By PJ Tracy
After 32 years on the job, Avonne Petty will finish up her career of mentoring several generations of Pike County youth at the turn of the year.
As the county’s 4-H program assistant, Petty was part of the University of Arkansas Extension program for more than a decade previous to her hire as a volunteer leader.
At a retirement reception for Petty held last Friday in Murfreesboro, Terrell Davis stated that they “appreciate all she has done for our county, especially in 4-H, but she has also been a big part of EHC and extension as a whole. We’ve been very blessed to have her.”
Maria Eatmon and Baylie Clay sang the song “Here We Are” by Gabriel Brown and Michelle Creber, stating in unison at the end of the song, “Mrs. Avonne, without you, we never would have found who we are. Thank you.”
Pike County Judge Dewight Mack, said that the youth of the county could definitely take one positive from Petty. “Doing the things you love and working with people you love has left Avonne so blessed throughout the years … you’ve been blessed (he said to Petty), but Pike County has been more blessed to have you.”
Beth Phelps, the 4-H District Director, said that U of A Extension Director Dr. Rick Cartwright expressed his appreciation for Petty and her service.
“You have had a fabulous career, and influenced generations of lives, and had an impact at 4-H leadership at the state level, because there has been a Pike County leader at the state level for years. We really do appreciate everything.”
The state 4-H presented Petty with a glass plaque that is inscribed “32 years of service to the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture.”
Davis said that Petty asked only for an old 1982 BB gun when she leaves, which he said she will get.
He then reminisced about his youth spent in Pike County 4-H, and said that when he moved to a new community and didn’t have a 4-H experience, he missed it.
“That’s why all these kids are here, they appreciate you, and I do too. A bit of who I am today is because of what ya’ll did then.”
“I told the quorum court that for many, many years, we’ve gotten a full-time program assistant for 60 percent [pay], because she goes way above and beyond her hours and what her pay is — she does it because she loves kids, and that’s the kind of person you have to have in 4-H.”
The local Extension office commissioned a 4-H jug to be made for Petty by Langley-based artist Launa Simmons. “It’s a one of a kind,” Davis said.
“I’ve been here, but it’s all about the kids,” Petty said modestly in an interview, stating that the kids under her tutelage have been the real success. “My 4-H kids have excelled, especially coming from a poor county like ours … they have difficulty reaching thousands of people. You can go to the mall in Little Rock and set up before thousands, and we don’t have that opportunity here, but they have excelled anyway. They’ve worked hard and accomplished a whole lot. The biggest reward was seeing them develop.”
Petty said that the 4-H program stresses leadership and community service, both of which are exemplified in the youth’s project books.
“Our kids have done so many things, they have won many awards,” Petty stated, noting 14 state officers and 28 record book winners (a book detailing the year’s accomplishments and projects, leadership, and community service). “They are judged against 4-Hers from all over the state, and to have 28 winners in 32 years from our county is tremendous.”
The local program also boasts numbers of state ambassadors, teen stars, as well as four state hall of fame inductees and one Governor’s Award to Sydney Steely, who was recognized as the most exceptional 4-Her in the state. Petty said that while the county has only won the Governor’s Award once, they have had multiple finalists for the prestigious honor.
Petty said many of the program’s participants have also been awarded scholarships to college because of the 4-H efforts. Record book participants can win $1,500 scholarships or more, as well as other financial rewards.
“What is exceptional is that in the record books they have to keep up with their community service and their leadership activities, and these are also important factors for many other scholarships [outside 4-H]. They become better speakers and leaders as well, they have communication skills they might not have had otherwise.”
Petty said that many of the program participants have gone on to have success in their chosen field, including a television personality, teachers, nurses/medical professionals, farmers, lawyers, pastors, as well as one that now works for the National Toy Association in New York.
“A lot of them have succeeded in a lot of things … the development that amazes me most is when they start out at five years old, hiding behind their mothers, afraid to talk, but it doesn’t end up that way. Our centennial president, when she gave her first talk as a youth at District-O-Rama, she couldn’t be heard over the air conditioning, had now spoken before thousands of people, including the Board of Directors for the University of Arkansas.”
Petty said her goal was to provide programs with meaning for the local youth.
