Official Has Been With Extension For Fifty Years
Nationwide and in
Louisiana, the Cooperative Extension Service is celebrating its 100th
anniversary, having been founded in 1914 with the passage of the
Smith-Lever Act. For half of those years, a Louisianian,
Leodrey Williams, has worked in extension,
serving in a variety of capacities at both Southern University and in
national leadership positions.
Williams is currently the
chancellor of the Southern University Agricultural Research and
Extension Center. But his career began with a job title that became
illegal six weeks after he was hired: assistant county agent for work
with Negroes in Richland Parish. As civil rights reforms took effect,
the Department of Justice ordered extension to change those titles.
It was 1965, just five
months after the Civil Rights Act passed. Although his work was
occasionally disrupted by civil rights marches and rallies, Williams
was an energetic one-man band, providing residents with information
on everything from science to youth development to horticulture and
community resource development.
As activists promoted
social changes that were resisted in the South, Williams met farmers
who were reluctant to change their methods and did not always
appreciate visits from county agents.
Williams once stopped by a
farm owned by a man who said he didn't need any help - in fact, he
claimed to teach county agents things they didn't know. Williams
believed him upon seeing his beautiful garden. "I said, 'I'd
like to see everybody with a garden like this. I can't help you, but
I can get you to help me to have everybody have a garden like
this,'" Williams said. "That put him in a supporting role.
He knew more about gardening, and he could help his neighbors."
Getting people involved
mattered because skeptical farmers could better learn from one
another, Williams said. As an agent, he said it was important to draw
on people's knowledge and use it to help in the big picture.
All extension work in
Louisiana originally took place through LSU. In 1971, Southern
University set up its own extension office, where Williams was hired
as an agriculture specialist. The only other employees at the time
were the extension coordinator and two secretaries. The small team
worked together to recruit staff and develop programs.
In 1976, Williams came to
LSU to serve as associate state agent, director of Equal Employment
Opportunity and associate professor in the Department of Extension
and International Education, positions he held for four years.
Williams became the
extension director at Southern University in 1980 and began gaining
national recognition. In the early 1990s, he co-chaired a task force
that examined ways to ensure the "upward mobility of
extension," Williams said, which was a monumental effort.
One major issue was
funding, which comes from federal, state and local sources. At the
time, participation in certain programs was limited to land-grant
universities formed by the 1862 Morrill Act. But historically black
universities, which were given land-grant status through the 1890 Morrill
Act, were excluded. No one wanted to give up funding to help the
other group, Williams said, so the task force established funding
baselines that applied to all extension programs.
Another recommendation the
task force made was to designate an ombudsman to carry out their
reforms. The national director asked Williams to fill that position.
He was not sure he wanted the job because he would have to move to
"I started thinking,
I've served on many task forces and committees where nothing happened
after they did their work," Williams said. "Now they're
trying to implement something, and I've helped give leadership to
this, and I'm refusing to do it."
He agreed to take the job.
Four months later, the national director retired and Williams took
over. Now in charge of funding extension programs at the nation's 104
land-grant universities, Williams found himself in the middle of a
national conversation about reorganizing government.
As the U.S. Department of
Agriculture downsized, Williams led the effort to merge the
Cooperative State Research Service and Cooperative Extension System
into one entity - the Cooperative State Research, Education and
Extension Service, where he served as associate administrator of the
newly formed agency.
Williams returned as Southern's extension director in 1995. Soon
after, he joined the 9/9/99 Club - a group of agriculture and
extension professionals who aimed to retire on Sept. 9, 1999. The
club included former LSU AgCenter Extension
Director Jack Bagent, who retired in 2001,
the same year Williams was asked to lead the newly-formed Southern
University Agricultural Research and Extension Center.
jokes that he is the best chancellor the Southern Ag Center has ever
had - a justifiable statement, he explained, because he is the only
one so far.
As chancellor, Williams
has focused on developing the campus as a positive force in Louisiana
and the agriculture community. Williams, who was inducted to the
International Adult and Continuing Education Hall of Fame in 1996,
said it is easy to stay busy if one is willing to learn from people
and find ways to use knowledge to benefit everyone.
To Williams, that is what
extension is all about.
people," he said. "No matter what you do, whether it's in
community development, if it's in small business development, it's
enhancing the socioeconomic quality of life for people. You have more
people now than you had 100 years ago. As long as there are people
with problems, there will be a need for extension."