I became an ag communications major on October 17, 1994. I learned of Colleen Callahan on October 18, 1994. Give or take.
Honestly, I can only plead actual ignorance for not knowing of her prior to that, because I didn't grow up in central Illinois and therefore, couldn't have heard her on the radio. Otherwise, she's virtually a legend in her own time and she's obviously influenced a lot of people and I could pretty much end the story there.
But that would be cutting short the tale of a life passionately dedicated to agriculture and excellence.
I first met Colleen in the basement of the Jr. Home Ec building at the Illinois State Fair, where I interned in the Jr. Department Press Office with Kathy Reiser. I was a sophomore in college and I was nervous and I tried really hard not to say something stupid.
Shortly after I graduated and took up as an editor at Prairie Farmer, Colleen called and asked me to serve on a committee working to save the ag com program at U of I. I leapt at the chance. We served together for the next several years, and I watched in continual awe of her talent for communicating, for leading, and for flat-out getting things done. And for doing all three in a way that brought people together.
Colleen grew up showing hogs on a farm in Milford, Ill.; as a 9-year-old, she was the youngest to exhibit the champion barrow at the Chicago International Livestock Exposition. She graduated from the University of Illinois in ag communications in 1973. (Incidentally, I keep learning of incredibly gifted and talented agricultural people who were part of that UI Class of '73. I know not what was in the water that year, but it could only have been good.)
She graduated and went to work in farm broadcasting for Peoria's WMBD, in what was up until that point, very much of a man's world. I've heard her tell her response to the station, when they asked whether a woman could do the job. "I told them I didn't think my dad would care whether it was a man's voice or a woman's, so long as he could get the markets." And there you go. Indeed, it was a different world; the FFA only began allowing girls to join after Colleen had graduated.
Colleen went on to become the first female president of the National Association of Farm Broadcasters and was inducted into its Hall of Fame in 2011. She ran for Congress in 2008 and President Obama appointed her Illinois Director of the USDA Rural Development in 2009. USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack appointed her Federal Disaster Recovery Coordinator for Drought in 2012.
Hers is an incredibly impressive body of work, tagged with her hallmarks: courage, determination, intelligence, grace and style. And plain old hard work, that stands for itself. As it should.
She is wise, too. Two of my most favorite conversations have been with Colleen Callahan. The first, at a soggy Farm Progress Show some years ago when as we were parting ways, she said so profoundly, "Life is about choices, not circumstances." I have written about that very idea and would tell you it was nothing short of life-changing for me because it put into words so succinctly what I have long believed. We may not choose our circumstance, but we sure can choose how we respond. It's true in life, in death and in plain-old daily living. That's influential wisdom.
The second conversation involved my oldest, and Colleen's handshake instructions to her at a University of Illinois event. "It's important – in the show ring and for the rest of your life," she told her. "You have to offer a firm handshake."
Last year, Jenna proudly read her DARE essay in front of the fifth grade class, then they each made their way across the platform to 'graduate' and shake hands with a dozen or so local officials. I knew as I watched Jenna work her way across that stage, firmly shaking hands and looking each adult in the eye as she did, that was all Colleen Callahan. Influence, across generations.
Hard work. Compassion. Determination. Passion. It's all what makes her an agriculturalist who influences.
Agriculturalists Who Influence: The Series
- Day 1: Introduction
- Day 2: Jim Evans
- Day 3: Becky Doyle
- Day 4: David and Nancy Erickson
- Day 5: Katie Pinke
- Day 6: Joe Hampton
- Day 7: Noreen Frye
- Day 8: Carolyn Olson
- Day 9: John and Kendra Smiley
- Day 10: Colleen Callahan