In 1986, when Gwen Gentry Clark graduated from N.C. State University with a bachelor’s degree in agricultural education, she made a list of goals she hoped to achieve in her career as a high-school agriculture teacher. Prominent among those goals was for at least one of her students go on to obtain the coveted American FFA Degree. This year, as she celebrated her 25th year as an agriculture teacher at Avery County High, she also celebrated the achievement of that goal – twice over. Not one but two of her former students became the first students ever from Avery County to earn the degrees, which they received at the 2011 National FFA Convention in Indianapolis, Ind., this past October.
One of the two honorees is Clark’s former student Olivia Watson, who graduated from Avery in 2009 and is now a College of Agriculture and Life Sciences student majoring in agricultural education at N.C. State. The other is 2010 Avery graduate and current Lenoir-Rhyne University student Jared Clark — who is also Gwen Clark’s son.
Jared and Olivia were among 60 FFA members from North Carolina who earned the American FFA Degree for 2011.
“This was a goal I set as a teacher for my career, because of the honor that goes along with the recognition,” Clark said. “The American FFA Degree is the highest award an FFA member can earn as an individual.”
Clark explained that to qualify for the degree, members must have been in FFA for three years and have already earned the State FFA Degree. “They must have satisfactory high-school instruction in agricultural education classes for three years, or 540 hours, as well,” she said. “The member must have graduated from high school at least 12 months prior to the National Convention. The student must maintain a SAE (Supervised Agricultural Experience) program and have exhibited comprehensive planning, managerial and financial expertise.”
The student must also have earned and productively invested at least $7,500 or have earned and productively invested $1,500 and worked 2,250 hours, she said.
“It is a strenuous application and one that an FFA member must set a goal of achieving while in high school, as early as the 10th grade,” Clark said.
Clark, who now resides in Pineola, was unable to pursue that goal herself as a high-school student in Jonesville, because she did not live on a farm, and “according to the requirements when I was in high school as an FFA member, I did not qualify,” she said. “Today, with the diversity of agriculture and the many levels of SAE, FFA members have more opportunity to earn the American Degree.”
(However, in 1999, Clark was awarded the Honorary American FFA Degree. “The state FFA nominated me as an agriculture teacher, and I was humbled and honored to receive this degree,” she said.)
After high school she attended Surry Community College in Dobson, before transferring to N.C. State and earning her degree in agricultural education. She received her 1990 master’s degree in agricultural education from N.C. A&T State University and obtained her National Board Certification in 2005.
“My whole experience at NCSU was amazing,” said Clark, who noted the among her favorite faculty members Dr. Carm Parkhurst (poultry science), Bryce Lane (horticulture) and Dr. Roy Larson (floriculture), as well as “the entire ag-ed staff,” including Dr. Gary Moore, Dr. Jim Flowers and Dr. Barbara Kirby.
While a student, “I loved working at the arboretum and in all the greenhouses,” she said. “And when I was a little sister at FarmHouse Fraternity, we always worked hard at our service projects. We also had a great group of people in the AgEd Club. I am still in contact and work with many of the people I went to NCSU with; college friends are your family, and we all try to keep up and get together throughout the year.”
Now into her 26th year at Avery County High, she teaches three levels of horticulture courses and agricultural advanced studies. “I have taught animal science, welding and biotechnology,” Clark said. “I am also a dual enrollment instructor with our local community college.”
And, of course, she is adviser to the high school’s FFA. “I enjoy working with the students. They are the heartbeat of the school,” she said. “I also enjoy working with the FFA. The leadership potential through the FFA is amazing. I am a product of it myself. Watching students gain self confidence and know that they are unique and that there is a place for them in this organization is amazing.”
Clark was determined to encourage the students “to reach the highest level in the National FFA Organization,” she said. “I have had students aspire to doing the American Degree, but once they graduated from high school, they either moved away, lost interest or just did not work on the form even when I had times set aside to help them. I wanted to have at least one FFA member get this. The honor is that a very small percentage ever obtains this award.”
