September 21, 1929-September 19, 2012
(The Equiery • November 2012)
On September 19, 2012, the Maryland equestrian community
and the Maryland 4-H community lost one of its greatest treasures, Shirley
Geis, founder of the Spur & Stirrup 4-H Club and one of the driving
forces behind the Maryland 4-H Foundation’s Sallie Robertson Memorial
Donations in memory of Shirley Geis for the support and perpetuation
of the equine programs (such as hippology, horse bowl, and horse judging)
may be made to the Maryland 4-H Foundation, Inc. 8020 Greenmead Drive;
College Park, Maryland 20740.
The following obituary is condensed from an article by Ross Peddicord,
which appeared in the February 2001 edition of The Equiery. The article
commemorated Shirley being honored with the Maryland Horse Council’s
Pumphrey Memorial Award for “behind the scenes contributions”
to the state’s horse industry and the Maryland 4-H Foundation’s
Youth Development Award.
sign at the end of Shirley Geis’ driveway reads “4-H Club
member lives here.”
What an understatement.
Since 1967, Shirley Geis had put her heart and soul into developing
4-H horse clubs, coaching their winning Hippology and Horse Judging
teams, organizing English and Western-riding shows and developing youth
into leadership roles on a county, state and national level.
She was a 4-H Hall of Famer and a 4-H All-Star. She’d won the
Mylo Downey Award for her leadership qualities and the coveted Dorothy
Emerson National Award for instilling integrity among 4-Hers. She received
the Maryland Horse Council’s Pumphrey Memorial Award for “behind
the scenes contributions” to the state’s horse industry
and the Maryland 4-H Foundation’s Youth Development Award.
Even eye surgery and recurring health problems never kept Shirley down.
“She could have quit a long time ago, but she stayed right with
these programs,” said Bill Lynerd, a trustee of the Maryland 4-H
Foundation. “She might have [had] trouble seeing and [walking]
with some difficulty. But no one is better at articulating the value
of these horse programs for youth. If I would have to pick one characteristic
to describe her, it would be dedication. No one [was] more truly dedicated
to 4-H than Shirley Geis.”
In 1985, when Shirley was looking for a way to raise funds to help send
Maryland’s 4-H horse judging teams to the national finals in Kentucky,
she turned to her friend, Sallie Robertson, who owned the famous Ship’s
Quarters Farm in Westminster. “Sallie was always gracious in supporting
youth projects and she stepped right up to the plate,” Geis told
Peddicord. Thus was born the annual 4-H Horseman’s Party. After
Robertson’s death, Shirley helped to establish the Sallie Robertson
Memorial Endowment Fund, for which the party became a fundraiser, and
the party joined forces with the Maryland Horse Council.
In the mid-90s, Shirley recruited Equiery publisher Crystal Brumme to
help organize and promote the fundraiser, and after ten years, when
the pair stepped down, the party had raised over $150,000 for the fund.
About five percent of that money (or $5,000) is used each year to help
send Maryland’s 4-H Horse Judging, Horse Bowl, Demonstration,
Public Speaking and Hippology teams to national competitions. The rest
is used to grow the endowment.
No Mary Poppins!
Ironically, while Shirley had always been involved with horses and dogs,
her interest in helping kids developed much later. ”I’m
not a Mary Poppins, you know. I think some of these kids are terrified
of me!” she quipped to Peddicord when he took her to lunch back
Her state teams always placed in the top 10 nationally and she was known
for having the team members drill hard and be well prepared.
Friend and fellow 4-H coach, Darryl Ann Buschling, described her thus:
“She was very strong in what she believed in and how she liked
to get things done. She was a bit of a Jack Russell.”
She Flunked Housekeeping
Shirley grew up in the Pittsburgh, PA area and had her own horse, Billy,
while she was in high school. Her parents raised show-quality Great
Then as a student at Michigan State College of Agriculture and Applied
Science, a land-grant college similar to the University of Maryland
[today it is known as Michigan State University], Shirley started judging
livestock and became one of the first female members of the college’s
Block and Bridle Club. “My goal was to become a veterinarian,”
she said. But in that day and age, there were very few female vets.
“Women either became a teacher, a nurse or a housewife,”
she said. “And I’ve always flunked housekeeping.”
Shirley switched her major from pre-vet to zoology and then went to
graduate school to study bacteriology, specializing in parasitology.
She moved to Maryland in 1956 with her husband, wildlife biologist and
population statistician Al Geis. Shirley first worked as a microbiologist
at Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington and then at the National
Institutes of Health in Bethesda, and in a career spanning thirty years
she studied infectious diseases ranging from rabies to AIDS.
4-H & Horses
Shirley became interested in 4-H youth work after her son, Dean, was
born in 1957. At age nine, Dean (now a farrier and owner of a small
farm in Carroll County with his wife, Lori) started riding at Camp Waredaca
in the summer. His parents, who had always been interested in horses,
came along with him to take riding lessons, eventually buying their
own horses. They pleasure-rode, hunted and showed.
The Geises and their three horses (George, Dusty and Boog) settled into
a 20-acre farm in Clarksville which they named “Quail Call.”
When Dean wanted to join the local Hi-Riders 4-H Club, there was a waiting
list. So another club, Spur & Stirrup, was formed in 1969. Shirley
was asked to be its adult leader. Thirty years later, she still served
as the leader.
Shirley said she was drawn to 4-H because of “its balanced programs.
I like that the kids have to keep records. I like the judging aspect
of it and that both styles of riding, English and Western, are encouraged.
“Judging is great because you have to give oral reasons about
why you pick one horse over another one. You have to make a decision
and explain it. That’s an important skill to develop no matter
what you do in life.”
Over the years Shirley’s involvement in 4-H grew more intense.
Her scientific background proved especially useful in coaching students
on the various judging teams and her riding awareness led her to help
organize the first statewide 4-H Dressage Show nearly 20 years ago.
She lobbied local governments for more horse riding trails and facilities.
She organized countless shows, fund raising and educational activities.
Darryl Ann and Shirley loved marking the Horse Bowl papers.
“Some of the answers to the questions are unique to say the least,”
Darryl Ann said. “One time a question was: ‘What is a horse
called that has never won a race?’ One kid wrote, ‘Slow.’
Another one said, ‘Very expensive.’ Another question asked,
‘What’s a post-mortem?’ and the kid wrote, ‘A
horse that died tied to a post.’ ”
Darryl Ann said she and Shirley had to drill their teams hard because
“we’d go up against state teams from New York backed by
coaches from Cornell University or New Jersey, which had coaches from
Rutgers. The “no whining—be well prepared” routine
has served our students well. We had one 4-Her who said he was scared
to death of us because we made him work so hard. Years later, we got
a letter from him when he earned his doctorate in medicine in California.
He wrote us that we had been the ones to teach him the value of studying
and that we had been the turning point into making him an A student.
“Kids, you know, can spot a phony a mile away,” Darryl Ann
said, noting that there is one thing Shirley was not “and that’s
The number of successful graduates from Shirley’s 4-H programs
is legion. Many are leading horse trainers and owners and most go on
to excel in college and in their careers.
Darryl Ann added that she knows no one “who has given more to
4-H than Shirley Geis. She literally lived for 4-H.”
When Shirley was asked why she spends so much time helping others, her
answer, as usual, was short and direct.
“There’s not much point in being here if you don’t.”