By Jack Pitzer
I grew up on a 240-acre grain and livestock farm in central Illinois. I was active in 4-H and was in FFA at Toulon Township High School. I was particularly interested in the chapter history and getting articles about our chapter into the newspaper. I served as a state officer before going to the University of Illinois.
I was signed up for a General Ag curriculum but during the first semester there was a session for all freshmen to help them learn about other career fields in agriculture. One of the sessions announced an emerging Ag Journalism department. Hearing that was one of the great milestones in my life.
I transferred to Ag Journalism – it was in the College of Agriculture at that time. The instructor for the first couple years was Jon Greeneisen, who went on to a long career with the Farm Credit System. His replacement was Dr. Jim Evans who became a friend and mentor for my life.
During those first two years of college, I was part of the fledgling ag journalism club for students that was a likely example for the future creation of the ACT organization. Funny – it was called BYMAC – Bright Young Men In Ag Communications. There were no women in the program and hardly any in the College except in Home Economics.
I graduated from the U of I in the summer of 1963 as part of the first class of Ag Com graduates. I also received a commission as a 2nd Lieutenant in the US Army Quartermaster Corps. (I had participated in the ROTC program for four years at U of I.)
I served as Post Food Advisor at Ft. Knox, KY, for two years. While I was stationed there, I met my wife of 54 years, Pat, who was from Louisville
When my tour was over, I interviewed for jobs in the food industry until on one trip my focus changed. I had casually met two ag communicators (both farm broadcasters from Louisville) and realized I had connections in agricultural communications and a true interest in the field I had studied.
So I stopped searching for food service jobs and called Dr. Evans at the U of I. One job opening at that time was on the staff of The National FUTURE FARMER magazine in Alexandria, VA. I interviewed for that job as an ad salesman with Wilson Carnes. While on the interview I learned that the associate editor of the magazine was thinking of moving back to Texas. So I accepted the job in Virginia in the fall of 1965 and in a few months was moved into the editorial position as associate editor.
I started with a manual typewriter and a chance to carry on from my happy days as FFA reporter. (I remember fondly getting my first issue of the FFA magazine as a Greenhand FFAer on the farm. And I recall reading Wilson Carnes’ editorials in each issue.) So it was a great closing of the circle.
Part of my duties included selecting jokes for the famous joke page in the magazine, and writing the FFA in Action column based on news submitted by chapter reporters. In addition, I was often assigned other FFA duties such as promoting National FFA Week, producing the National FFA Calendar each year, and later writing daily pieces of FFA news for the Ag Ed Network that was started as an informational source for high school ag teachers.
I attended my first AAEA meeting in Chicago at the famous hotel there in 1966 and right away met some of the greats in our industry. Because of my interest in history, I quickly volunteered to work on that for AAEA and in those early years would bring a piece of history to the annual meeting such as one of the meal blessings from famous editors in the past.
Eventually I was named chair of the history committee and helped formulate a plan to collect our materials. We started them at the USDA Library in Beltsville, but eventually moved them to the U of I Main library In Urbana where they are maintained today. It was a pleasure to help with the transition of the boxes from one library system to another and find how current library technology can help organize and make the historical materials available to members.
As my involvement in AAEA continued, I served on committees and helped at the annual meetings which were usually in Chicago or later in other Midwestern cities. I did attend the famous Flame Meeting in the Ozarks that was a change time for the AAEA.
By then I was serving terms on the AAEA board. My part of the change process was helping bring to the table an idea to form the AAEA Foundation. There was upheaval in the ranks at that time about our standards and ethics as regards to accepting trips or gifts from sponsor firms. So I suggested an organizational structure for the Foundation that was nearly parallel to the way the National FFA Foundation was operated.
I was elected president of AAEA for the 1986-87 year. When I got to Minneapolis for our annual meeting that year, I was surprised to learn about some protest-like letters circulating among the membership to “do something” about changing the sponsorship system. The solution was to have the AAEA Foundation accept donations for educational and improvement programs.
During my term I also helped create an organizational structure for the AAEA Foundation which met separately from the AAEA board. We also began the work of investing funds for the future.
After my term as president I helped again on the history project and attended many meetings. My family of three sons and Pat and I loved going to the summer meetings. Pat and I also enjoyed trips to IFAJ as representatives for the AAEA.
I always want to credit my involvement in AAEA to the encouragement of Wilson Carnes. He always supported the younger editors at FFA to attend the meetings, participate in contests, and help with committees. At this point there have been five men from the FFA magazine who have served as president – Wilson in 1975, Len Richardson in 1984 who created the Flame meeting, myself in 1987, Joe Dan Boyd in 1995 and Mike Wilson in 2017. Also Paul Weller was AAEA executive secretary/treasurer for many years.
Not long after The National FUTURE FARMER changed its name to FFA NEW HORIZONS, I moved from the magazine staff to the communications staff of the National FFA Organization. My duties there included managing the National FFA Career Show as part of the annual National FFA Convention.
When the FFA moved its offices to Indianapolis, IN, in 1998, I declined the offer to move and stayed in Alexandria, VA, where our family was located, we owned our home, and I had many great affiliations (including the Alexandria Harmonizers Barbershop Chorus that I often spoke about with fellow AAEA members.)
One year at the AAEA Foundation fundraising auction my “ag editor friends” pulled a trick on me and announced that since I was always talking about barbershop quartets, they thought it was time for me to demonstrate my talents in that regard. And figuring I’d say I needed three other singers for a quartet, they had contacted my wife who helped them find three singers there in Kansas City. So when I tried to escape the scene, in walked three top notch barbershop quartet guys. So I couldn’t get out of it.
Someone bid $100 and we sang a song. Someone else asked for an encore, and I said “not til you give another $100 for the Foundation.” It was a fun memory.
My other memories include so many friendships from all across the nation. In those days, we got to see folks more often because editors would come to meetings and AAEA events in Washington, DC, during the year. Naturally those of us AAEAers who were local were recruited to help organize spring meetings in DC each year. Those were some terrific experiences such as receptions in embassies, White House photo ops with Presidents in the Rose Garden, and a dinner cruise down the Potomac to Mount Vernon.
It was part of my last duties as an FFA employee to close the gates at the National FFA Center in Alexandria near Mount Vernon in 1998. After that, I managed JMP Productions – an association management firm starting with the National FFA Career Show. Our client list expanded to include a number of small not-for-profit groups that we were especially well suited to manage.
I closed my business in 2011 and retired. We are still in Alexandria but remain active with National FFA Foundation board committees, history chairman for my barbershop chorus about to celebrate its 75th year, and president of the Friends of Frying Pan Farm Park near DC.
It was a terrific honor to have received the Lifetime Achievement Award from AAEA in 2011.