Former IFB president traces leadership roots to FFA days

With 'pushing' from teachers, parents, Nelson recalls being heavily involved in FFA, which continues to yield benefits.

By DeLoss Jahnke

One of a teacher’s greatest gifts can often be the ability to not only identify talents within a student but also point that student in the proper direction.

Agriculture educators have been unleashing students’ potential for generations, including Philip Nelson, a previous president of Illinois Farm Bureau.

“My vocational agriculture teacher, Richard Dunn at Newark High School, when I was a freshman, tapped me on the shoulder in ag class and said, ‘you ought to go to this extemporaneous public speaking contest,” said Nelson, who became the Illinois FFA Star Farmer in 1977.

“He kept pushing me throughout my high school career to keep getting involved, whether it was in parliamentary procedure, public speaking, the projects that we took growing up on a dairy farm,” Nelson continued. “He saw it all the way through until I received my American FFA Degree. I owe him a lot of compliments, because he really sought me out as a young kid. … I certainly reaped a lot of benefits because of his pushing.”

Philip Nelson served as Illinois FFA Secretary-Treasurer from 1976-77. (Photo courtesy of Katie Burns, Illinois Association FFA)
Philip Nelson served as Illinois FFA Secretary-Treasurer from 1976-77. (Photo courtesy of Katie Burns, Illinois Association FFA)

Related: Illinois FFA celebrates current, past members during National FFA Week. Read more here

Nelson also credits the support from his parents that he and his siblings received. Four of them also served as state officers, including his sister, Noreen, the state’s first female state officer.

“We wore the blue and gold jackets pretty proudly,” Philip Nelson said. “My dad was very active and involved in FFA when he was in high school. I think it was the compilation of a couple of things: a very supportive ag teacher and a very supportive family structure that pushed us into a lot of areas in the FFA.”

Some of the terms have changed. For example, vocational agriculture is now agricultural education, and contests are now called career development events. But FFA continues to be a premier leadership position for students across the country.

The week of George Washington’s birthday is annually celebrated as National FFA Week.

Nelson, after serving as Illinois FFA Secretary-Treasurer in 1976-77, went on to serve as president of Illinois Soybean Association from 1989-1991, IFB vice president from 1999-2003 and IFB president from 2004-2013. His daughter, Rachel, is the current president of Seneca FFA.

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