Shirley Geis
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 Endowment Fund.

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.

The 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 in 2001.

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 Danes.

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.

No whining!
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 a phony.”

Shirley’s Legacy

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.”

©TheEquiery2012