The name of this blog is “Roots Run Deep,” yet I spend much time in the avoidance of penning the things that strike me deep. I don’t write about the Purdue University “All-American” Marching Band outside of my occasional note about recent performances. I don’t write about what ten years in 4-H meant to me. And most of all, I don’t write about the National FFA Organization, other than surface postings of the FFA Creed and congratulations to the new state officers. It’s tough for me to write about what it means to be an FFA alum, an ag communicator, a Purdue Boilermaker, a writer, a Christian. So I don’t.
But last week, I cried more than I have since my team’s state FFA convention or even in my last few days at Purdue.
And the National FFA Organization — more specifically, the Indiana FFA Association — was the reason why.
I had the honor, blessing and privilege to serve as the 2006-2007 Indiana FFA State Sentinel with six outstanding individuals whom I still call teammates and friends. We deferred our college enrollment for that year to live at the Indiana FFA Leadership Center and visit high school agriculture classrooms around the state, host leadership conferences and serve as liaisons between the state association and the businesses that supported us. Training was rigorous, and we learned to give powerful and positive speeches, presentations and workshops, to hold meaningful conversations with members and industry leaders and to listen well. Outside of our official duties, we would take walks or run around the FFA Center, see the fog rising off the lake in the morning, hear the bands that would practice in the open fields beyond the lodge, hold bonfires, sit at the water’s edge, swim, share meals together, watch movies together and analyze life’s joys and challenges in late-night conversations. The year challenged us in ways we never imagined, and we were forever changed.
At the 2007 state convention held at Purdue University, our team said good-bye to that experience. One of us went on to become a national FFA officer, and we celebrated with him.
Since then, I’ve worked at three conventions as the newsroom coordinator and celebrated our fifth-year anniversary at a fourth. Yet, no convention has brought the memories of state office alive like this year’s event.
I had been with this year’s state officer team from the beginning. I loved watching them work together as a team and — even more prominently — as a family. Their strong sense of family shone throughout convention. They reminded me what it was like to be part of a dynamic, connected team that was rooted deep in passion and belief.
Throughout the week, I was able to catch up with the state officers one-on-one during my time as a career development event judge and at the past state officer and friends banquet, but the first time I saw them together on stage was during the opening ceremony, the special presentation that kicks off state convention. Often, it’s full of noise and loud and musical, a ton of fun.
This year, it sent chills.
The presentation began with an audio recording of portions of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Fireside Chat from September 6, 1936, stirring the American people to recognize the “indomitable American farmers and stockmen and their wives and children who have carried on through desperate days,” and to help them through this devastating time of drought.
When Roosevelt’s last echoes had faded, the voice of Derek, the 2014-2015 state sentinel, rose confidently. As he began, I thought it was going to be a cool speech…and then he began to rhyme. Perfect rhyme, slant rhyme, internal, irregular, such that I could scarce see the pattern and knew naught what was coming….
Then Brittany, the state president, began, rhymes soaring like the eagle on her jacket.
One by one, the officers showcased the convention theme, Go All Out, and the challenges that agriculture faces today. By the time Jacob, the state southern region vice president and the final officer to speak, took his place, tears were strolling quickly down. Yet I couldn’t help but smile: I could tell this was part of his core. His hands flew with the three-, four-syllable words. As his teammates stood by him, he became even more animated, and when he finished with a great crescendo and a shout, everyone’s hands thrown up in the air, flames shot from behind them. The crowd’s roar was deafening.
It absolutely blew my mind.
You see, Jacob had told me quietly two weeks before, at one of my teammates’ diaconate ordination, that I needed to go to the opening ceremony because it would be “really cool.” That was all.
But what actually happened…this…this was beyond anything I had expected, and it struck me to the core.
Two days later, I was able to attend both the fifth and sixth sessions to hear retiring addresses, the state officers’ final speeches, and support members who had competed in the career development events. The sixth session is always one that is near to my heart because it was the one that I chaired, and there’s a special feel to it: an excitement for the award winners, bittersweet sadness for the outgoing officers and anticipation for the upcoming year.
