A pandemic can delay award ceremonies, but it can’t keep us from honoring the honorable.
Two years worth of new members have been welcomed into the Frank Lever County Extension Agent Hall of Fame at Clemson University — four from the Class of 2020 and five from the Class of 2021 — following COVID-related delays.
Created in 2014 in celebration of the centennial of the Cooperative Extension Service, the hall of fame honors the careers of “longtime, front-line county agents” whose service had an important economic impact on the communities they served.
It bears the name of Rep. Frank Lever of South Carolina who, with Sen. Hoke Smith of Georgia, authored the Smith-Lever Act of 1914 that created Extension to take research-based agricultural and food-science knowledge from colleges and universities and put it in the hands of working people.
“Their vision changed the face of America,” said Clemson Extension Director Dr. Tom Dobbins, who established the hall of fame. “He knew how bringing information from the university to the people would impact lives. The road since has been paved by the county agents whose careers were made possible by Frank Lever’s vision. They were truly giants in their fields, helping farmers and farm families.”
An October award ceremony was held for the honorees and their families at the new Expo Center at the T. Ed Garrison Livestock Arena in Pendleton.
The induction class of 2020 includes:
A. Victor “Vic” Bethea III, whose career spanned Dillon and Marlboro counties.
William “Bill” Copeland Jones, Jr., of Lexington County.
Dr. Anne R. Sortor of Barnwell, Laurens, Spartanburg, Cherokee and Union counties.
Terry Q. Sudduth of Greenville County and dairy farms throughout the Piedmont.
The class of 2021 welcomes:
Raymond L. Boozer of Lexington County.
Thomas Jesse Bryson of Greenwood County.
Joe E. Cely of Greenville, Laurens, Allendale, Barnwell and Florence counties.
Steve Odom, Jr., of Edgefield, McCormick, Greenwood, Laurens and Newberry counties.
Anthony “Tony” Melton, senior horticulture agent for the Pee Dee Region based in Florence.
“It was Frank Lever’s passion that if we could share the university’s information with the people, it would change lives,” Dobbins said. “I remember how our county agent changed my life and those of my parents. These individuals we’re honoring in the Frank Lever County Extension Agent Hall of Fame are evidence of the reach that this single idea has had and continues to have with people across the nation.
“Unless you have lived it, you can’t understand it — the long hours away from home helping farmers and farm families,” he said. “The county agent used to be the only place in town you could go for this kind of information. But now we live in an age of data and you know what? The county agent is still where you go if you looking for unbiased, research-based information.”
For three decades, A. Victor “Vic” Bethea III served the people of the Pee Dee region of South Carolina.
A 1964 Clemson University graduate, Bethea began his Extension Service career as a row crop agent in Dillon and Marlboro counties, which led him to serve as a leader in all the major row crop associations in the region.
His leadership skills soon had him promoted to the role of county Extension director for Dillon County.
“Vic was a person very involved in the community,” said Michael McManus, District Extension Director for the Pee Dee Region.
“Some would say he was a little rough around the edges,” McManus said, garnering chuckles from Bethea’s family and friends. “But farmers called on him and kept calling on him because they wanted to hear what he had to say.”
Extension clients weren’t the only ones who sought Bethea’s opinions, though. His colleagues elected Vic to the Extension Senate, where he came to be trusted for the same advice and leadership farmers expected from him back home.
A Sumter County native, William “Bill” Copeland Jones, Jr., got a head start in his Extension Service career as a stand-out 4-H student under the tutelage of county agent T.B. “Dick” Tillman. The experience led him to a Clemson degree and a job as an agent in Lexington County in 1961.
“He hit the ground running and quickly earned the respect and admiration of Lexington County farm families — both adults and 4-H youth,” said Phil Perry, a former county agent and himself a member of the Lever Hall of Fame. “He put the people he served first. He dedicated his life to serving others.”
Jones’ responsibilities included both 4-H and production agriculture in a county that is known for a diversity of crops, fruits, vegetables and livestock. He kept growers informed through farm visits, on-farm demonstrations, field days, tours, news articles, radio broadcasts and newsletters.
His effort was clear to the farmers he served.
“He was always willing to help the farmer,” said Chris Rail of Clayton Rawl Farms. “He was just a phone call away. Bill had a wealth of experience.”
“Bill was more than a county agent. He was a great adviser, listener and friend,” said Delano Kneece of Delano Kneece and Son Farm.
Dr. Anne R. Sortor began a career with the Clemson University Extension Service in 1984 that would lead her all across the South, but she never strayed from her roots.
She started as an assistant and associate county Extension agent in Barnwell County, then a senior associate and senior Extension agent to Laurens County — where she became Founder and Executive Director of the Laurens County Teen Pregnancy Coalition — before becoming county Extension director for Spartanburg, Cherokee, and Union counties.
After a 19-year career at Clemson she later served with the University of Tennessee Extension Service and the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture, where she retired in 2016.
