time on campus, Swanson met his wife and began his family. By 1948 he had returned to the Boy’s 4-H Club as an Extension Agent. Swanson worked with the Orange County Cooperative Extension Service for three decades, until he retired as County Extension Director in 1978.
His leadership dynamically changed the face of Orange County 4-H. When Swanson began work with Extension, 4-H was severely limited by a lack of facilities. Under his guidance, the organization went from having one room in the county courthouse to having an entire agricultural complex. The complex includes an auditorium, office space and an exhibit area. His name can even be found on a plaque in the auditorium.
Swanson also guided the program as Orange County changed from a rural and agrarian area to the tourist mecca of central Florida. Swanson documented this change in his book, “Countdown for Agriculture” and donated the proceeds from this book to 4-H and Future Farmers of America for scholarships.
Swanson marvels at the changes that have taken place in 4-H since he joined in the late 1930’s. “It’s amazing how many different programs 4-H has now,” said Swanson. “They have many more projects to work with than they did when I first started the program, and many are for urban type 4-Hers. They’ve created collecting insects, root cuttings…things to do if you have don’t have livestock or farms. They have designed projects to keep kids engaged.”
In 1970, he received the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Superior Service Award. He joined the Horticultural Hall of Fame in 1976, the Florida Dairy Hall of Fame in 1988 (on an honorary basis), and the Florida Agricultural Hall of Fame in 2000. He received the golden orange award from Florida Citrus Mutual in 1978. For his work in environmental science, Orlando Magazine named Swanson one of ten most important movers and shakers who left an impression on central Florida in the year 2000.
His long career in agriculture focused primary on water conservation. He sent surveyors to locate fresh water in Florida, drilling all over the state, sometimes going as far as 2,000 feet underground. The results of his work showed that while Florida did have a large amount of fresh water underground, the supply was not limitless. His work concluded that if regular citizens, and especially the agriculture industry, wanted to maintain a fresh water supply they would have to learn conservation methods. He found that there was not enough fresh water to waste.
In addition to his work with 4-H, Swanson was active in various civic activities including the Orlando Jaycees and the Orlando Rotary Club. For more than 50 years, he was a member of the First Presbyterian Church.
When asked if he had any final thoughts on his 4-H experience, Swanson paused and then said, “Well, it gave me a start in life and what more can you ask for? I owe everything to 4-H.”