“I’ve always tried to do programs that pertained to Pike County, something to help the kids be more aware of their surroundings, the history of Pike County, and what went on before them. I have been proud of my school enrichment programs, and they have been varied over the years. Recently on the anniversaries of the Civil War, as well as World Wars I and II, I strived to teach the students how historical events affected the lives of the people in Pike County. They need to know about events which happened here and how lives were changed because of them.”
Petty said she has been reminded of many of the great programs that have been done while cleaning up her office, including “A Little Mo Water” which included water testing, topography and tree and insect studies at different sites along the Little Missouri River in Pike County that was sponsored by Cargill. The program included a tour of the Narrows Dam, which Petty said has been done several times since, as part of the annual Corps of Engineers Lake Day. She also recalls “Woody Wanders” that was sponsored by International Paper Company, and in addition to learning about trees and the company’s reforestation conservation efforts, all the program’s participants received a tree to plant themselves. Other programs have included historical perspective on the Trail of Tears.
The kids also once played roles (acting/writing) on an ATV safety video that was filmed locally and distributed statewide.
“We always do something special in the summer for the kids with our programs,” she said. “I really stress citizenship so each national election year we have had a patriotic summer program. The kids learn many things about our local and state government. We make a trip to the courthouse and jail where resource people talk to them. They also get to vote.”
Ultimately, Petty says she really sees the value of 4-H on youth.
“Their development is exceptional — it’s not just the ones that win awards, some kids will not submit a record book, but they are awesome 4-Hers. They’ll do anything we ask of them to, they show their animals and do so many different things, even if it is just work a little harder on their school activities. And this sets them up a little better for life.”
She said another part of the value of 4-H is that it is, in some ways, self-sustaining.
“It’s wonderful to see someone who is a former 4-Her, and some of our leaders now were in 4-H as kids, and that is very rewarding. Some of our former participants that live elsewhere have told me their kids would be in 4-H. They saw some value in it, they really do.”
And, ultimately, Petty said she has found working with the youth very fulfilling. “The thing is to find a job you love and you’ll never a work a day in your life … I haven’t worked many of them. I have thoroughly enjoyed my career, always thinking about things to tell the kids things to do that would help them. I have loved the kids and thoroughly enjoyed it. I will miss the kids and the 4-H leaders — they are not just consumers of the program, they are friends.”
She said her current project of “caring and sharing” at the Kirby Elementary is a perfect example of her work.
“I stress to the kids — do something for someone else. I have gotten to love a lot of people in Pike County.”
Stating she has seen “lots of changes” in the program over the last three decades or so, especially in the areas of technology.
“We’re now into the technology, and when I started we were still using stencils with a hand crank to make copies instead of printers … the computer age is different all the time. Extension and 4-H has done well to keep up with the times. We used to do a lot of environmental studies, but now it’s STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics).”
Petty said her plans now include volunteering at Old Washington State Park, to continue being an active EHC member in Pike County, as well as the community service projects she helps with, such as the Quilts for Veterans.
“I really believe in that, I don’t think we do enough for our veterans.”
In addition, Petty will spend more time with her two-and-a-half year old great grandson, along with the newest great grandson that will come in April.
“I will be more active in their lives,” Petty said. “More babysitting … I’ve already told my granddaughter-in-law when the new baby comes, she will need me to help her when it comes.”
A woman of many talents, Petty said she might also work on some writing, having previous work with the Murfreesboro Diamond.
“I’m a ham, I enjoy writing.”
However, she said she will still be around for 4-H when needed. “I told the kids I wasn’t dying, and they told me they knew where I lived.”
Petty also credits her husband, whom she said has been “incredibly patient” with her sometimes hectic schedule over the years. “He does say he has plenty for me to do on the farm,” Petty said, noting the couple still raises cattle. “He’s been really good.”
Ultimately, she hopes that one of her former students will take leadership after she is gone.
“I have loved my career and I have really hoped one of my former 4-Hers would apply for this position. It is a great job for someone who does not want to work full time. It has flexible hours and it is close to home. This has been a wonderful experience and I thank all of the parents who allowed me to be a small part of their children’s lives.”