When Jared and Olivia came through this year, her list of goals was fulfilled. “In the first 13 years I taught, I put a check mark beside nine of 10 items,” she said. “Now, I can put a check mark beside the last one.”
Another reason this is so important, she said, “is that the two students earning the American Degree this year are very close to my heart. They both are amazing young people.”
It was in 2007 that Olivia informed Clark that she intended to get the American FFA Degree. Then, the next year, Jared “surprised me with the information that he was also going to get his degree,” Clark said. “I worked with them and encouraged them to keep great SAE records and follow all the requirements” that led to their success in 2011.
Clark said that Olivia will graduate from N.C. State in 2012 (finishing a year early) and is a member of the collegiate FFA, Alpha Tau Alpha and the Agriculture Education Club. Meanwhile Jared is now in the class of 2014 at Lenoir-Rhyne, where he also plays baseball and is a leader with the Campus Crusade for Christ.
And there is another significant note to Jared’s story: “Well, he is pretty amazing,” his mom said, “because he was born without a left hand. He has amniotic band syndrome, which is not genetic. We had no idea until the day he was born. Well, once we were over the shock and came to terms with this, we adapted. He is amazing because he can do everything.”
“Everything” includes playing “any sport,” Clark said. “When he was younger, he played baseball, basketball, football and soccer. In middle school he wanted to only play baseball so he played year-round. He is a first baseman and a pitcher. He practiced and never gave up — the harder something seemed the more he worked.”
With successful results, she said: “He hit six out-of-the-park homeruns during his senior year in high school and helped to lead his team to the 1-A playoffs. He also was able to be a walk-on for the baseball team at LRU.”
As his high-school senior year project, Jared helped develop a titanium “arm” for his use in lifting weights and for shooting his rifle, shotgun and archery bow. “He met with his doctor at Wake Forest University, and they worked together to develop this ‘arm.’ It is really cool and now he can lift weights and do some other activities he is interested in,” Clark said.
“All this is pretty incredible, because he is so normal, most of the time you don’t realize he is missing his left hand. He has chosen to teach, and he would love to be a 4th grade teacher — his favorite grade. But he will be certified in elementary education, as well as business, so the sky is the limit for him.”
When Clark isn’t busy with school and FFA, she is active in her church and with local agricultural organizations such as the Avery County Fair, Farm Bureau, Christmas Tree Growers Association and the local Cooperative Extension Service.
And along with her husband, Dee, daughter, Carson, and Jared, she does her part in the family business: “We have Fraser Fir Christmas trees, evergreen trees and shrubs, native ornamental plants such as rhododendron and Mountain Laurel, shade trees and landscaping plants — and we also have one retail Christmas Tree lot. This is a year-round rotation with the plants we raise,” she said. “My part in all this is that I teach at Avery High, so I also help to recruit workers for our tree lot, make wreaths and bows for the tree lot, work on the lot when needed. I also help out where ever I am needed. “
What lies ahead, she said, “is a guess of sorts. Right now I still am happy and content with working, but I also am excited about the possibility of retiring. I am in the ‘short rows’ of my teaching career and could retire sometime in the next three to five years. I think it would be a cool thing to retire and do another type of career but one that still has something to do with agriculture and working with people.
“My husband I have marked off several things from our personal list, but we have a couple more big things we want to do. Then when we are really old, we can sit on our porch and rock in our chairs.”
In the meantime, she has added a few extra goals to the old list.
“I would like to have another FFA member from Avery County be a state FFA officer, have a few more regional FFA officers, have my CDE ( Career Development Event) teams make it to the state competition, have more state FFA degrees and hopefully a few more American Degrees,” she said. “I want our FFA alumni to expand a bit, and I want to leave on a good note.”
Until then, “I still have a year and a half with my daughter in high school; she is a regional FFA officer for 2011-12. She wants to be a nurse anesthetist, and I am excited to see how her high-school story shapes up,” Clark said.
“I could not have ever dreamed of how awesome the past 25 years have been. I am looking forward to many more.” — Terri Leith