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4-H Promotion Compendium: National 4-H Congress In Chicago

A National Compendium of 4-H Promotion and Visibility over the Past Century

National 4-H Congress In Chicago

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As 4-H history goes, there has never been another event like it. And, there never will be &emdash; National 4-H Congress in Chicago &emdash; the annual event that captivated so many for over 70 years.

It is what literally kept tens of thousands of teens in 4-H &emdash; a goal to win a trip to National 4-H Congress.

Guy Noble, director of the National Committee on Boys and Girls Club Work (now National 4-H Council), who conducted the first Armour Tours of boys and girls in Chicago in 1919, and continued on with National 4-H Club Congresses for over 30 years, explained that 4-H Club Congress cannot be described on paper. One has to be a part of it and "feel" it to fully comprehend it. Perhaps Noble was correct. For the thousands who were fortunate enough to attend one or more of the Congresses held in Chicago it was, indeed, an experience of a lifetime. For the delegates it was awe-inspiring &emdash; new friends, new experiences, perhaps a time to think in ways they had never thought before. For the adults &emdash; the Extension leaders, representatives of donor companies, speakers and entertainers, even the media, it was inspiring &emdash; a week that often regenerated you to do your job better, lead your life more fully.

Walter John, director of information services, Extension, USDA, wrote these words in the December 10, 1970 newsletter, upon returning from Chicago. In referring to 4-H Congress, John said, "4-H Congress is the Greatest Youth Happening in Today's World. It had just about everything that appeals to youth... serious discussion, entertainment, awards, good food, music, dancing and lots of public attention." He went on to express his admiration for the tremendous interest and participation shown by the individual national and regional donors. "The National 4-H Congress is the epitome of success in joint action of government, education and industry in helping youth find its role in this world."

For many delegates, the week in Chicago might be considered over-whelming. Being in a large city &emdash; some of the delegates coming from rural counties not having a single building with an elevator. They were now staying at the largest hotel in the world... being served meals by waiters with white gloves and perhaps eight pieces of silverware at their place setting. For that one week each year, 4-H ruled the second largest city in the nation. 4-H flags flew from every street light up and down Michigan Avenue. 4-H'ers marched down the center of State Street. They took over Marshall Fields department store, the Chicago Board of Trade and the Art Institute. Chicago media filled the airwaves and gave the young people hundreds of column inches of news copy. Corporate executives from the Fortune 500 companies not only shook their hands and honored the delegates with formal banquets and press conferences, but actually sat down and talked with them and asked about their plans for the future or about issues of the day. They heard guest speakers &emdash; everyone from Olympic stars Jesse Owens and Rafer Johnson and advise columnist Ann Landers, to aviatrix Amelia Earhart, actors Dennis Day and James Cagney, and Sgt. Alvin York. There were also sports stars such as Ted Williams and Babe Didrickson Zaharias, and politicians like John Foster Dulles and Hubert Humphrey. The delegates enjoyed the entertainment including the Brothers and Sisters, Serendipity Singers, Up With People, The Ides of March, Chandler Conspiracy, Alabama, Chicago Ballet, and Arthur Fiedler, conductor of the Boston 'Pops', leading the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for 20 years straight.

But, National 4-H Congress in Chicago was widely known for something else, too. This was the publicity it generated. For many years &emdash; even during the years when there were Democratic and Republican National Conventions &emdash; National 4-H Congress traditionally was one of the top four visibility conventions in America. There would normally be 400, 500, 600 media representatives registered with the 4-H Congress Media headquarters. The National 4-H Service Committee put releases out to every newspaper, radio station and television station in the United States. A release was written on each of the 1,600 delegates, which were then sent out with photos/captions.

For two weeks prior to 4-H Congress, a couple dozen local news reporters from the daily newspapers would come to the Service Committee offices each day after work, freelancing, pouring over the delegate record books and writing releases on delegates for four or five hours into the night. During the event, Extension information specialists bolstered the Service Committee staff &emdash; some 25-30 attending each year for a week on a rotational basis. They wrote stories to send out to the wire services, covered Congress events (sometimes as many as 15-20 happening at the same time), interviewed delegates for radio and television and supported the hundreds of media reps in attendance.


Donor companies sponsoring the awards programs often brought their own media crews and blanketed the trade publications in their particular industries. Many also contracted with the Service Committee to have television interviews done with each of their 50 winners and in some cases, three interviews, one for each of the back home network affiliates. They would often bring in their own interviewers &emdash; sometimes celebrities. In the Press Headquarters, which took up an entire exhibition hall, you could possibly see Jim Nabors or Andy Griffith, top TV stars of the day, interviewing food-nutrition delegates in one booth for General Foods while the Kentucky Fried Chicken staff had Col. Harlan Sanders in the next booth with their poultry winners. And, maybe a young Dave Letterman would be in another booth interviewing Indiana delegates for his back home Indianapolis 4-H TV show called "Clover Power."

Colonel Harlan Sanders, founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken
Colonel Harlan Sanders, founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken, greets one of the poultry winners to National 4-H Congress during a television production. KFC, sponsor of the National 4-H Poultry Awards Program, televised all their sectional and national winners for back home news coverage during the Congress week.

After 4-H Congress was over, the work was far from done. All interviews were carefully documented. Many of the broadcasters from the media regularly turned in sheets of interviews they had done during the week with the delegates from their coverage areas. The Service Committee contracted with three major clipping services and hired three part-time helpers for two months to go through clippings, separating them out by program and donor. The resulting donor reports on media coverage of the donor-sponsored programs were not only impressive; they were overwhelming. This is one of the reasons the Service Committee was able to retain these large awards donors for an average of 20 years tenure. None of them ever received that kind of factual reporting for other contributions they were making.

While Chicagoans certainly knew that the 4-H'ers "were in town," people across America, particularly in the '30s-'70s, also knew that 4-H Congress was once again going on in Chicago. News reels being shown in the movie houses across America reported from 4-H Congress, as well as all the radio networks; and, later nightly network TV news covered the event.

One example of this: Coverage of National 4-H Congress just by Chicago newspapers alone, in 1953 totaled 4,711 column inches of stories &emdash; nearly 27 full newspaper pages eight columns wide! With Chicago then the center of the infant television industry in the '50s, the National Committee was able to attract nationwide audiences for 4-H with 65 network and 150 Chicago radio-TV broadcasts at the '54 National 4-H Congress.

From the standpoint of promotion and visibility and bringing the achievements of 4-H &emdash; and 4-H'ers &emdash; to the general public, there is little doubt that National 4-H Congress in Chicago is at the top of the list.

The National 4-H History Preservation team has researched and written a history of National 4-H Congress which is completed in draft form (some 200 pages) but not yet up on the history website.

Compiled by National 4-H History Preservation Team.

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