Former State FFA Officers Share Experiences

Posted: April 27, 2018

When Chase Clausen was elected treasurer of the Illinois FFA Association he didn’t realize he would have some big shoes to fill as a state officer from Sycamore High School.

In those first few trips to the FFA Center in Springfield, he admired the wall of previous state officers. He gazed at the photos and recognized some of the local names and faces.

“It’s amazing! I’m not only honored to be a state officer but also to be one of five from Sycamore,” said Chase.

FFA used to be known as Future Farmers of America for some of these state officers. The name was changed in 1988 to represent the growing diversity of agriculture. (From left) FFA Treasurer Chase Clausen is shown with former State Vice Presidents Steve Dietz, Larry Firkins, Darwin Hall and John Rich.


State officers share experiences

Chase had a chance to meet the past state officers in person, in a return visit to the high school ag shop – Steve Dietz, 1993-94; Larry Firkins, 1976-77; Darwin Hall, 1973-74; and John Rich, 1970-71 – all whom served as Illinois FFA Vice Presidents.

The FFA alumni reflected on their former years at Sycamore High and as state officers. They repeatedly praised their ag instructors for instilling in them leadership qualities and inspiring them to seek a state office.

“Mr. Guilinger saw things in me, he pushed me, and he had the ability to fully gain my attention as to what was possible for me,” said Larry Firkins, now a DVM, and professor at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine.

Darwin Hall remembers when Jim Guilinger visited their farm and talked to each one of the Halls about their future involvement in the ag program and FFA. “He was a man who taught me as much, or more, about life as he did agriculture and FFA,” said Darwin, currently manager of Ashton Animal Clinic.

John Rich respected his ag teachers Bob Howey and Jim Guilinger even though they had different styles of teaching. “Howey pushed us to work harder. Guilinger demanded and got respect. He came to our home and helped us work on record books – every free minute he was dedicated to FFA,” said John, now supervisor of fertilizer and grain operations for CHS Elburn Cooperative.

Steve Dietz couldn’t help but be interested in agriculture and FFA having grown up showing sheep and revering his father and ag teacher, Allen Dietz. “I had a blue and gold FFA jacket from the time I was little. Dad made me work harder and challenged me to do more. And because of that I was able to succeed,” said Steve, currently a district leader for Pioneer.

Chase also shared his sentiments about his ag teacher Mrs. Kara Poynter. “KP pushed me and helped me along the way. She had confidence in me and knew I could be a good leader,” said Chase. “I have to give a lot of credit to KP and also to my family for their support.”

The guys in the blue corduroy and corn gold jackets are fine examples of being dedicated to the FFA organization, its traditions and trademarks as an agricultural education organization. They have been and continue to be role models as they round out the FFA motto and “live to serve.”

To pay tribute to the five state officers, a large portrait of them was made and now is on display at the high school.

A road sign in Sycamore recognizes Chase Clausen as a State FFA Officer.


Clausen’s FFA year culminates in June

It’s been almost a year since Chase was elected as a state FFA officer. He has had remarkable experiences working with his officer team, interfacing with FFA members throughout the state, and meeting dignitaries like Vice President Mike Pence and Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue.

Throughout the year, Chase strived to have a lasting impact on fellow FFA members and be influential in helping shape their future. Above all, he wanted students to “be happy.” His infectious smile naturally causes others to smile, which makes Chase happy.

Now the 20-year-old is preparing for his retiring address which he will deliver in June at the State FFA Convention in Springfield. His final speech will revolve around this quote, “I am one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but I still can do something.”

This summer he will hang up his FFA jacket and his official dress and turn his attention to college. He will attend the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign and major in agricultural business.

“It’s been an awesome year,” said Chase. Kara Poynter agrees, having kept in close contact with her former ag student. “Chase and the four other state officers from Sycamore are such wonderful role models for the future generations of FFA and agriculture education students!”

Chase Clausen
State FFA Treasurer

Best memories: My best memories were traveling around the state and our nation to promote agriculture and agriculture education. Being able to travel outside of DeKalb County has truly been amazing. Throughout this year I have traveled the entire state of Illinois, Indianapolis, Washington, DC twice and Gatlinburg, Tennessee.

