The First Cooperative Extension County Resource Agent (1962)
“The First Cooperative Extension County Resource Agent (1962)
In November of 1961 I stopped at Ag Hall to say hello to my undergraduate advisor, Dr. Gale Vandeberg. I was working for the International Harvester Corporation at the time. Gale happened to be in his office and proceeded to tell me about a new position that was to be established in Columbia County.
The University had received a Ford Foundation grant; a small portion of the grant was earmarked for Cooperative Extension, to be used to carry out a pilot project to extend University resources to new clientele. He urged me to apply. Details were scarce, but for the next several days I couldn’t help but think about the concept, excited at the possibility of being a part of such an effort. My undergraduate degree was, after all, in “Extension Education.”
The guidelines were broad, and such a project had never been attempted in a single county. A few agents in northern Wisconsin had carried out regional programs in recreation and tourism. Sherm Weiss was one of these early agents.
I applied for the position and was selected by the District Director and the Columbia County Extension Committee. When my wife asked what I would be doing, at that point I had some difficulty describing what that would be. The starting salary was $7,000 (that’s per year, not per month). I started on January 2, 1962.
Columbia County was a progressive county with a long history of good Extension programs and solid support of those programs. New clientele was not hard to find; the challenge rather was to match University personnel and resources to the problems and opportunities. We reached over 1,000 small business people with educational programs the first year alone.
We worked closely with community leaders as we planned and built our programs. Initial citizen surveys, which identified priorities and opinions, were an important part of the program. These surveys also identified the power structure. As priorities and needs were identified, we designed projects and programs to address them. I had countless meetings with Chambers of Commerce, local governments, small businesses, and industry and community leaders. Most programs and meetings took place in the evenings; the hours were long but productive.
Cooperative Extension and General Extension at that time were separate arms of University Extension. In the Columbia County project we found many ways to extend both through a county extension office. In later years these two Extension outreach services were merged into a single UW-Extension. We like to think that the Columbia County experience facilitated that process.
After the initial three years of Ford Foundation funding, the Columbia County government voted to continue the Resource Development position on a similar financial arrangement as other county Extension positions (Youth, Home Economics, and Agriculture). The success of the project caused other counties to establish similar positions, and the Community Development Program became established in the UW-Extension.
As the program expanded to other counties, resource agents requested specialist support at the state level. Training programs were developed for community development resource agents in the field.
This is a very brief overview of an important part of Extension’s history. I was fortunate to be a part of the founding of a key program. It was an exciting time, and an example of the University of Wisconsin meeting citizen needs, something we all know as the “Wisconsin Idea.”
— Palmer E. McCoy, Professor Emeritus, UW-Extension