“She is a true example of a servant-leader. Her clients and her colleagues came first,” said Deon Legette, assistant director of Extension Field Operations who, when she was a new county agent, was assigned to shadow Sortor.
“I was learning so much I barely had time to ask questions,” Legette said. “We became very close friends. She was the big sister I never had.”
Sortor earned a bachelor’s degree at South Carolina State University, a master’s at Clemson and a doctorate at the University of Tennessee.
She served as president of the Extension Senate, as president of Family and Community Leaders (FCL) and was active in the 4-H Agents Association. She was a member of the Laurens alumnae chapter of Delta Sigma Theta sorority and of Epsilon Sigma Phi.
At the age of 29, Terry Q. Sudduth began a thirty-five-year career with Clemson Extension as a dairy Extension agent in for the Piedmont area of South Carolina.
“He convinced my father to become a dairy farmer. I’ve been waiting all my life to get him back for that,” joked Tom Dobbins, now Clemson Extension director.
“Everything he did, he didn’t do 100% — he did 200%,” Dobbins said. “He was dedicated to the dairy farmers of South Carolina. He listened to them. He brought new programs to them. The dairy industry and dairy farmers of South Carolina are better off because of Terry Sudduth.”
Sudduth served as a dairy agent for more than 11 years. In the mid-1990s, Sudduth joined the Greenville County Extension staff serving commercial agriculture producers for four years. He was then asked to join the Animal and Veterinary Science Department to coordinate the state dairy education programs for Extension.
Sudduth was instrumental in developing the Dairy Max Program, which ensured financial stability within the dairy farm family in South Carolina. He also started dairy associations in each of the countless he represented, which included a milk check-off to support dairy activates throughout the region.
He was inducted in the South Carolina Dairy Hall of Fame in 2017. A long-time member of the Mount Lebanon Baptist Church in the Jordan community north of Greer, Sudduth chairs the board of deacons and teaches Sunday school. He also serves on the Blue Ridge High School Ad Ed Advisory Board.
It’s easy to believe that Raymond L. Boozer had an important role in almost everything that happened in Lexington County from 1956 to 1985, when he served as an assistant county agent and ultimately county Extension director of Lexington County.You’d logically expect the county agent to be active in agriculture, but Boozer’s impact reached far beyond the farm. Community development was his watchword.
Boozer organized community development groups that led to the Gilbert-Summit Rural Utility System and to a countywide fire service.
He organized 14 Community Development Clubs throughout the county. He was the founding member of the Gilbert Community Club in 1957 — of which he is still an active member today at age 91.
Boozer led an initiative to bring a hospital to the county, working with legislators to win passage of the law that created what is now Lexington Medical Center.
You could hear him on the radio on “The Early Riser Show” with Bill Riser and on WBLR in Batesburg-Leesville with “Redd” Reynolds or read his articles in The Lexington Dispatch, The Twin City News or The State.
He co-founded — with his wife — the Lexington County Peach Festival, which since 1959 annually promoted one of Lexington County’s most important crops. He served on the planning committee for — and as a founding board member of — the Gilbert Memorial Park which houses the festival.
Even his military service bears this sense of frenetic energy. In his two years in the U.S. Navy, he served on three aircraft carriers: the USS Sicily, USS Mindoro and USS Saipan.
Clearly also a veteran of countless extemporaneous speeches, Boozer accepted the honor of his Lever Award with typical light spirit: “As the lightning bug said when he flew into the electric fan, ‘I am de-lighted.’
“I’m delighted, too, to have served the country folks and city folks as well,” Boozer said. “If other nations had an Extension Service, their standard of living would be tremendously improved.”
Thomas Jesse Bryson was bound for great things from the beginning: He was, he professes, the “1930 Christmas baby in Laurens County.”
That Christmas baby grew up to serve in the U.S. Army during the Korean War, eventually retiring as a full colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve.
But from 1954 to 1986, Thomas Bryson served his hitch in the Clemson Extension Service, with 20 years as the Greenwood County Extension Director.
Bryson organized the Greenwood County Farmers Market and initiated the annual “Pioneer Farmers Award” honor program.
He started cooperative community garden spots in the city of Greenwood, working closely with local garden clubs as well as county and city beautification commissions, homeowners, schools, industries and institutions.
One of the institutions he worked with was a local prison, where Bryson developed a county tree nursery operation with inmate participation and training.
A 2015 recipient of the South Carolina Order of the Palmetto, the state’s highest civilian honor, he is a lifetime member of both the South Carolina and the National Association of County Agricultural Agents.
Retirement, though, didn’t slow him down. Mission trips have taken him — sometimes for weeks or even months at a time — to Uruguay, El Salvador, Egypt, Guatemala, Honduras, Zambia, Russia, India, Brazil and Ukraine.
