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Kessler retires after 41 years with Penn State extension

Commissioner says his 'influence has made this county better'

June 30, 2010|By JENNIFER FITCH
  • Today is the first day of retirement for Robert Kessler after 41 years with the Penn State Cooperative Extension in Franklin County.
Jennifer Fitch, Staff Writer

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. -- Robert Kessler grew up on a dairy farm and always felt a connection to farming, but severe hay fever factored into his career decisions.

"I knew going back to the farm wasn't an option," he said.

Instead, Kessler turned to a career in agriculture education and in the process changed the way young people relate to farms in Franklin County, Pa. Thursday is his first day of retirement after 41 years with the Penn State Cooperative Extension in Franklin County.

"He touched almost 30,000 lives through 4-H," Franklin County Commissioner Bob Thomas said.

Kessler started working with the 4-H dairy clubs early in his time with the cooperative extension, then made that his full-time focus starting in 1972.

"I really enjoyed working with the kids," he said.

Kessler, who holds academic degrees in business, extension education and agronomy, fondly remembers exchange trips with other states. Youths in 4-H could spend a week with a family to participate in their routine activities and special ones planned for the group.

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"I thought it was an excellent opportunity to learn other cultures," said Kessler, 66.

Thomas said programs like 4-H help to keep young people from engaging in destructive behaviors, some of which can be costly in the criminal justice system.

Kessler's "influence has made this county better," he said.

Although 4-H programs resemble those from the 1970s, the populations they serve have changed, according to Kessler.

Children have more extracurricular opportunities, plus there are fewer farms in the county, Kessler said. The remaining farms operate with larger herds to stay economically viable, he said.

"It's very hard for them to make money," Kessler said, saying milk prices today are similar to those from his childhood.

Kessler continued working extensively with 4-H until 1993, when he replaced a retiring county agent. Kessler's administrative duties first focused on crop science and later on home horticulture.

He also served as the executive director of the county's therapeutic riding program and will continue to volunteer for those functions. The therapeutic riding program started in 1982.

"I go over there to get my batteries charged," Kessler said, describing the inspiration he feels when watching the children develop new skills or attitudes.

The county's master gardeners program started under Kessler's leadership in 1993. Today, 80 people are registered as master gardeners and work in volunteer-based programs like those for migrant workers or jail inmates. They participate in gardening classes every Monday.

Kessler, who lives in Chambersburg with his wife, Carol, often served as the person to call with questions about insect infestations or fungal outbreaks.

"I liked the variety of phone calls and the questions that came in," he said.

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