James Watson always had a love for 4-H and wanted to pursue a career with the Cooperative Extension Service after graduating from the University of Florida, but World War II changed his plans – at least temporarily. Watson served in the U.S. Army in the Pacific Theater during the war. He spent 48 months in the Pacific theater and in the occupation of Japan.
Following an honorable discharge from the military, Watson returned to the University to finish his college degree and fulfilled his dream to work with the cooperative extension service and 4-H. Then he began his 56-year career with 4-H. That’s right! Fifty-six amazing years with 4-H.
Where did his love for 4-H come from? A native Floridian who was born in Jacksonville in 1916, Watson had grown up around cooperative extension work, and was among the first 4-H members during the Florida 4-H program’s first decade in the Sunshine State.
Watson served as an assistant 4-H Agent in Santa Rosa and Lake counties, and as Extension Director in Columbia and Duval counties. “When you help young people along the way as you go through life, you have done one of the greatest deeds possible to humanity,” said Watson.
His naturally relaxed manner and ability to interact with people helped him become widely known early in his career. 4-H membership grew tremendously under his guidance, due to his commitment and belief in young people. Among his many notable achievements while working with 4-H, Watson secured funds to initiate a swine-breeding program in Santa Rosa County. He even purchased a registered Duroc boar to breed for 4-H swine projects.
“Watson became one of the most highly regarded, popular and well known County Agricultural Agents to serve in Florida’s Cooperative Extension Service,” said Tom Braddock in Duval County. “He was featured on television events and has an endless supply of human-interest stories and 4-H experiences to share with anyone. He has had a useful, productive, and enriching career.”
He developed a successful 4-H citrus project in Lake County for young people. He was even featured in National Geographic magazine for his exceptional work with 4-H youth. He saw great value in 4-H Judging and Awards programs. He coached successful dairy and beef judging teams.
“Seeing 4-H youth grow and develop into responsible adults is one of the most rewarding and greatest feelings one can have,” said Watson. He held a strong personal interest in 4-H throughout his busy and very active extension career. His passion for youth development made him an effective fundraiser and advocate. He worked and traveled with 4-Hers frequently to ensure that they had opportunities. Watson attended National 4-H Congress with the state dairy winner from Lake County.
He served as the extension director in Duval County for 22 years. Appointed to the post in 1952 as the third extension director, Watson followed in the footsteps of his father, W.L. Watson, who was the first county extension agricultural agent in Duval County. Later in life, James Watson developed an endowment fund to support extension work that was dedicated in memory of his father.
Even though his duties as a county extension director meant he oversaw many programs, including 4-H, Watson’s heart remained with the 4-H program. He never missed a 4-H event, and was a tireless advocate who always seized opportunities to talk about 4-H with young people, adults, and the general public.
Watson was an effective teacher and mentor to many 4-H youngsters. The successes achieved by the young people he worked with are indicators of the strong impact he had on people.
In 1956, when television was still in its early years, Watson developed a TV program called Hi Neighbor, in cooperation with local NBC affiliate WTLV. It aired on weekdays from 6:45am-7:00am. The show featured guests discussing public issues and agriculture. Watson became a highly recognized resource in agriculture and public affairs within the community. It was on the air for more than twenty years. The show was recognized with the George Washington Honor Medal Award from the Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge.
The show was one of the longest continually running agricultural television shows in the United States. Watson’s work with the show was recognized with the National Farm Broadcasting Award. His work with the Hi Neighbor television show was so exceptional, that following his retirement from extension work, he was invited to host a weekly talk show called Down to Earth with Jim Watson on WJCT public television for fifteen years.
His work was recognized with a Distinguished Service Award from the National Association of County Agricultural Agent and a Lee and Mimi Adams Environmental Award. He continued his involvement with the 4-H program long after his retirement. It was a passion he could not give up.
As a public advocate and lifelong member of many community service organizations, Watson’s reach was felt far beyond the 4-H and extension community. He was a longtime Kiwanis member, and he eventually served as Lieutenant Governor of Florida Division 4. He was the driving force in organizing the Duval County Farm Bureau and served as president of the Greater Jacksonville Agricultural Fair. He was inducted as a member of the Florida Agricultural Hall of Fame in 1982. Watson was a lifetime member of the United Methodist Church, where he served in every capacity except minister.
Several University of Florida scholarships were created in his memory. James Watson passed away in December of 2008. He will be deeply missed, but not forgotten for his contributions to the 4-H program.