Lighting a fire in 4-H & youth development
Frank Ginther retires after 28 years
As Pierce County 4-H Youth Development Agent Frank Ginther sits in the River Falls Culver’s reminiscing about his long career, anyone with eyes can see how much the county’s youth and success mean to him. His face lights up as he recounts his adventures leading the county’s 4-H programs and youth development initiatives for the past 30 years.
“The idea of Extension is to extend the knowledge of the University to the people of Wisconsin wherever they work and live,” Ginther said. “The boundaries of the campus are the boundaries of the state. I love that concept!”
Ginther, whose last day was July 6, was also a tenured professor of youth development with UW-Madison Division of Extension. He was considered “field faculty,” who teach through outreach education in communities.
“It has been very rewarding work,” Ginther said. “But I hit the magic 30 years, and there comes a time. With younger people coming in, I want to support them. I will miss it terribly but fresh ideas can be good.”
Ginther has also served as a part-time state 4-H liaison, helping to hire, orient and help existing agents.
Ginther said it will be tough to leave behind the great staff with which he has worked.
“That’s really going to be hard to leave,” Ginther said. “Including the experience to help families, help people grow. It’s irreplaceable.”
The road to here
Ginther grew up on a dairy farm in Big Spring, Wis., near the Wisconsin Dells. He was
Photo courtesy of Beth Ingli GINTHER
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in Adams County 4-H, where he showed dairy and photography. Many years later, he had the honor of emceeing a 4-H in Wisconsin 100th anniversary event at which his former 4-H agent, Ivan Morrow, was inducted into the 4-H Hall of Fame.
Ginther, who never married, earned a Bachelor of Science in broad field social studies, with a history emphasis from UW-River Falls. He earned a Master of Science in agricultural education and took some Ph.D. classes in organizational leadership and policy development at the University of Minnesota.
“I had been working off the farm doing travel agent work for two years,” Ginther said. “A friend said he was going to get his Masters and told me I was going to take statistics with him.”
Before taking a position with UW-Extension, he worked as a summer intern with the Minnesota Extension Service in Fillmore County, Minn. He’ll never forget that interview.
His soon-to-be supervisor, Sheila Craig, interviewed him over lunch.
“She asked me at least 10 times ‘Are you sure?’ you want to come to Fillmore County?” Ginther laughed. “It was a great summer learning about 4H from Brent Larson and how Extension worked.”
Fresh off his fun in Fillmore, Ginther became a faculty assistant in Barron County, where 53 4-H clubs thrived.
“I’ve never seen so many people so into 4-H in my life,” Ginther said.
He was in Barron for eight months, then accepted the interim Buffalo County 4-H agent position while completing his Master’s thesis at UWRF. A dedicated student, Ginther shocked UWRF faculty when he drove through the Nov. 1, 1991 Halloween blizzard to complete his Master’s oral exams. He even bought a new suit.
“Most of the staff didn’t even make it in that day, and I drove all the way from Buffalo County!” Ginther laughed.
He worked full-time in Buffalo County, beginning in January 1992. When the Pierce County educator position opened up, Ginther was thrilled because those positions didn’t open frequently. He became the Pierce County agent in June 1993.
Attracted to the idea of the tenure track as part of a University, Ginther enjoyed the mix of being a scholar and someone who served and worked with the community.
“The work was good and rewarding,” Ginther said. “Getting to see families grow, change and develop. I love the concept of Extension. I had good memories of it from my youth. My parents instilled in me the concepts of hard work, giving back and getting advice when you need it.”
As he started to apply his skills and experience to Pierce, he could see changes on the ground. That just fed his motivation further. “I love the quote from Yeats, ‘Education is not the filling of a bucket, it’s the lighting of a fire,’” Ginther said. “Getting people fired up in 4-H, it’s just fun. There’s excitement for yourself as an educator, and for them.
His involvement in the National Extension Leadership Development program provided him opportunities around the country to learn from other extension educators. NELD’s mission is “to build leaders in Cooperative Extension at all levels and provide them with the vision, courage and tools to lead in a changing world.” He credits NELD with teaching him to think creatively.
“I could take concepts learned and bring them back to Pierce County and see how to use them and instill them in a traditional program,” Ginther said.
Many people think of 4-H as a rural program where kids show animals at the far. While that does indeed occur, 4-H has also changed with the times, a fact emphasized by Ginther in a 2018 WPR article. 4-H emphasizes developing life skills such as problem-solving, decision- making and interpersonal communications. Youth not only take part in animal and plant projects, but drama, STEM, shooting sports, and public speaking.
“Youth are a little more distracted these days and put under a great deal of pressure,” Ginther said.
However, rock-solid skills, developing life skills, youth/adult partnerships, experiential learning and enhanced recognition at fairs are still an important part of youth development, Ginther emphasized.
