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John Ben Shepperd: Kermit 4-H Club Awards Dinner

February 6, 1957

Annual Awards Dinner of the Area Officials, 4-H Club (Kermit, Texas)

As long as men have lived on the earth, they have always tried to peer into the future. If any man could foretell the future, his fortune would be made.

We used to have an old prophet back in Gladewater named Uncle Billy who could predict the future. He would predict some calamity and people would work so hard to prevent what he predicted that it never happened. They would laugh and say, “Uncle Billy, you were wrong.” And Uncle Billy would say, “Wrong, my foot! My predictions always come true if you leave things well enough alone, but you young meddlers are always changin’ the circumstances!”

That’s the nice thing about the future—it all depends on people. I don’t believe in palmistry, but I know that your future is in the palm of your hand. If you close your fist on it with determination, you have become master of it. The man with a closed fist is never the victim of circumstances. He makes his own circumstances.

Nobody has proved that point more forcefully than the American rancher and farmer. In most parts of the world today, farming and what they call ranching is still primitive. It is still at the stage we reached 150 years ago when it took three men on the farm and ranch to produce enough food for themselves and one extra man in town. But today it takes only one American farmer and rancher to produce enough for themselves and thirteen others in the city plus enough for foreign export.

One of the reasons American farmers and ranchers are so efficient and progressive is that they truly devote their lives to their work. To most of them their way of life is a heritage; they grow up in it. An engineer cannot grow up on a bridge, nor a doctor in a hospital nor a lawyer in a courtroom—but a farmer or a rancher is usually born to his profession and he lives with it. And no man can love a hospital, a courtroom or an office the way a rancher loves the land and what it brings forth. The rancher is close to the basic things of life; he is close to God.

But the most commendable thing about today’s farmers and ranchers is that they do so much to pass on their heritage to their children and with it a sense of responsibility. What other profession is there that trains its future members with such care from childhood to manhood? What other profession can boast anything like the 90,000 4-H Clubs with more than 2,456,000 members in all 48 states, Alaska, Hawaii and Puerto Rico. They are at work today not only teaching farming and ranching, but teaching responsibility in the use of the land for the preservation of its fertility and a program to feed an ever-growing population. This organization teaches not only the importance of homemaking, but the importance of the home and the family us a foundation of American freedom. The main requirement of 4-H Clubs is a willingness to “learn by doing” and “to make the best better”. Character development and good citizenship are long-range goals.

I realize that not all of you 4-H Club members are farmers and ranchers and some of you do not intend to be. But you are all interested and vitally concerned with the land and its problems. Nothing you can do in life will separate you from the land and those who work it. The farmer and rancher are the mainspring of our economy; if anything goes wrong with them, the machine stops. Sometimes we forget that and it always gets us into trouble. But they have never failed us, even when others have failed them, and I know that you will follow the example set for you by long tradition. You have your own future and its future is in your hands, and you know it.

If we could wipe out all human institutions except the two oldest and most basic, we would be left with agriculture and government. Agriculture builds human society and government directs it. To have a streamlined, mechanized, highly productive agriculture like ours and a citizenry that has lost its sense of responsibility like ours is like having a jet plane shooting through the sky with nobody at the controls.

A Greek philosopher said it is the nature of all human institutions to decline. That is certainly true of American government when citizens begin to recline—to lie down on the job. Productive agriculture has helped to make this situation possible. In the last few years our country has been through a period of comparative prosperity and until the drouth became so widespread, farmers and ranchers shared this prosperity. Consequently, for every small duty of citizenship we used to perform we have lately been tossing a dollar to the government to have it done for us.

It reminds me of the generous old rancher who used to pay his foreman’s son a dollar to shine his shoes. The boy saved up his dollars and when the boss went broke in a drouth year, the boy bought the farm and kept the old man around to shine his shoes. There are men in high places with the same plan in mind. “The power to tax is the power to destroy.”