Personal benefits: Through my experiences I have learned how to effectively communicate with others. From peers to industry professionals, I have greatly developed my skills to be able to connect with individuals. Also being able to network with business and industry has been beneficial for my future.

Favorite story: My favorite story while in the blue jacket is for National Ag Day this year, I was able to travel to Washington, DC. While in DC, I was invited to the USDA where the Secretary of Ag Sonny Perdue and Vice President Mike Pence were signing a national proclamation for National Ag Day. At this event I had the amazing opportunity to meet both Secretary Perdue and Vice President Pence and talk to them. It was an incredible experience that I will remember for the rest of my life.

Favorite FFA event: My favorite FFA event was traveling out to Washington DC the summer before my senior year in high school for the Washington Leadership Conference. There I spent an entire week with FFA members from across the country and explored DC as well as our leadership abilities. Looking back I can say that I gained so much from that conference and still talk to some of the friends that I met that week.

FFA accomplishments: During my time in the FFA I was able to win the Section Land Use Career Development Events (CDE) two years while in high school. With my Supervised Agricultural Experience (SAE), I was able to move on to compete at districts for two years. But the accomplishments that I am most proud of are receiving my State FFA degree and my American FFA degree.

Sycamore FFA advisor: Kara Poynter

Parents: Jeffrey & Anna Clausen

Ag background: I grew up just north of Sycamore on a hog, cattle and grain farm. Raising livestock I was always exposed to agriculture and found a true passion for the industry.

College education: I plan to attend the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in the fall and major in agricultural business.

Residency: Living in Springfield now, but will be back in Sycamore in June.

Family: Brothers Justin & Jared

Hobby: Hang out with friends, workout, and watch Netflix.

The current State FFA Officer Team includes: Dalton Painter, secretary; Robert Janssen, vice president; Ryan Reeverts, reporter; Joseph Birrittier, president; and Chase Clausen, treasurer.

Sycamore FFA Advisor Kara Poynter has been influential in helping Chase achieve leadership goals.


Steve Dietz
State FFA Vice President

Best memories: 1) Putting 40,000 miles on my 1992 teal, manual shift, Ford Ranger (no air conditioning), visiting future agriculture leaders. 2) Spending one year with three other guys that became great friends for life.

Personal benefits: Learning how to effectively communicate messages. This has helped me throughout my career. I learned to become more prepared and organized during my state officer year. It also made me think more creatively.

Favorite story: Recording a “short movie” for the last opening ceremonies for State Convention with my teammates. It was played before we walked in. We acted that we were late and the state advisor called us from the convention hall asking where we are at. The movie showed us getting out of bed and hurried as we got ready. I see it on Facebook every year.

Favorite FFA event: State FFA Convention (last State Convention at the Assembly Hall….now called State Farm Center) and President’s Conference in Washington, DC.

FFA accomplishments: American FFA degree; Supervised Agricultural Experience (SAE): Sheep Production; State Parliamentary Procedure contest runner ups; participated in every FFA contest except for poultry judging.

Sycamore FFA advisor: Allen Dietz, Will Duchaj

Parents: Allen and Brenda Dietz

Ag background: The son of an ag teacher, I was born wearing the blue and gold jacket (they had one made for me when I was a baby).

College education: Illinois State University, B.S. Agribusiness and Marketing, B.S. Communications.

Current job: District Leader for the Pioneer Brand, Corteva Agriscience, Agriculture Division of DowDupont.

Residency: Mahomet, IL

Family: Wife, Angela; children, Taylor & Kolby.

Hobby: Chasing my kids to sporting/school events and livestock shows.

Steve Dietz received his American FFA degree in 1993, the same year he served as Illinois FFA Association Vice President. Shown with him are Jerry Sterzinger and Rob Schneider at National Convention.

Steve Dietz had several blue and gold jackets growing up as the son of an ag teacher, including chapter jackets, a section officer jacket, and state officer jacket.


Larry Firkins
State FFA Vice President

Best memories: National FFA Conventions, State FFA Conventions, speaking at chapter visits and banquets. Darwin and Darrell Hall teaching me how to raise, fit, and show sheep. Planting and harvesting the crops from the FFA Plot.

