Shirley Geis

4-H Youth Development, & Maryland’s Unsung Hero Award Recipient


(first appeared in The Equiery's February 2001 issue)

By Ross Peddicord
The sign at the end of Shirley Geis’ driveway reads “4-H Club member lives here.”

What an understatement.

For more than 30 years, Shirley Geis has 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 is a 4-H Hall of Famer and a 4-H All-Star. She’s won the Mylo Downey Award for her leadership qualities and the coveted Dorothy Emerson National Award for instilling integrity among 4-Hers.

Even eye surgery and recurring health problems haven’t kept Shirley down.

“She could have quit a long time ago, but she’s stayed right with these programs,” said Bill Lynerd, a trustee of the Maryland 4-H Foundation. “She might have trouble seeing and these days she walks 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 is more truly dedicated to 4-H than Shirley Geis.”

On March 3 at the 4-H Foundation/Maryland Horse Council dinner, Shirley will not only be given the Maryland 4-H Youth Development Award, but also the Maryland Horse Council’s Pumphrey Memorial Award for “behind the scenes contributions” to the state’s horse industry.

It is only fitting that Shirley receive the awards at an annual event that she and the late Sallie Robertson, who owned Ship’s Quarters Farm in Westminster, helped found 16 years ago. Geis was looking for a way to raise funds to help send Maryland’s 4-H horse judging teams to the national finals in Kentucky. “Sallie was always gracious in supporting youth projects and she stepped right up to the plate,” Geis said.

Thus was born the annual 4-H Horseman’s Party and after Robertson’s death, the Sallie Robertson 4-H Club Endowment. Lynerd said each annual dinner and silent auction raises about $12,000 each year, which is added to the fund. The Sallie Robertson Endowment now exceeds $100,000. About 5 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.

“Each year, Shirley has been the one to get the volunteers and to pull the event together,” Lynerd said.

Shirley has 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 said. Her state teams have always placed in the top 10 nationally and she’s known for having the team members drill hard and be well-prepared.

Added her friend and fellow 4-H coach, Darryl Ann Buschling, “She’s very strong in what she believes in and how she likes to get things done. She’s a bit of a Jack Russell.”

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 University Geis 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 no female veterinarians.

“Women either became a teacher, a nurse or a housewife,” she said. “And I’ve always flunked housekeeping.”

Geis 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. They have been married 49 years. Shirley first worked as a microbiologist at Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington and then at the National Institute of Health in Bethesda, and in a career spanning thirty years she studied infectious diseases ranging from rabies to AIDS.

Shirley became interested in 4-H youth work after her son, Dean, was born in 1957. At age 9, 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 and bought 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.” Several years ago, because of encroaching development, the Geises placed the land in the county’s farmland preservation trust program.

When Dean wanted to join the the local Hi Riders 4-H Club, there was a waiting list. So another club, Spur and Stirrup, was formed in 1969. Shirley was asked to be its adult leader. 30 years later, she still serves 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 has lobbied local governments for more horse riding trails and facilities. She’s organized countless shows, fundraising and educational activities.

4-H with Shirley has never been dull, Buschling said.

“Not all 4-Hers have horses,” Buschling recalled. “I remember one 12 year-old raised snakes. He was so excited that the female was starting to hatch eggs that he called Shirley and asked her to come over and see it. So here, hunched over this snake, is this old woman and a young boy, watching a snake lay eggs.

“The kid was so happy that he named the first two baby snakes Al and Shirley.

“When he was asked later what happened to them, the kid said, ‘I gave Al away. But I still have Shirley.’”

Buschling and Geis love marking the Horse Bowl papers.

“Some of the answers to the questions are unique to say the least,” Buschling said.

“One time one of the questions was ’ ‘What is a horse called that has never won a race?’”

“One kid wrote, “Slow.’

“Another one said, ’ Very expensive.’

“Another was asked, ’ What’s a post-mortem?’

“He wrote,’ A horse that died tied to a post.’ ”

Buschling said she and Shirley, who gave up coaching last year, have had to drill their teams hard because “we’d go up against state teams from New York that were backed by coaches from Cornell University or New Jersey that 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,” Buschling said, noting that there is one thing Shirley is not “and that’s a phony.”

The number of successful graduates from Geis’ 4-H programs is legion. Many are leading horse trainers and owners and most go on to excel in college and in their careers.

Buschling added that she knows no one “who has given more to 4-H than Shirley Geis. She has literally lived for 4-H.”

When Geis was asked why she spends so much time helping others, her answer, as usual, is short and direct.

“There’s not much point in being here if you don’t.”

“I’m not a Mary Poppins, you know. I think some of these kids are terrified of me,” she said. Her state teams have always placed in the top 10 nationally and she’s known for having the team members drill hard and be well-prepared.

Added her friend and fellow 4-H coach, Darryl Ann Buschling, “She’s very strong in what she believes in and how she likes to get things done. She’s a bit of a Jack Russell.”

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.

“Kids, you know, can spot a phony a mile away,” Buschling said, noting that there is one thing Shirley is not “and that’s a phony.”

The number of successful graduates from Geis’ 4-H programs is legion. Many are leading horse trainers and owners and most go on to excell in college and in their careers.

Buschling added that she knows no one “who has given more to 4-H than Shirley Geis. She has literally lived for 4-H.”

When Geis was asked why she spends so much time helping others, her answer, as usual, is short and direct.

“There’s not much point in being here if you don’t.”

 

©TheEquiery2012