The hand of the tax collector is heavy upon us and government gets bigger and bigger. Never before has it had so much power. Never before has it been so rich. Never before has it been so covetous of the rights and powers that are reserved to the people and never before have the people been so eager to give them up along with their responsibilities.

Every day some small liberty is sold to Washington where it is locked away behind an iron door that no key can open and marked with a rubber stamp that says “Contributed by John Doe in exchange for the privilege of irresponsibility”. And every day we hear someone say, “I’m a good citizen—I pay my taxes.”

A friend of mine who is a preacher told me that the same thing is happening to his church. People who used to go to church faithfully are satisfying their consciences by merely sending a little money. The blessings of God are not so cheaply bought and neither is freedom. Money will never serve as a proxy for responsible participation. There is no dollar that can substitute for an intelligent ballot. There is no dollar that can sit in your place at a meeting or the county commissioners’ court, the city council or the school board. There is no dollar that can occupy your place on the jury, give counsel to a public office holder who needs it or serve for you on a civic committee that needs your experience and intelligence.

And I’m not talking to the menfolks alone—you women have public responsibilities too. If you’ve ever seen a girl wrangling with her father for a new dress, you’ve seen a master lobbyist at work. Boys, if you’ve ever seen a girl on the telephone, you’ve seen a filibuster. And if you could see me discussing a family matter with my wife and twin daughters, you’d see a majority rule in operation.

But I’m not worried about you girls. Any girl who can keep three or four boys on the string at one time and make each one think he’s her favorite will make a good politician. They say women make the world go ‘round. I wouldn’t doubt it—they very often make it go sideways and topsy-turvy. My son Johnny had a class quiz not long ago and one of the questions was: what is it that keeps the earth suspended in space? He didn’t pass that quiz. He wrote down: The thing that keeps the world in suspence [sic] is girls.

There is no dollar that can teach responsible citizenship to one of these young men and women who are being so diligently trained for rural leadership. No dollar will show them the meaning of independent thought and action, how to vote for the right man, how to tell the difference between political parties, how the city government operates or how to recognize a socialist or a communist.

No amount of money can teach them love of freedom or instill in them the patriotism of eight or nine generations of Americans who fought, sacrificed and died to make this country the best there is. It takes parental guidance to do that. The job cannot be thrown into the lap of the teacher, the scout master, the movies, television and the textbook.

The future of this generation of young Americans is not something to be read in a crystal ball; it is a thing to be carved out by hands that are willing to work and fight and pray to keep this country the kind of place where the function of the government is to protect our liberties, not to pick them out of our pockets . . . where government is answerable to the people, not the people to the government . . . where every man, woman, boy or girl is master or his own destiny and every mother’s son or daughter a future president . . . where excellence is allowed to excel and a young man or woman can start from scratch and become a millionaire . . . where we do not try to lift the wage earner by tearing down the wage payer . . . where a boy or girl is still free to write the greatest book, build the tallest building, make a greater invention or establish a great new ideal . . . where individuality is applauded above cheap collectivism and uniformity . . . where men and women are still free to rise to whatever heights God will lead them and by their strength to strengthen others.

Such a country is without price. It cannot be bought, sold or built overnight. It can only wither away through the negligence of those who love ease better than liberty or be preserved by those who can lay the daily sacrifice of personal attention upon the altar of freedom.

Because freedom is old, not young; yet it is born anew in the first cry of a free man’s son;
It is not a living thing, yet it dies if we do not love it;
It is not weak, but strong; yet it must be defended;
It is light, yet it weighs heavy on him who is without it;
It is without price, yet it dearly costs the one who sells it;
It is not small, but great; yet once lost, it is never found again.
Yes, to be born a free man or woman is an accident;
To live one is a responsibility;
To die one is an obligation.

[Note: The views expressed in this speech were those of John Ben Shepperd, and do not necessarily represent the views of the John Ben Shepperd Public Leadership Institute or the University of Texas Permian Basin.]