Wisconsin 4-H alum David Epstein was recently named a 4-H Luminary by the National 4-H Council. With business administration degrees in management and finance from UW-Madison, Epstein has served as principal for the food industry investment banking group J.H. Chapman, near Chicago, for more than 30 years. He’s also served on the National 4-H Council Board of Directors since 2011, as well as the Shedd Aquarium Board of Directors. As a 4-H Luminary, Epstein has committed to being a spokesperson for 4-H, offering his expertise and access to 4-H alums, members and staff, and opening doors for media and financial opportunities for the the organization. Read how Epstein got on the right path with Wisconsin 4-H Youth Development in this guest post.
I was raised in a non-farming rural town in Eastern Jackson County, near the Black River State Forest, in West Central Wisconsin. Millston had a population at the time of about 150, with most of the children products of the post-war baby boom. Our town had a one-room school house serving grades 1-6. Clearly, everyone knew everyone.
My first organized social group was the Cub Scouts. When the six of us in the Pack were of the age to mature into the Boy Scout program, our Den Mother, my mother Betty Epstein, looked for a man to head our troop. When none of the local men had the time to devote to us, she decided to look for another organization to “keep us off the streets” and continue to serve as our leader. She quickly discovered 4-H and we started the Young America 4-H Club. We invited girls to join and numbered 15 in our first year.
Growing up in an area without significant population had its benefits, yet our county 4-H programs were mostly related to farm activities. My mother sought out non-farm projects and helped to start many of the programs and projects that we undertook. My projects throughout my 4-H career were photography, wild flowers and birds, cooking and leadership. My last year in 4-H was my senior year in high school, when I was elected to represent my district on the then-State Junior Leader Council [now known as the Wisconsin 4-H Leadership Council] in Madison. During that year, I was elected to lead this organization as its President.
My 4-H experience provided me with numerous opportunities, including winning a photography contest that earned me the cover photo on Badger History magazine. Experiences with exhibits at the Jackson County fair, Upham Woods summer camp and annual demonstration contests provided enriching life lessons that increased my confidence still to this day. My many high school state forensic awards were a direct result of the 4-H programs. In 1964, I was asked by our congressman to serve as a page in the U.S. House of Representatives. At 16 years old, I had gained the confidence through 4-H to serve and live in Washington DC on my own, without adult supervision.
Our 4-H club was very active in community improvement and service. Our activities instilled in us an appreciation for community service and nurtured a strong sense of meaningful community involvement. I believe that serving the community is an opportunity and responsibility that 4-H activities so clearly showed me. Some examples include service for 25 years on my Condominium Association Board, trusteeships on the National 4-H Council Board and the John G. Shedd Aquarium Board in Chicago.
Leadership projects helped shape my professional career. 4-H empowers young minds to recognize that leadership and control are not the same. Leaders don’t always succeed and often success comes from the people not the position. My professional career is filled with recognizing opportunities. It is evident in my early commercial banking days, my investment banking career and in creating new products for my family’s 85 year-old gardening products manufacturing company. 4-H builds leaders and I have witnessed and experienced its teaching power throughout my life.
I am proof that 4-H Youth Development accomplishes its promise in a non-farming kid. The 4-H leaders who guided and contributed to my development hold a special place in my memory. They deserve the credit for my successes and accomplishments. They are a testimony to how caring adult leaders influence character development and positive growth. I think about several of them often, long passed, and thank them for their dedication to those of us whose lives they touched.
4-H today has changed from the mid 1950s, yet many cornerstones of the original 4-H philosophy remain. 4-H was necessary in my development, and while today’s children have different interests, they have the same needs as I did so long ago. They too, need to feel personal achievement and growth. They need to relish the opportunity to make a difference in a community and feel the impact that it makes. They need the guidance of interested leaders to spark thought and encourage action. They need to witness how democracy works in club activities. They need to experience the power of collaborative decision making and the joy of mutual achievement. Then need the comradery of other kids with similar and different backgrounds. They want to have fun. All these are available in 4-H.
Through my 4-H experience, I am a better leader, thinker, volunteer and person.
Read more about 4-H Luminaries.