When, after 46 years in Greenwood, he and his wife Lucia moved to the campus of Presbyterian Retirement Communities in Clinton, he finally did what any retired county agent would do: He reactivated 12 garden plots on the campus where residents can grow vegetables or flowers as they like.
Joe E. Cely is what his colleagues call a “complete county agent” — one with the knowledge, the field experience and the passion to go out and help people.
“Joe was a farmer’s county agent,” said Rowland Alston, himself a member of the Lever Hall of Fame. “He followed the science of agriculture. His personality enabled him to communicate the practices in agriculture that we need to follow. He gained the confidence of growers.”
For 30 years Cely took those qualities to the people of Greenville, Laurens, Allendale, Barnwell and Florence counties. He had a knack for gaining the trust of farmers, stakeholders and county leaders by being accessible, a fast learner and an excellent communicator.
His own scientific skills were clear. After a master’s fellowship in animal science and agronomy, Cely served five years as manager of Clemson’s Plant Problem Clinic before returning to county Extension work.
In Barnwell County he was involved in all row crop, horticultural and livestock operations. He was particularly influential in increasing the acreage of peanuts in the county, training cotton scouts and creating a cotton scouting service.
Later, as county Extension director in Florence County, he worked largely with row crop agriculture. There he developed an Extension Tobacco Scouting Service.
“Joe was a good county agent, a good man and a good friend of the farmer,” said Brace Bates, a Barnwell County farmer. “He was always on the farms. If he didn’t know the answer, he found the answer.”
“Joe Cely was a highly sought-after county agent. He taught me a lot. He saved me a lot of money and helped me to make wise farming decisions,” said Franklin Gleason, who farms in Florence and Darlington counties. “He always wanted you to do things to the best of your ability. He’s an all-around good friend. He’s as honest as you can get.”
Every county agent must be adept at working with all kinds of people. Steve Odom, Jr., worked with people from all walks of life, from doctors and lawyers to home gardeners and limited-resource farmers.
“He did all the things a good county agent would do,” said Wallace Wood, a former county agent and Lever Award winner who nominated Odom for the honor. “He served with leadership, dedication and hard work and has been a success at helping people.”
Odom worked for Clemson from 1971 to 1998, serving first as an assistant county agent for Edgefield County, then Small Farms Coordinator for Greenwood and McCormick counties, county Extension director in Greenwood before adding Laurens and Newberry counties to the mix.
He led the way to establish Clemson’s Small Farms Program to serve limited-resource farmers in Greenwood and McCormick counties, giving them hands-on training in both production and marketing of farm products.
With a bachelor’s degree from South Carolina State and a master’s from Clemson, Odom specialized in horticulture. He also served as coordinator and teacher in the Master Gardener Program — continuing to teach after his retirement until his health began to decline.
He served as president of the S.C. Association of County Agricultural Agents in 1993-94 and as Southern Region Director for the National Association of County Agricultural Agents in 1994-98. He was a member of Epsilon Sigma Phi for 27 years.
An ordained deacon at Morris Chapel Baptist Church, he was the Little River Baptist Association community garden coordinator in Hodges, S.C., from 2010-18.
“He never refused to try and help someone, even if they called at 11 p.m.,” Wood said. “Clients became friends and highly respected Steve not only for professional advice, but for personal advice as well.”
A native of McBee, S.C., Anthony “Tony” Melton began his 40-year career in Clemson Cooperative Extension in 1989 as a county agent for Darlington, Florence, Lee and Williamsburg counties.
But he’s easily recognized statewide for the many appearances he’s made for more than 20 years on SCETV’s “Making it Grow” gardening program answering questions from callers.
A senior horticulture agent for the Pee Dee Region based in Florence, Melton has long been involved in fruit and vegetable research at the Pee Dee Research and Education Center. He maintained a 20-acre plot there to focus on high-value specialty vegetables for South Carolina growers.
Some of Melton’s research include a grant-funded project to develop heat-tolerant butterbeans, improvements to Clemson Spineless okra and the development of several varieties of Southern peas.
“Tony is the perfect example of an Extension agent,” said Michael McManus, Pee Dee District Extension director who nominated Melton for the award, . “He always says he doesn’t work for Clemson Extension, he works for the people of South Carolina. If you ask him for help, he’ll say yes. He is truly dedicated to giving back.”
An avid teacher in the Master Gardener Program, Melton has had more than 400 students complete his classes. His weekly columns in the Florence Morning News have reached countless more.
Earlier this year Melton was awarded the Order of the Palmetto, South Carolina’s highest civilian honor, which recognizes individuals for achievement, service and contributions to the state.
Melton earned his Bachelor of Science and Master of Science in horticulture from Clemson University. He holds the Distinguished Service Award from the S.C. Association of County Agricultural Agents and a Distinguished Public Service Award from the Clemson Alumni Association.
“I’ve truly been blessed” Melton said. “I’ve been able to devote my entire career to the farmers and the people of South Carolina that Extension is here for.”
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