“I pledge my head to clearer thinking …”

Roger VanHaren

If you’re anywhere near my age and you grew up on a farm like I did, you probably belonged to a 4-H club. The 4-H club — in my day, anyway — was an educational/recreational/occupational organization that gave us farm kids a chance to interact with other kids in our general neighborhoods on a more or less regular basis.

I bring this up because I recently came across a clipping which my sister sent me from our old hometown newspaper, the Oconto County Times Herald (When I was a kid, it was the Oconto Falls Herald, but in a “big corporate move,” it combined with the Gillett Times and went countywide). Well, anyway, the clipping was from the “Years Gone By” column – don’t you love those?

Here’s the clipping: “Fifty years ago, members of the Cedar Lane 4-H club went to Phil Coppens’s garage for a lesson on tractor maintenance, specifically on changing air filters.” Garrison Keillor would have loved it. Must have been a pretty slow news week back in 1953 in Oconto Falls.

Tractor air filter changing seminars notwithstanding, I have very fond memories of my 4-H experience. My aunt Irene, who lived on the next farm to the east of us, and Marcella Lutz, our next door neighbor on the west, organized the club when I was about 9, I think, and they were our leaders for the entire time I was in the club. They got the cooperation of several families and organized a number of “project leaders” who would teach us some skills, most of which led to our preparing a project for showing at the county fair.

In those days, at least (and it’s probably still true), the 4-H was a club for youth ages about 9 to 19. It was a club where we “learned by doing.” That phrase certainly summed up the educational philosophy of the 4-H program I was involved in.

It exemplified the experiential nature of the learning opportunities in 4-H. Our leaders felt that we would learn best when we were involved in our learning. The intent was to do, reflect, and apply. It was what today is referred to as “hands on.” There were lots of things for us to learn and do in the 4-H program. Hey, we learned how to change a tractor air filter.

We could also learn tractor safety, woodworking, photography, and much more. I had a dairy project and showed a heifer at the fair, even won a ribbon for “showmanship.”

I built a lawn swing out of hardwood flooring boards that survived at least 40 years. When we bought our first house in about 1967, I hauled it here from the farm. In 1976, I painted it to look like an early American flag in honor of the bicentennial. Pretty classy.

Being in 4-H taught us other things, too. It taught us some leadership skills and responsibility if we happened to get elected to any of the numerous club offices or served on any of the many committees that were established. I was our club “reporter” for several terms and got to write stories about our club’s activities for the Oconto Falls Herald, maybe even wrote the story that the “Years Gone By” column was quoting.

I was “sergeant at arms” once. I didn’t know what it meant, but I loved the title.

4-H also gave us an opportunity to interact with other kids from around the county. There were countywide square dances at the Spruce Ballroom about once a month, and there was a 4-H camp at Chute Pond where we could get away from farm work for a week every summer and where we could learn all sorts of cool stuff (I still know how to make “lustre lace” bracelets) and take swimming lessons.

The Cedar Lane 4-H club, 4-H camp, and the county fair loom strong in my memories of growing up. One year, I got to sing in the statewide 4-H chorus at the state convention in Madison, and somewhere, carefully preserved in a scrapbook is a huge picture of the whole crowd of conventioneers that appeared on the front page of one of the Madison newspapers. I proudly circled myself in red ink and included the clipping in my club record book! I still remember some of the songs from the 4-H songbook (“My hat it has three corners, three corners has my hat, and had it not three corners …”). I remember friends I saw only for 4-H events or camp, and I still know the 4-H motto and the pledge.

The 4-H motto was “To Make the Best Better.” The 4-H pledge, which we recited at every meeting and activity, would make a wonderful personal creed for everybody to follow: “I pledge my head to clearer thinking, my heart to greater loyalty, my hands to larger service, and my health to better living for my club, my community, and my country.”

Think about the ramifications of that pledge. If everybody lived by its precepts, wouldn’t this be a great place?

The 4-H symbol was a four-leaf clover with a white H on each kelly green leaf. The H’s stood for head, heart, hands and Health, the four elements of the pledge. The 4-H colors were green and white. We were told the white symbolized purity, and the green, nature’s most common color, stood for life, springtime, and youth.

We proud 4-Hers wore those snazzy four-leaf clover lapel pins everywhere. I still have one in an old jewelry box somewhere along with cufflinks, tie bars, and tietacks I no longer use.

I’m glad Joyce sent me that clipping; it triggered some nice memories – some events and people I hadn’t thought about for many years. I went to the internet and found out that there are now 13 clubs in Dodge County and several of them have their own websites.

Unfortunately, I also found out that while there are 13 clubs in Oconto County, the Cedar Lane club is no longer in existence. Sort of sad, in a way, but I’m sure glad to see that kids still have some of the “old fashioned” opportunities we had. I salute all the folks who work to keep those options alive.