Northeast District Director Travis Burke can’t wait to see what unfolds as Extension’s next century begins.
Travis Burke, Extension director for the Northeast District, has never been afraid to try new things. A farm kid, he decided in the 1970s to leave Perquimans County to attend N.C. State University, where he majored in agricultural education, in the College of Agriculture and Sciences.
A motivated student, Burke completed his bachelor’s degree in three years, taking courses during the summers. He was somewhat out of his element – in the vast majority of his classes, he recalls that he was the only African-American student. His goal was to become an agricultural education teacher.
When it came time for student teaching his senior year, Burke decided to go to the North Carolina mountains because it was “somewhere that I’d never been before. I just wanted a good experience so I went to the mountains. The mountains back in the ‘70s were probably a little different for me.” Burke said there were not many African Americans living in the mountains at the time, and attitudes about race were somewhat evolving.
Coming from Perquimans County, a county of about 9,000 people, to N.C. State was a big adjustment. Burke eventually earned a master’s degree and doctorate from N.C. State as well. “Coming up here, then going up to the mountains, I just always wanted to do what nobody else would do. Then you’ll end up doing what no one else will do.”
Burke did his student teaching in Rutherford County under John and Chevas Bradley – “excellent ag teachers,” he said. One day while teaching, he was called to the principal’s office to answer a call from former 4-H director Dr. Mike Davis, who was then Extension’s personnel director. Davis told him, “I was interested in seeing if you wanted to consider being an Extension agent. I understand you’re doing your student teaching.”
Davis recalls that he saw a lot of qualities in Burke that would serve him well as an Extension professional. “His technical preparation was outstanding and his ability to relate well with people from all walks of life was very evident,” Davis said.
Burke didn’t really want to work for Extension at the time, but he talked with Davis in Raleigh anyway. Later that summer while finishing course work, he was interviewed by Josephine Patterson, the Northeast District Extension director at the time, at a restaurant in Elizabeth City. She suggested that he talk with Pasquotank County Extension Director Don Baker.
“I finished my courses on a Friday and started work on Monday; been with Extension ever since,” Burke said. His first position was as a 4-H and livestock agent in Pasquotank County, next door to his home county.
Burke and his seven siblings were involved some in 4-H, and his mother was very active in home demonstration. His oldest brother was involved in 4-H electric projects and enrolled at N.C. A&T State University in industrial engineering in the late 1960s. But when Greensboro exploded in riots during the civil rights movement, his brother decided to return home. Three other siblings graduated from the 1890s land-grant institution of Delaware State University.
Extension staffs were bigger when Burke began work in 1982. In addition to his 50 percent position in 4-H, there was another full-time 4-H agent and two family and consumer sciences agents.
Burke spent 28 years in Pasquotank County, assuming the role of county Extension director in 1998, and in 2010, he became district Extension director for the his home district, the Northeast. During his tenure, the district has grown and now extends from Raleigh to the coast along the Virginia border. It is a wild, beautiful area of large farms, rural roads and long stretches in between towns.
What Burke values about his time in Extension are the relationships that continue – former 4-H’ers who became Extension agents or specialists. They come back to visit him and stay in touch by phone. One former 4-H’er offended her family a little when she called Burke first to tell him she had just bought her first home. He smiles when he shows off photos sent by former 4-H’ers, and he remembers everyone’s family connections.
“I have several agents and 4-H’ers that were in my program that have become very successful. Brent Jennings, N.C. State’s 4-H livestock specialist, was one of my 4-H’ers.”
According to Burke, Jennings didn’t know anything about livestock judging before he joined Burke’s livestock club about the age of 10 or 11. The experience earned Jennings a scholarship to Butler County Community College in Kansas, where his livestock judging team won national titles. Jennings later transferred to N.C. State, and the rest is history.
“Travis was kind enough to take me under his wing and encourage me to pursue livestock judging in 4-H. There is no question that without the vision of Travis, I would not be where I am today,” Jennings said. “He has been and continues to be a great inspiration for me and so many others who were fortunate to have him as a 4-H agent growing up.”
Burke is excited about how interest in agriculture has come full circle for Extension since its beginning in 1914. “And now, 100 years later, what are we doing – ‘local foods’ is our flagship program. People want to go back to the soil and raise their own food. Food safety is an issue. People want to make sure they have a really safe end product. So Extension is needed more than ever.”
Recent years have been challenging for Extension administrators like Burke, who have to try each year to do the job with fewer dollars. “I don’t want to say ‘budgets,’ but… the challenging thing is to try and provide people in Extension with the things they need to be successful. You just have to do the best you can with the resources you’ve got,” he said.
“The challenging thing is to find good people who want to do Extension work and be successful at it. All in all, it’s good work; it’s a good job. And if you want to help people, this is the job for you.”
There is no typical week for a district Extension director, Burke said, but he sums up his recent travels this way, “I was in Perquimans today, and then tomorrow is Pasquotank. I was Halifax yesterday. I was in Hyde last week – well one day I was in Hyde and Tyrrell – and the next day, Dare, and the day before that, Bertie, and Martin the other day. It just depends on what’s going on.”
He says he travels 35,000 to 40,000 miles a year on business in his district and takes three local newspapers. It’s enough to make most folks’ heads spin.
According to Mike Davis, Burke has excelled because of his incredible work ethic. “Over the years, Travis and I have communicated at all hours of the day and night about 4-H youth development challenges and opportunities and the need for agents to be ‘managers’ of their 4-H youth development program. Travis has been aggressive in building impactful and financially sustainable programs at every step of his career,” Davis said.
Burke also has been active in Extension’s recent visioning initiative, to determine a future direction for N.C. Cooperative Extension, and he is confident that Extension will be here for another 100 years.
“I think there’s going to be a constant with Extension – what the Morrill Act and the Smith-Lever Act put in place was educating people using research, teaching and Extension. We’re still going to be doing that,” Burke said.
“We will always be in the business of helping people. We may be doing it a little differently. The changes that have happened in the first 100 years have been tremendous. I don’t know if there will be the same level of change from this century to the next. But it will be interesting to see what unfolds.”
Burke, who is single, is known throughout N.C. Cooperative Extension for his tremendous energy and dedication to his work. What does he do in his spare time? Work for Extension. What does he do on vacation? Work for Extension.
“Most people don’t realize that Travis has taken a week of his time every summer for the last 12 years to instruct with the Shelton Leadership Challenge at N.C. State,” Davis said. “It has been my honor to be a colleague, mentor and friend of Travis for nearly 30 years. He is a true role model of the highest order.”
What will Burke do when, heaven forbid, he decides to retire? He really doesn’t want to think about what life will be like without Extension, though there is some talk of a political future.
“I never had a bad day in my career. I never had a day when I just dragged myself out of bed to go to work,” Burke said. “I’m glad I chose this path. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
— Natalie Hampton