John T. Woeste had barely joined his local 4-H Club in rural Kentucky when he gained one of the most important lessons he took away from his 47-year involvement with the 4-H program.
“We lived out on the countryside and didn’t have many people come visit us,” said Woeste. “Right after I joined 4-H, the extension agent came by our house and visited with my family and me and I’ve never forgotten the feeling that gave me. The message really came through to me that ‘somebody thinks you’re important.’ That set the tone for my 4-H career.”
Woeste spent eleven years with his 4-H club in Alexandria where he had the opportunity to participate on several judging teams. It was through these experiences that he met state level extension professionals who strongly influenced the choices Woeste made in his academic and professional pursuits.
“4-H was my guiding path to go to college,” said Woeste. “Neither of my parents went to college. In my graduating class of 87 only three of us went on to college. It wasn’t expected of us, but because I was able to get to the university with 4-H a time or two, it opened my eyes to that opportunity. With the direction of extension agents I was able to get a 4-H scholarship that made a college education possible for me.”
Upon graduating, Woeste went to work as an associate county extension agent through the University of Kentucky. One day while in this position Woeste’s supervisor approached him.
“Well it’s time for you to go back to school and get your master’s,” Woeste’s supervisor told him. “I said, ‘Well, OK, how exactly do I do that? I don’t have any money to do that.’”
Woeste was sent to Lexington to visit with a faculty member named Dr. Perry, who told him all about the Kellogg Center in Wisconsin, which at that time ran a national training program for extension professionals.
“Up to that point the notion of graduate school was the furthest thing from my mind,” said Woeste. “But I went and visited with Dr. Perry who helped me fill out my forms and I was admitted. I moved my family to Wisconsin so I could work on my master’s degree.”
While finishing up at the University of Wisconsin, Woeste was approached once again by a faculty member who guided him into a Ph.D program.
“At that point I had four children and I was real interested in keeping my job in Kentucky - but all these people rallied on my behalf to make a Ph.D happen,” said Woeste. “In each step of my education and career there has been someone reaching out into the community to help someone. 4-H taught me the value of education and taught me to recognize a good opportunity when I saw one. Luck is preparedness meeting opportunity.”
4-H has been a family affair for the entire Woeste family. While in Wisconsin, Woeste and his wife volunteered as 4-H club leaders for three years. They also worked as club leaders for three additional years while at the University of Florida. His own children have all participated in the program.
“My oldest daughter has said that some of her best leadership experiences came as a camp counselor in Wisconsin,” said Woeste. “As Dean I always supported the camping program - sometimes under duress. Philosophically, it was the kind of program that appealed to me. I believed in supporting adults and youth coming together and learning and enjoying things in a group setting. I value adults out there serving as role models to these young people. A lot of times, these adults can and do have a lot more influence on young people than their own parents.”
At a relatively young age Woeste was appointed dean and director of the Florida Cooperative Extension Service at the University of Florida. As dean and director, he oversaw all 4-H programs statewide. He remained in tat position for ninteen years until his retirement.
“John Woeste has made a tremendous impact on Extension at the state, regional and national levels throughout an illustrious career,” said “Dr. Myron Johnsrud, executive director of the Extension Committee on Policy (ECOP). “As agent, district administrator, assistant director and dean and director, he has given his time and talent in addressing significant issues affecting the Extension System and its educational mission.”
Woeste says he’s enjoyed his many years of 4-H interaction and values what the program offers youth and families today.
“Some of the activities have changed and that’s appropriate because the interest of people have changed,” said Woeste. “I know in terms of 4-H programs, nationally and even within the state, there has been some debate, but I think even though there have been some slight deviations, the leadership has maintained the basic philosophy of adults and youth working together, learning by doing and creating a sense of community. I recognize that the setting has changed some, but from my perspective, I think 4-H has been pretty true to its roots and that’s good and why I continue to support it.”