Jim Dawson had already lived several lives by the time he agreed to be Johnson County’s 4-H educator in 2015.
After 20 years as a high school biology teacher and another nine as hunter education coordinator for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, Dawson contemplated retirement. But when the opportunity came to work with the children of Johnson County, he knew that he couldn’t turn the job down.
“I had three kids that were involved in Johnson County 4-H when it was under the direction of Bonnie Ellenwood,” Dawson said. “Bonnie made a tremendous impact on my kids and many others. A lot of the adult leaders I work with now were there with my kids and developed a love for agriculture during that time. 4-H has been, and will be, a strong part of the Johnson County tradition, and I wanted to be a part of that.”
After nearly five years, Dawson will step down as 4-H educator on March 3. He said he is proud of how much the program has grown during his tenure and looks forward to watching its continued growth.
“Currently, we offer 50 to 60 programs for 290 students in the county, and every one of those has experienced growth over the last few years,” Dawson said. “When I got here in 2015, shooting sports had just a dozen students. Today, that number is at 82. That kind of growth is a testament to all of our amazing volunteers. Kids are participating because they know there is consistency and strong leadership there.”
As 4-H educator, Dawson is responsible for coordinating all the different 4-H programs and maintaining and directing a group of about 75 volunteers.
Before Dawson’s hiring in May 2015, Johnson County 4-H had operated without an educator for roughly two years and was struggling a bit, Dawson said. When Dawson was hired, he made volunteer recruitment a priority.
“I am always on the retention and recruitment bandwagon,” Dawson said. “Luckily, people care about this program and want to participate. Not many county livestock sales can generate over $400,000 each year. That is big money – not just in my world, but anybody’s world. Everybody in this county cares about this program and wants to participate.”
If Dawson shortchanges his own accomplishments in order to praise his volunteer staff – “the bread and butter of the 4-H program,” he says – others from around the state have openly praised him. He has been honored by Wyoming 4-H as both the Rookie 4-H Agent of the Year and Champion 4-H Educator of the Year during his tenure in Johnson County.
“They saw in him that he is so supportive and encouraging of all fair activities,” Wyoming Association of Extension 4-H Agents President Megan Brittingham told the Bulletin after Dawson was honored as Educator of the Year in 2018. “Both at the local and state level. I can tell you from personal experience that any time I have called him, he is right there helping me.”
Gina Pehringer, a member of Johnson County’s 4-H Executive Council, said that Dawson’s contributions to the county’s program could not be overstated.
“He was a breath of fresh air when he took over as Johnson County extension agent,” Pehringer said. “Jim is everywhere and watches over everyone. … He is at almost all 4-H-related events and makes sure he recognizes all the kiddos. He even appears at the members’ non 4-H events, like sports and plays. He is truly a one-of-a-kind guy.”
Fellow council member Kami Kennedy agreed that Dawson had been an essential part of the local 4-H community.
“I appreciate his willingness to delve into all projects,” Kennedy said. “I remember the first year at state fair, and he was taking pictures of cakes and outfits and woodworking projects, along with being present at every livestock show. He encompasses the idea of providing leadership for all kids, and I do appreciate his willingness to include and grow the 4-H program.”
With Dawson’s retirement looming, the University of Wyoming will begin searching for a replacement educator – first organization-wide and then nationwide. Dawson said the hiring process could take several months.
While several county residents have expressed concern that the 4-H program could decline again in Dawson’s absence, Dawson said he wasn’t worried.
“The project areas live and die by dedicated volunteers, and we have some great ones here in Johnson County,” Dawson said. “We have some really dynamic folks doing great things, and I fully expect that to continue.”
Upon retirement, Dawson plans to spend time with his family, raise pheasants and continue volunteering with the local 4-H shooting sports program. He said that he will miss the kids and volunteers he has worked with but hopes to leave them with a legacy of hard work and dedication.
“If I leave them with anything, I hope it is a sense of satisfaction in a job well done,” Dawson said. “Whether you’re shooting targets or showing an animal, that is truly the essence of 4-H to me.”