COLUMBIA, Mo. – The seeds for Missouri’s first National 4-H Congress Endowment Fund were planted in 1944, when a young Cape Girardeau County farm boy took his first train ride to Chicago.

Walt Wilkening was part of University of Missouri Extension’s delegation to the National 4-H Congress at Chicago’s Union Stock Yard. He and other youth escaped the worries of World War II for a few days to share ideas and learn leadership skills.

Pleasures were in short supply in those days. Gas, sugar and shoes were rationed. 4-H members led the planting of Victory Gardens that supplied much of the country’s food. Women entered the workforce for the first time in mass numbers to support the war effort. There were scrap drives for steel, tin, paper and rubber.

While some 4-H members had been lucky enough to see movies like “Meet Me in St. Louis” or “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo” in their hometown theaters, few had seen a live musical. So 4-H’ers were elated when news came that farm machinery company International Harvester would sponsor tickets for them to see the hit musical “Oklahoma!”

The theater couldn’t seat the 1,500 4-H’ers, so the production was taken to them.

One of Wilkening’s friends challenged him to get an autograph from one of the performers. Someone snapped a photo. A few months later, an International Harvester employee hand-delivered Wilkening a copy of the company magazine featuring a cover photo of him getting the coveted autograph.

Cape Girardeau County’s first National 4-H Congress delegate never forgot that trip and he vowed to help others have the same opportunity.

“One of my early ambitions was to help other boys and girls enjoy many of the benefits and pleasures of 4-H,” he said.

As a high school student, Wilkening kept the family farm going when his father became ill and two older brothers were serving their country. His efforts were so notable that MU Extension assistant home demonstration agent Helen Hansen reported that “Walter is doing a very able job of running the 200-acre Wilkening farm, since his brothers are in the armed services.” Despite all his responsibilities, Hansen wrote, “Walter is always anxious to help with 4-H work.”

He was active in 4-H for eight years before attending the University of Missouri. He received a bachelor’s degree in agriculture and a master’s in extension education. He was a county extension agent for 17 years and then spent an additional 23 years with MU. His career included two stints in India, one to establish a research farm. He earned his doctorate in extension administration from the University of Wisconsin.

In the middle of 25 moves, he and his wife, Norma, helped organize the Columbia Fairview 4-H Club. Their sons were members. Norma Wilkening was a teacher.

After retirement, they spent 20 years as volunteers at 27 agencies in the United States and overseas. From building schools in Alaska to installing kitchen floors in the Appalachian Mountains, they traveled around the world seven times, serving in many locations. They now live in Columbia.

The Wilkenings established Missouri’s first National 4-H Congress Endowment Fund in 2010 with a gift of $25,000 to the Missouri 4-H Foundation. In January 2014, they pledged up to $225,000 from their estate to fully endow the Walter T. and Norma R. Wilkening National 4-H Congress Endowment Fund at $250,000.

The National 4-H Congress is now held in Atlanta, and Missouri’s delegation will be supported by the endowment fund and supplemented by annual funds.

“Walt’s experience as a member of the 1944 Congress delegation had a significant impact on him,” said 4-H Foundation executive director Cheryl Reams. “It is the value of this experience that led him and Norma to embrace future Missouri delegations by establishing this historic endowment. Walt and Norma recognize this important need and are leaving a legacy to fulfill it. We are incredibly grateful for their foresight and generosity.”

“4-H has always filled an important need for the young people in Missouri and elsewhere,” Walt said. “My guess is that even though we don’t have many youngsters on the farms anymore, 4-H is perhaps filling an even more important role in the busy lives of today’s youth.”

About Missouri 4-H Foundation

Missouri 4-H Foundation, established in 1949, is a 501(c) (3) nonprofit governed by an elected board of trustees. The mission is to secure and manage resources to enhance and expand the Missouri 4-H program.

For more information, contact Cheryl Reams at 573-882-2680 or [email protected].

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