Chizek, a lifelong educator, educates lifelong learners
Former ISU Extension program coordinator is back in the classroom
MANSON — When it comes to a storied career, Jerry Chizek has had his tenure — and a bit more — when it comes to agricultural education.
Chizek has spent 17 years as a high school agricultural teacher and Future Farmers of America (FFA) advisor and 23 years as an Iowa State University Extension program coordinator. He retired in 2021, only to be asked back into the high school classroom in January of this year at Odebolt Arthur Battle Creek Ida Grove (OABCIG) Community Schools.
Chizek’s faux retirement lasted a year and a half, so it’s actually 17 1/2 years as a high school ag instructor and FFA advisor.
“OABCIG was looking for a long-term sub,” said Chizek. “I met with the FFA officers before I accepted. They were interested in someone coming just to teach them something about agriculture. Otherwise, those young people would have been put into other classes, and there would have been no ag program.”
Chizek grew up on what he calls a traditional farm near Britt in Hancock County.
“We had a family farm with 240-acres,” said Chizek. “Dad was a full-time farmer, and Mom was his right-hand person. I was the oldest of six kids, and I can’t count more than a handful of times that our parents weren’t waiting for us to get off the school bus. As we got older, Dad was able to pick up another 120 acres.
“I remember receiving my first gilt and then the first litter of pigs; it was my first experience at pride of ownership. That’s what FFA has done for kids of my age and the kids of today.”
The Chizeks also raised cattle, sheep, hogs, laying hens, and broilers; on the crop side, there was corn, soybeans, oats, and alfalfa.
Chizek’s folks were second generation farmers, and his grandparents had initially lost a farm during The Great Depression of the 1930s.
“I remember how excited Grandma and Dad were when they could say they paid off the farm,” said Chizek. “The farm is still in the family. A nephew is farming it as well as my cousins.”
Chizek’s memories of growing up on the farm — as well as knowing his grandparents’ struggles — have affected his approach to teaching.
“I started teaching in Pocahontas in 1979,” said Chizek. “I thought I knew what teaching would be. I had the subject-matter background. What they don’t tell you — and if they did, you’d run away — is about all those things that no one can prepare you for. I’ve had kids lose a parent, and they came to me for comfort. Family structure continues to change, and I could help kids navigate through that as well.
“I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to get to know parents and the kind of background the student had. I’ve visited farms where the family was somewhat poor, but they gave it a go and the kids were clean, well-maintained, and you would not have thought anything different.”
Before Chizek landed the Pocahontas position, he graduated from ISU with a degree in agricultural education; in 1982, he left to earn his master’s degree, also at ISU and in agricultural education. His next stop was at Webster City for a similar high school position.
“It was the top chapter in the state,” said Chizek, “and my job was not to break it.”
In 1984, things began to fall apart in agriculture and farmers began exiting agriculture.
“We had a lot of parents encouraging their kids to not take ag education,” said Chizek. “When I was a junior in high school, our ag teacher had an impact on me, so I wanted to be an ag teacher; his name was E.A. McFee and, in those days, the curriculum was what was going on at his students’ farms, what there was problems with — and that was the lesson for the day. It’s hard to see kids being encouraged to stray from that kind of education.”
In 1988. Chizek moved on to Manson.
“There were a lot of active young people,” said Chizek. “They had goals and strived to get to those goals, and they would take me along with them.”
Chizek married a Manson girl — Pam — in 1986, moving to Manson where they still live today. The couple has three sons: Matthew, Jared, and Travis, and now five grandsons.
In 1998, after 10 productive years at Manson, Chizek was looking for a new challenge.
“I interviewed and was accepted for a Calhoun County extension position in Rockwell City,” said Chizek. “I was still an educator, only the audience wasn’t just with youth, it was for adults as well. I was taught early in my extension career that if you made people money, they would continue to support you and come back for additional information.”
In 2009, Chizek faced a reorganization within the ISU Extension world when 105 educators lost their positions; Chizek was one of 21 employees hired back to cover a multi-county area as a regional director. His first regional director position covered six counties and the regions changed throughout the rest of his employment with the extension.
“It became more challenging to have relationships within our regions,” said Chizek. “I could go to a lot of different farms in Calhoun County and be impactful as compared to being in multiple counties. The extension is still working on that model; it’s moving forward.”
Chizek’s optimism is apparent.
“It was the role given,” said Chizek, “and I’m glad I stayed with it. In 2011, I went to a region with four counties to be more hands on.” In July of 2021, Chizek retired from extension work.
A four-decade commitment to youth and adult students — to ag education — is monumental for Chizek to reflect on.
“The good news is that young people are still interested in agriculture,” said Chizek, “probably more now than ever. Iowa FFA membership is at its highest level. There’s a lot of interest in leadership development. I’ve seen so many of the same personalities over my career; the names and the faces are different.
“Agriculture in the State of Iowa will be just fine. We’re in a good place with the young people that we have.”