“If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.”
Dr. Paul Waddy loves to tell stories.
He could spend hours, if not days or weeks, chronicling his 56 years with what is now the Alabama Cooperative Extension System (ACES). Chances are that he would relish every second of those opportunities.
Waddy, who is retiring as State Leader, Diversity & Multicultural Affairs for ACES, is enjoying a well-deserved opportunity for honor and reflection. On a recent January afternoon, he sat outside of Duncan Hall – the headquarters of ACES on Auburn University’s campus – and shared several tales with a small but captivated audience. (With proper physical distancing, of course.)
Waddy chuckled as he shared these accounts and beamed with pride as he recalled youth who succeeded largely because of the 4-H program that he helped cultivate. He also spoke poignantly about the strides toward racial equity, and his concerns that some of the progress is eroding – much to the detriment of today’s youth.
“Kids are so confused right now. They don’t know what’s right or wrong,” he said. “We’re thinking too much about ourselves. Instead of fighting each other, we need to be working together.”
In 1964, Waddy was teaching vocational agriculture at Keith High School in Dallas County when he was approached with an opportunity – to become an Assistant Negro County Agent in Jefferson County. At the time the Extension Service was segregated into two systems. Agents who served Blacks were based out of Tuskegee, while agents who served whites worked out of Alabama Polytechnic Institute at Auburn.
While the pay and resources were much worse for Black agents in the Tuskegee system, Waddy accepted the offer.
“It was the lowest level that you could start. The resources were not necessarily the same,” he said. “But the work never bothered me. If I wanted to do something, I just did it.”
Landmark rulings by then-Alabama Federal Judge Frank Johnson helped end segregation and fostered the integration of the two Extension systems into what is now ACES. Waddy eventually came to Lee County where he served as an agent for eight years, helping improve the lives of Blacks and whites.
Working with Youth
Much of his work in Lee County focused on championing community development programs, from new water systems in rural areas to indoor bathrooms for senior citizens and “self-help housing” that enabled more than 100 low-income families to help build their own homes.
But one of Waddy’s primary joys has always been working with youth — especially in 4-H.
“I always liked working with the kids because I had taught school,” he explained.
He fondly recalls the many youth who attended natural resources workshops and camps where they learned about tree identification, fishing, sports shooting, hunting, camping and other outdoors activities. For many Black and white children, it was their first experiences with these activities.
“They went home and told their mommas and daddies what they were doing,” Waddy said.
Many of the youth also thrived at state and national 4-H competitions.
“The kids from other states hated to see Alabama coming,” Waddy quipped.
Waddy shared several stories of teenagers who gained skills in 4-H that helped them once they became adults with full-time jobs. One teenage boy took his 4-H record book to a job interview.
“He said that’s what got him the job,” Waddy said. “And that’s where he retired.”
Waddy also proudly tells the story of a Black teenager who was a state winner in the automotive competition. While there was some pushback about sending a minority to the national competition in Chicago, he was eventually able to attend where he again won top honors, taking home a $700 check for his efforts.
Waddy said 4-H opportunities were just as important for Native Americans, Hispanics and other minorities. He also supported diversity of 4-H programs among boys and girls. Waddy talked of a girl who thrived in the livestock program, and of boys having the opportunity to take consumer science, or home economics.
As Waddy advanced to leadership roles with the district, he said race relations began to improve across the state. He was able to work with people from all facets of life – even “segregationists.”
“I didn’t bite my tongue with what I had to say,” Waddy explained.
As he approaches his 83rd birthday in March, Waddy is still offering straight talk. He fears that America is becoming more polarized.
“The nation is more divisive, more confused than since the Civil War,” he said. “One of the worst things that you can do for a community, a county, a city, is to divide folks by culture, gender, and race and sometimes by religion.”
Waddy offered a warning first shared by Booker T. Washington: “You can’t hold a man down without staying down with him.”
(Waddy refers in the video to former Alabama Extension directors Mike Sprott and Ann Thompson)
A Tireless Worker
Dr. Barb Struempler, Associate Dean and Assistant Director with ACES, said Waddy has “made a mark in history.”
“He’s worked tirelessly to ensure a better quality of life for all Alabamians,” she wrote. “Throughout his career, Dr. Waddy always looked to those who are less fortunate and found ways to bring education to them and improve their situation.”
She also said that Waddy generously shares produce from his garden with his Duncan Hall colleagues.
“Most certainly, he will be rewarded well with blessings in his retirement.”
Dr. Gary Lemme, ACES Director, also praised Waddy’s work and drive for equality.
“Dr. Paul Waddy has provided leadership to the Alabama Cooperative Extension System (ACES) that has led Extension programs and the evolution of Extension’s culture of inclusion that has benefited the residents of Alabama,” he wrote. “Both ACES and Alabama have benefited from Dr. Paul Waddy’s career in Alabama Extension.”
Waddy also served on the East Alabama Medical Center Board of Directors for 26 years.
‘Don’t be Fake’
When asked what advice he would give to someone like his 26-year-old self – the young man who just beginning work in Extension – he emphasized the importance of lifelong learning.
“Don’t stop. Go as far as you can go and as fast as you can,” he said. “And understand what your job is, and plan your work accordingly. Don’t get in other people’s way. There’s plenty for you to do.”
He also shared one final reminder about the importance of authenticity.
“Don’t be fake. I wouldn’t be here if I weren’t real.”
Patrick Johnston is the Communications Specialist for Auburn University Human Resources.