“Communication is still critical and giving youth opportunities to lead and work with adults,” Ginther said. “Helping them understand the value of it all.”
Ginther admits he’s not a parenting expert, but he believes in youth development science, teaching kids to be good listeners while also being one, and teaching them the give-and-take of communication.
“These core elements still work in the 21st century,” Ginther said.
As part of his youth development work outside of 4-H, he taught internet safety in county schools.
“Teaching them the value of technology, but the dangers and risks too,” Ginther said. “Talk with kids about what they’re doing. Stay involved. It takes hard work on both ends. Both sides have contributions.”
As for contributions, Ginther remembers the first time he walked into a largescale banquet. He was nominated for an achievement in service award through a national 4-H educator organization. When he entered the room, he was stunned when 1,200 4-H colleagues stood and applauded him while fanfare music played.
“I hate to brag, but it was a rush!” Ginther said. “My peers recognized me.”
The awards and accolades weren’t the bread and butter of his satisfaction, though they are undoubtedly pleasant. Many nights, Ginther felt a kindred connection with other Extension educators.
“Many nights I’d walk out of the courthouse after a night meeting, felt a good tired, knowing several hundred of me were doing the same thing,” Ginther said. “It can be lonely work, being the only 4H agent in your county.”
That may be why he relished his work as a liaison, helping his colleagues in Wisconsin’s northern counties. He would return from those counties refreshed and reinvigorated with great ideas for Pierce County. As the an academic department chair for the Department of Youth Development before Extension restructured, he supported, helped and advocated for the discipline of youth development for one simple reason: “I believe in it.”
“There is a misconception that all 4-H agents do is play, go to camp, plan parties,” Ginther scoffed. “If I learned one thing from my mentor, we work hard in a social sciences field that has proven research. It’s legitimate work.”
Thank you, Frank
While Ginther had a long list of people he credits for mentoring him, such as his parents Gordon and Leona Ginther, his two “marvelous” sisters, State 4-H Liaison Melanie Miller, Educators Brent Larson and Sheila Craig (Fillmore County), Sievert Olson (Barron County) and former County Board member Ray Anderson, plenty of people look to Ginther as a mentor and an all-around special person.
Pierce County Fair Manager Ann Webb has worked her entire “Fair” career with Ginther.
“It has been a total joy and pleasure to work with someone like Frank who is a dedicated professional and so passionate about the youth of Pierce County,” Webb said. “We worked very closely together before, during and after the Fair to make the Fair the ‘best four days of summer’ for the community and for the 4-Her's to showcase their projects.
“It is impossible to overstate how valuable Frank has been in the success of the Pierce County 4-H program in the years he was here._He was a constant source of encouragement _and guidance which I will forever be grateful for.”
The Pierce County 4-H program is one of the largest in the state, ranking at fifth in size of Wisconsin’s 72 counties.
“Frank has been a true leader in Extension and in Pierce County for over 30 years,” said Area Extension Director Kristen Bruder. “His dedication, enthusiasm, and ability to connect with people in the 4-H community was appreciated by many. He has absolutely touched, and I would also say with confidence, changed many lives during his tenure. As a faculty member of UW-Madison, he contributed to the statewide program through research, curriculum development, program direction, and mentoring of new staff. His impact will resonate for years to come!”
Ginther’s successor, Pierce County native Sky Holt, wants to keep the momentum going.
“I am stepping into some really, really big shoes that I will hopefully eventually be able to fill,” Holt said, who most recently worked in Sawyer County.
Beth Ingli, an Extension support staff member, counts Ginther not only as a colleague, but as a friend.
“I met Frank in June of 1993 and have had the opportunity to work with him as a 4H leader on the club and county level,” Ingli said. “Over the past few years, we have been able to work together in the Pierce County UWEX office, continuing to provide positive experiences for youth in the 4-H program. Frank has become a wonderful friend to the Raleigh and Ingli families over the past 28 years.”
Sandy Radkey, another 4-H office support staff member, is sad Ginther is retiring, but happy for him.
“Frank is going to be very missed in this office,” Radkey said. “Missed by staff, who are more like family, and by the many past and present leaders, members and associates of 4H. Frank brought a special touch to the program and touched the lives of all 4-H members he worked with over the years. His passion for 4-H was always present in everything he did. The members of Pierce County 4-H were lucky to have such a great leader which showed in the hundreds of people that came out to say farewell to him on July 9_at a retirement gathering. I have loved working with Frank over the past many years and will miss his laugh, leadership and friendship. Thank you to Frank for all the work you have done to make Pierce County 4-H one of the very best programs in the state! Best wishes on your retirement my friend!
Ginther, forever humble, is just grateful he made an impact behind the scenes.
“My job was to empower others,” Ginther said. “I must’ve done something right.”
Photo courtesy of Beth Ingli