Standing out from behind the scenes
- Mardi Ford
- The Observer
It takes a lot of dedicated volunteers to put on an event like the Eastern Oregon Livestock Show. Moms and dads, 4-H leaders and ag teachers all work long hours behind the scenes without fanfare so the entire region can come and celebrate the Western lifestyle at its Eastern Oregon best.
It's hard to shine the spotlight on just one, with so many unsung heroes to choose from. But last October at their annual banquet, the 4-H leaders of Union County honored one such volunteer for outstanding service to the local 4-H community.
This same man was also nominated by local ag teachers and FFA chapters, for recognition at the State FFA Convention in Corvallis with it's highest award Â— the State Degree.
The man is Rolen Johnson, a loss control representative with Country Insurance who lives in Salem.
Though his name may not be well known outside 4-H and FFA circles, his face has been a familiar one at stock show for several years. He works in the show ring, helps out in the auctioneer stand, sorts score cards and empties garbage cans Â— eager to take on any task he is asked to do.
"Carole (Smith) asked me why I keep coming back," he says, "You know, the reason is simple Â— it's just fun. I really don't have any responsibilities. I'm the general gopher. It's just fun pitching in and doing whatever needs to be done."
Probably the coolest thing about Johnson is that he doesn't come every year because he has to Â— he comes because he just flat out loves it.
For the past eight years, he's taken time off work to drive down from Salem to camp at the stock show grounds. He parks his motor home along with the rest and goes to work.
"I got up one morning, went outside, and here's this kid walking along. Head down, spoon in his hand, gobbling up a bowl of cereal, slopping milk all the way," Johnson says. "He was headed for the barn. I just had to chuckle. That said it all."
He gets it. Not everybody does.
Rolen Johnson's heart surely beats to the rhythm of the rural West.
He grew up in the Coos Bay area on the "fringes of agriculture," as he puts it.
"I was always fascinated with agriculture. I just grew up loving farms. I wanted to be a farmer, and I used to help out a local farmer a little bit. I was the first chapter FFA president in my high school that didn't come from an ag background," he says proudly.
In 1999, he read an article in the Capitol Press that the funding was being cut for youth market programs at the Eastern Oregon Livestock Show and at a similar event held annually in Tygh Valley in Wasco County.
He thought Country Insurance should get involved and pitched support as a marketing opportunity to his boss. He came out and visited with Roy Hamilton, who was the 4-H Extension agent before Smith, and Judge Russ West, stock show president that year Â— taking pictures of everything.
He came back that June to work.
"That first year I came out, they stuck me in the hog ring with a board and I've been there ever since," he laughs.
What Johnson doesn't do is come to oversee how the company's money is spent. If he thinks about the money at all, it's as an investment in the future.
"The truth is, we're losing ag people. Farms are getting bigger and regular people are having a harder time making it in small family operations. Times are changing. Kids grow up, go away to college and a lot of them don't come back," he says. "These kids growing up here today," his sweeping gesture encompasses the stock show grounds, "they're the leaders of tomorrow."
Johnson believes the skills and discipline learned through 4-H and FFA programs forge exceptional youth. His favorite part of the competition is showmanship. He calls it the heart of the stock show because it's not about how great the animal is, he explains, but how well the young owner works with the animal. Showmanship is about the kids, he says.
"It's fun to watch 'em Â— fun to interact with them. So many kids today have such cocky attitudes, cocky and sassy. You just don't see that here," he says. "They're tough competitors, don't get me wrong. But once the competition is over, they can laugh together."
Though he loves talking up the kids, the stock show and the community, he had reservations being singled out for an interview. But the fact that he chooses to serve this way, in a community where he does not live, is noteworthy.
"I feel kinda like, Â‘Gee, shucks.' There's hundreds of volunteers at this show that have done more than I have," he says. "I don't do anything special anybody else doesn't do." Spoken like a true Eastern Oregonian.