You do what you can when you can,” says Dorothy Sparks, who attended the first Missouri 4-H Congress 68 years ago and continues to be an active volunteer.
Sparks is one of 47 Missourians who will be inducted into the Missouri 4-H Hall of Fame on Aug. 17.
Sparks has been involved in Pettis County’s 4-H program since 1939, first as a member, then as leader and now as the club’s oldest volunteer.
“It was a way of life,” she says of her early involvement in 4-H and University of Missouri Extension.
Like many women of that era, her mother did not drive, so Sparks and her brothers waited until their father got in from working the fields to go to meetings as a family at the one-room schoolhouse down the road. The meetings provided educational opportunities for the youngsters and a time for socializing for parents.
Her mother also learned homemaking skills, made friends and shared recipes with other women in the community through monthly extension club meetings.
“Extension was designed to pull people out of the Depression—to help people do better, to be better,” she says.
Sparks showed poultry as a 4-H project and also learned valuable cooking and sewing skills at home and through 4-H.
When she was 12, Sparks was chosen to attend Missouri’s first 4-H Congress at MU. Owen Fox, Pettis County agent at the time, told her that “you represent Pettis County,” and she has passed those words along to others who followed.
Sparks said a new world opened to her when she arrived on campus. “It was like being tossed into a big pond. It was a chance to see there was something outside our little area,” she said.
Sparks graduated high school at 16, took 10 credit hours at Central Missouri State University at Warrensburg, and taught school for two years to 25 students in grades 1-8 at a one-room schoolhouse. She was paid $95 per month, plus an additional $5 monthly for janitorial services such as cleaning and building a fire in the woodstove. Her students who were 4-H members grew a garden and then canned the produce for use in school lunches.
At 18, she married the young man who had grown up on the adjoining farm. They were married 61 years before his death three years ago. When she was 19, they had a son, Gordon, who lives on the adjoining Century Farm. He and his son are 4-H volunteers. Gordon’s wife, Kay, is the 4-H youth specialist for Pettis County. At 20, she had a daughter, Charla Jording of Sedalia. She, too, is a 4-H volunteer.
Sparks held seasonal office jobs and was a substitute teacher before becoming chief of financial management and analysis at Whiteman Air Force Base. She now works seasonally with the county collector’s office and keeps active with three grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
Sparks is quick to point to record-keeping skills she learned in 4-H as the key to 28-year career at Whiteman. “Everything I learned in 4-H has served me well,” she says.
She is happy that 4-H has kept with the times by appealing to urban children as well as rural children and adding projects for those with an interest in science and computers.
Today, Sparks continues to volunteer in many ways, whether it be serving on fair committees, helping with Achievement Day, providing transportation or making multitudes of Rice Krispies treats.
“I go where I am needed. I don’t think you ever retire from 4-H,” Sparks says.
About Missouri 4-H Hall of Fame
The Missouri 4-H Hall of Fame was established by the Missouri 4-H Foundation in 2007 to honor the legacy of outstanding 4-H volunteers.
Volunteers must have at least 20 years of service to be nominated. This year’s 47 members have logged 1,465 combined years of service, averaging 35 years, and representing 40 counties.
Missouri 4-H Foundation sponsors the Hall of Fame program in partnership with FCS Financial and the Missouri State Fair.