While 4-H Hall of Fame member Larry B. Williams didn’t grow up participating in 4-H, he did grow up knowing all about cows and dairy. As a youth he was an active member of Future Famers of America and didn’t know much about 4-H. He became a fan of the 4-H program as an adult while working with Lakeland Animal Nutrition in Okeechobee County, Florida.
“I know of no other program that offers such tremendous opportunities to youth at a very young age and allows them to continue to grow and develop,” said Williams. “It provides opportunities to demonstrate what good citizenship is all about, how working together is more fun than competing all the time, and how individual skills can be enhanced through judging and other activities.”
He connected with 4-H initially when his daughter got involved in the program in 1981. Williams was so impressed with 4-H that he volunteered to become a leader in 1984. He has now been working with 4-H in some capacity for the last 26 years. “I enjoy watching these children develop into caring adults who are ready to give back to their community. I probably have more fun than the kids.”
As a 4-H leader, Williams worked in the “dairy end” of 4-H’s agricultural programs but says he feels that “growing kids” is just as important as “growing cattle” - if not more.
His energy seems to know no limit. The club that he and a few others took over in 1984 grew in less than ten years to 60+ members showing 100+ dairy cattle annually at county, regional and state fairs in Florida. The club is still going strong today. The club owns its own equipment trailer and portable milk house.
“One thing we always tried to teach our kids and parents is that everyone has equal value,” said Williams. “We taught them that it doesn’t matter if you’re a dairy farmer worth a million dollars-plus or an immigrant farm hand, you have value.”
“Larry Williams is a character! Those who know Larry wonder if he ever had a bad day. Quick to laugh, joke, and cajole, Larry is a hand shaking, back slapping ambassador for 4-H,” said 4-H agent Debbie Clements. “His enthusiasm is infectious and inescapable. You feel compelled to keep up with him!”
Williams also tried to diversify his 4-H clubs by involving many of the county’s Spanish speaking population. In 1984 Williams took over a club that had 15 members. Within ten years that club had grown to 62 members. That year his club, “The Udder Bunch”, hauled more than one hundred head of cattle to the 4-H State Dairy Show in Orlando, Florida.
Williams remembers fondly a year that his 4-H members sold their cattle for a great price and the kids were thrilled that they had made so much money. He didn’t have the heart to explain the cost of coming to the cattle show, and that by the time they factored in the amount their parents had spent on fuel, motels and food, they hadn’t made much at all.
“We weren’t in it for the money,” said Williams. “We were in it to help the development of the kids.” And youth development is something 4-H is all about.
“I’m still amazed when I think about the kids who couldn’t hold a conversation when they first joined 4-H,” said Williams. Now most of them are leaders at work or in their communities. One especially shy girl is now a lobbyist for the Florida State Senate. I love to watch them bloom. It makes it all worth it.”
A tender spot in William’s 4-H experience came in the later years of his time as a leader. Williams said he was amazed by the number of children they had in 4-H clubs who came from single-parent homes.
“One thing we liked to do as leaders was each pick one or two kids who could really use another adult in their lives,” said Williams. “We would pick a head to take under our wings – to help them out a little bit in this life.”
Something that Williams thinks has changed over the years is not the 4-H program, but the kids who are joining it. “I can’t believe how fast the kids today catch on and learn – they’ve definitely improved over the years.”
Apparently Williams has improved in the last two-and-a-half decades as well. “4-H has made a better person out of me,” he said. “Because I had to teach kids how to lead, I learned how to be a leader.” When the Central Florida Fair severed its ties with the State 4-H Dairy Show after 51 years of supporting the show, Williams was instrumental in raising the $50,000 needed to move the show to the Osceola County Fair.
“Larry’s not just a leader and friend of 4-H, he is a mentor and teacher,” said Clements. “He has used cattle, judging, fairs, shows, and other contests and trips to mold young people.”
“Many times, Larry has been observed teaching youth to accept responsibility, while at the same time making them think that it as their idea. He has changed children that were whiney, disrespectful and unmotivated into courteous, polite, respectful, responsible and motivated young adults,” said Clements.
Twenty-five years ago I wasn’t really one to get up in front of people and talk. Just the other night I had to give a speech at the Florida Cattleman Association’s award banquet in front of 1,200 people and it didn’t phase me. I credit 4-H for that.”
In addition to his support of 4-H, Williams has worked with the Okeechobee City Volunteer Fire Department, Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Auxiliary, and the Okeechobee Youth Livestock Show (Director). He is a member of the National Dairy Shrine, the Florida Purebred Dairy Cattle Association and Florida’s FFA Dairy Committee.
He moved to Gainesville in 2004 with his wife, where he promptly began organizing a 4-H dairy program.