University of Vermont

She Turns Shy Kids into Empowered Adults

Statewide 4-H Leader Mary Carlson Lauded for Risk-Taking Choices

Circa 1969 black & white photo of folks with plastic glasses and women in short skirts sitting in chairs.
One of the first Vermont 4-H Teen Congress events led by state 4-H leader Mary Carlson, front left, in 1969, her first year on the job.

Once upon a time, a shy 14-year-old Vermont eighth-grade boy had just enough nerve to blurt out an idea at his 4-H meeting.

It was 1996 actually, and “the very first planning meeting for the 4-H Teen Congress the following summer. I had been to Teen Congress only once and was new on the board,” recalls Derrick Cram of Brandon. “I was nervous and afraid that (state-wide 4-H leader) Mary Carlson and the rest of the teen board would say ‘no.’”

Despite the fact that they had always hired a professional, Derrick Cram asked if he could be the disc jockey for the party cruise.

It’s the story of how the 4-H leader for all of Vermont left the planning of its biggest teen event of the year to, well, teenagers.

Everyone was skeptical.

But giving the teens both a say and responsibility worked.

In spite of her own reservations, Mary Carlson said ‘yes’ to this budding DJ.

It’s a classic teenage coming-of-age tale that has played out in Disney movies and television sit-coms – shy kid takes a risk, adults do too: much good comes of it.

Today, the near 30-year-old Derrick Cram is a remix artist and video DJ who operates Jam Man Entertainment, a multi operational company serving New England with 13 other DJ’s “three of whom are 4-H alumni,” he adds proudly. Last year he toured China for 12 days, playing seven shows in six cities. His seasonal day jobs are ski shop manager of Snow Bowl and maintenance at Ralph Myhre Golf Course both in Middlebury.

“I am who I am today, and I am successful today, because Mary Carlson saw something in a young boy that many others would have overlooked, taught me to work hard and believe in myself,” says Cram.

Carlson had a similar impact on the lives of many 4-H organization kids during her 34-year career.

That’s why she was among five alumni and faculty members honored at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Alumni & Friends dinner May 12 on the UVM campus. She and plant and soil science emeriti professor Frederick Magdoff received the Robert O. Sinclair Cup for a record of service to the people of Vermont and commitment to the land-grant mission. Dennis Canedy and Barbara Moore took home Outstanding Alumni Awards. And Rebecca Calder was named Outstanding Senior.

Robert Sinclair ’44, G’55 is an emeriti professor and dean of UVM College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and first recipient of the award that bears his name. He attended the ceremony.

Carlson graduated from the University of Maine in 1967 with a bachelor of arts in sociology. She came to work for the University of Vermont the next year as a statewide program assistant in 4-H and home economics. She also coordinated an elderly education program. 4-H is the youth development program of the 109 land grant universities and cooperative extensions across the nation.

From 1974-1979 Carlson took on additional administrative and supervision of UVM Extension’s nutrition program called “EFNEP” (Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program). A year later she was acting state 4-H program coordinator responsible for developing and carrying out all Vermont 4-H activities, while advising Extension’s Homemakers’ Council. The next year, 1980, Carlson switched to administration for six months, part time – supervising seven county Extension offices.

Carlson had been named assistant professor of 4-H Youth Development in 1977, a title she carried throughout her career. She has served on numerous committees for Extension, UVM’s community development and applied economics department and 4-H in Vermont and at the national level.

Back in the 4-H saddle for good, Mary Carlson was Vermont’s 4-H state specialist from 1980 until her retirement in 2002. In this role she led teens, adult volunteers, taught public presentation skills and emphasized multicultural education. It was there that she really made her mark and received two Extension service awards in 1987 for the impact of her team’s work statewide. In 1993 she received her master’s degree in Extension education and a regional award for her communications teaching.

“She served as a great ambassador for UVM as she traveled around the state delivering programs,” says UVM Extension emeriti assistant professor Larry Myott. “Mary Carlson served the University, the State and its people with excellence.”

“From 1968 to 2002, Mary Carlson lived and breathed the ideals of 4-H Positive Youth Development while employed at UVM Extension,” said UVM Extension Director and Dean Douglas Lantagne in delivering Kurt Reichelt’s nomination letter for the award. Reichelt had recorded an oral history on Carlson in 2010 as part UVM Extension centennial project. “From the beginning, Mary understood that 4-H was much more than showing dairy cattle or horses at state fairs, it was about building the citizens of tomorrow,” said Lantagne presenting the award to Carlson.

In her post-retirement career, Carlson, a Williston resident, helps African refugees navigate American culture, including the Lost Boys of Sudan and a Somali Bantu family.

Derrick Cram has been DJ for the Teen Congress every year since 1996. This year, he says, he’ll also chaperone at the event.