This year, I was sitting with a teammate and his chapter to the right side of the state officers’ families. And when Brittany began her retiring address by introducing us to her uncle, I knew this one was going to be tough. Slightly to the front of me among the officers’ families, I saw a woman put her arm around the woman next to her and rub her back. I choked up. I was sitting not five feet away from the people who had been affected by the story Brittany was about to tell.
And as I listened, I began to sob uncontrollably. Her uncle had been struck with cancer. Brittany told of how he had been cheerful and strong and helped the family when he had bad days. His days in the hospital. The Hope Relay for Life. The end.
I cried because I remembered a story parallel to that one. My uncle struck with cancer. In the hospital. The lunch I left in Purdue’s Windsor Dining Hall to answer a phone call from my dad. The rain as I drove down to the funeral after an exam. The luminaria I made at the Purdue Relay for Life two years later.
The speech ended, and my shoulders still heaved. The rest of the team ran out to embrace Brittany, and as I watched them, I began crying again.
It took me a while to stop completely, and I thought I was going to be okay…but then Skylar, the state secretary and session chair, said we were going to recognize FFA members we had lost over the past year. I choked. Names lingered on the big screen as “See You Again” played. I’d heard the song on the radio recently, but had tried not to think about it in this context. Now, it was staring me in the face.
Not because I knew any of them. But because they were part of us. I knew the chapter names, and I could name at least one person connected to each chapter or recall a visit to the high school agriculture department. My teammate took a picture of one of the names from a chapter near him.
After the names had scrolled through, Skylar asked for a moment of silence.
And for the first time in my life, I sat in a silent Elliott Hall of Music.
There was no sound from greater than 1,000 FFA members, advisors and guests in that session. I closed my eyes, hardly believing it.
But I did believe…because it was FFA. It was young men and women in the blue jacket who respected others and befriended the lonely. And they had lost some of their own.
We were silent in solidarity. Reverence swelled around me and dissolved the walls of Elliott Hall. The chamber felt endless. There was only silence and salted faces.
After convention was over, I climbed the steps to the Elliott stage and talked to each of the outgoing officers. As I did, I realized just how long of a week it had been. I told one of the state officers the next thing to do was “eat lunch.” He only looked at his watch and said nothing. I thought he was checking the time to see how close we were to the start time of the state officer lunch.
It was an hour and a half before I realized he was most likely looking at his watch because I had made that statement around 4:30 p.m.
I was eight years behind. When I chaired the session, the sixth session had been in the morning with a lunch for the incoming and outgoing state officers after convention was done.
Yes, it had been a long week, with some crazy dreams during state convention that didn’t help me with sleep. The friend I was staying with would stabilize me…it was just a dream, it was just a dream….
Yet, that week constantly reminded me that connection is essential. As John Donne said, “No man is an island.” The reminders came one after the other: Brittany’s story, telling me I wasn’t alone; Kathleen’s contagious enthusiasm at the Foundation Session; Dakota’s retiring address about Valerie James, the young woman who inspired the beautiful Fellowship Center at the Indiana FFA Leadership Center; my conversations with Lindsey about the excitement of this time; Derek’s retiring address convincing himself he is “good enough,” which brought me back to my own final speech when I came out of the wings singing, no music, just me, something that scares me to death.
We need connection in this life. Without it, we can’t be fully who we are. We’re supported when we lose someone. We gain confidence. We are inspired. Bad dreams become our realities without someone to tell us, “It’s just a dream. You’re all right.”
Someone to tell us, “Go all out. Try that contest. Go on that adventure. Write about your passions. Sing in your retiring address.”
Because even if it’s tough — and it’s going to be — it’s going to be okay.
Watch the opening ceremony with the rhyming state officers (starts at 9:43)
All sessions from the 2015 Indiana FFA State Convention