DeKALB – Even though she didn’t know it existed, Donna Schultz-Xidis was named to the Illinois 4-H Hall of Fame last month.
“I was really totally unaware of it until I got a letter saying I had been selected,” the DeKalb woman said with a laugh.
The Illinois 4-H Foundation established the hall of fame in 2004 to honor and celebrate extraordinary 4-H alumni, volunteers and former staff.
Schultz-Xidis, who grew up on a farm in Peoria County, has been involved in 4-H as a member and adult leader. Today, she is the superintendent of visual arts for DeKalb County.
After graduating from one of the last one-room schoolhouses in the state – where she was one of 17 students – Schultz-Xidis attended the University of Illinois, where she graduated with a degree in apparel design and a minor in art. She was a graphic artist for Carson Pirie Scott for many years and also earned a master’s degree in mental health from Northern Illinois University.
After moving to DeKalb in 1973, she taught family and consumer sciences at both DeKalb High School and NIU. Now retired, she still makes costumes for the high school’s fall play.
“I love working with young people,” she said. “They are just so much fun. They are always coming up with something new I wouldn’t have thought of.”
Schultz-Xidis sat down with MidWeek reporter Doug Oleson to talk about 4-H.
MidWeek: How long have you been involved in 4-H?
Donna Schultz-Xidis: I was in 4-H when I was a kid in Peoria County. At that time, you either had to be in ag or home ec. I was in both. I was in a club called Neighbor Kid that my dad started.
When I was in seventh grade, a friend and I decided we wanted a home ec club, so we talked some parents into letting us use their homes, but we ran it. We taught younger kids how to sew and what to do with foods. It was fun.
We were real interested and we thought other girls might be. There weren’t any extracurriculars for girls back then. It is very, very different now. Kids have so many more demands on their time. We have year-round sports. The young people who are involved in the theater productions that I work with, it’s incredible how many activities that they have.
MW: When did you get back into 4-H?
DSX: When our children were 8 and 10, they joined a local 4-H Club, Tilton Park Clovers. I became a leader with their club. ...After my kids left, I just kept hanging around. As a leader, it was fun because I taught art.
The club was very active at the time. We did an international project called International Foods and the kids learned all about other countries around the world. I think I was only a leader about 10 years, but then my daughter got really interested in the visual arts. Somewhere in the ‘80s, Illinois decided to restructure a visual arts program. They wanted to start emphasizing originality.
Iowa had already started a program. They brought in a bunch of people to train us. There were quite a number of adults who volunteered for the training, so we learned what kind of criteria to look for. It helped that I had minored in art. I started working with the visual arts program on the county-wide level. That was over 25 years ago. I never quit.
MW: What kind of a farm did you have?
DSX: We had pretty much of everything, but primarily my dad was a dairy farmer with Guernseys. At one point, Japan wanted to start a dairy component for one of their universities there and they ended up buying Illinois cattle because Illinois had been the one selling them soybeans. A couple of his had been purchased and shipped to Japan among the 3,000 that went. That was a big deal back then.
MW: Did you show cows at the state fair?
DSX: I used to go all the time as a kid. Except back then, it was very different. When you enrolled a project at state, you actually lived in a dorm on the grounds for a week or more. You got to know people from all over the state. A lot of them ended up at U of Illinois, so when I went there for school, there were tons of people I knew. I lived in 4-H House my freshman year.
MW: How did you do showing at state?
DSX: We had very good cattle. My dad was kind of a perfectionist. My older brother, my younger sister and I probably went down the whole time we were in 4-H. We did quite well.
MW: How does one get elected to the 4-H Hall of Fame?
DSX: Each county is allowed to make a recommendation of someone they think has made a contribution above and beyond normal to the 4-H experience in their county. A state committee chooses (the winners). Not every county nominates every year. Some years they may not think they have someone. Sixty-six people were elected this year.
I was really totally unaware of it until I got a letter saying I had been selected.
MW: Where was the ceremony?
DSX: There was a ceremony at a picnic at the state fair on Aug. 10.
I didn’t even tell people we were going. The only way people knew is that my daughter put it on Facebook.
MW: How does it feel to be named to a hall of fame?
DSX: It never even occurred to me anything like this existed. I think there are probably a lot more deserving people, but I feel honored. It’s all been fun. I thoroughly enjoyed every bit of my stint with 4-H, whether it was as a child or an adult.
MW: What do you think of 4-H in general today?
DSX: It’s really a unique opportunity for kids to explore interests on their own. They need support of leaders or their parents. There are so many things that they can do now, whether it’s reading programs, intercultural programs, computer, all sorts of things that didn’t exist at all when we were kids.
The ages are 8 to 18; when I was young, it was 10 to 21.
MW: Didn’t it used to be just ag-related?
DSX: When I was a kid, it was either ag or home ec. Home ec meant cooking or sewing. Ag was any kind of ag project. Now you can be in any club and do a huge variety of things. Photography is very popular. There are just a lot of things you can do.
A lot of the enrollment has grown up quite a bit because of such a variety of things being available to kids. It takes a real commitment from either adults as leaders or adults as parents. ...We do see a number of clubs that are home-schoolers now.
MW: Do you think having been involved with 4-H as a girl helped you as a leader?
DSX: I think so. I think parents can easily step into the role without having a 4-H background. It’s almost like a teaching role. You just need to be organized and help kids explore the possible options and give them a little guidance.
The real amazing people to me are Jenna Jennings and Nicole Groezinger. They are the ones in charge of the county 4-H. They are phenomenal. In a world of budget cuts, they are still coming up with all sorts of creative ideas.
4-H wouldn’t exist without hundreds of volunteers.