Personal benefits: It was through FFA that I was able to develop confidence with speaking which benefits me daily in my role at the college. I was able to obtain a summer internship at Farmland Industries that ended up being for three summers as a direct result of serving as a state officer. Mr. Guilinger taught me the value of hard work and that if I was just on-time I was already 15 minutes late.

Favorite story: When I was a senior in high school, Mark Mayfield, the past National FFA President at that time was going to be delivering the keynote address at the 1975 DeKalb County Farm Bureau Annual Meeting. Sycamore FFA was contacted to arrange transportation of Mark from a location he was speaking at in central Illinois up to DeKalb.

As Chapter President, I volunteered to drive down to get Mark and get him to the annual meeting. I took the chapter pickup and headed off in a rain storm. About half way there the topper blew off the back of the pickup and flew over a barbed wire fence, landing in a muddy soybean field. It took me about 45 minutes to get that topper out of the field, over the fence and back on the pickup all while wearing official dress in the midst of a raging storm. I was late in picking up Mark and looked like a drown rat when I arrived.

I eventually got Mark to the annual meeting and then to O’Hare the next day for his flight home. Mark and I became good friends – my kids call him their second father – but to this day he still gets great joy in telling people about the first time he met me during a rainstorm in central Illinois.

Favorite FFA event: The State Officer Leadership Conference in Washington D.C. It was run by past national officers and we had two current national officers with us.

FFA accomplishments: American Farmer Degree, State FFA Degree, numerous section awards. My most impactful accomplishment was being part of a state officer team with Brian Elsasser, Philip Nelson, and Randy DeSutter – three outstanding individuals, who all dedicated their careers to agriculture.

Sycamore FFA advisor: Jim Guilinger, “Mr. G.” He saw things in me, he pushed me, and he had the ability to fully gain my attention as to what was possible for me. He was also good at expressing his ever increasing level of expectation he had for me.

Parents: Donald and Carolyn Firkins

Ag background: Both sets of grandparents farmed. I would spend entire summers while growing up living at their place so I could assist with farming. From an early age, I loved to drive tractors and to load bales on the hayrack. I rented some acreage during high school using my uncle’s machinery to farm it. I had purebred sheep as my FFA project.  We showed at seven county fairs each summer.

College education: Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, Master of Business Administration, Master of Science, Bachelor of Science in Agriculture – all from University of Illinois.

Current job: Associate Dean, Public Engagement; Professor, Pathobiology College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Illinois.

Residency: Mahomet, IL

Family: Wife, Ann; adult children, Andrew and Sarah; grandchildren, Grace and Luke.

Hobby: Golf.

Larry Firkins participated in many community events as a state officer, including the Kewanee Hog Days Parade.


Darwin Hall
State FFA Vice President

Best memories: 1) The time spent with Jim Guilinger, “Mr G”, our ag teacher, and other ag students developing skills that would help me the rest of my life. The ties with each of the other state officers from Sycamore. The first date with my wife was at a Halloween party at John Rich’s farm. Larry Firkins was a neighbor and I helped him in the sheep business. Al Dietz (Steve’s dad) was the ag teacher that I student taught with when he moved from Malta to Sycamore. Steve also raised sheep and I judged his sheep at many fairs. I had Chase Clausen’s dad (Jeff) as a student when I was teaching animal science classes at Kishwaukee College. As an ag teacher at Newman High School, I was fortunate to have a State FFA Vice President in 1980-81 – Doug Rund.

2) The finals of the 1972 State FFA Prepared Public Speaking Contest at the State Convention. I had given my speech, which had to be memorized, hundreds if not thousands of times. But, during the speech I forgot what amounted to a page of the speech. I had to slow down and place more emphasis on the points I was making. The question and answer period after the speech was critical. I will never forget the other Sycamore FFA members and the judges flipping through the pages of my speech to see where I was. To win that contest and represent the State of Illinois at the National FFA Convention will always bring back fond memories.

3) Serving as Advisor for the Newman FFA Chapter as it won first place in the Illinois BOAC (Building Our American Communities) Award program and went on to win first place in the nation. Watching the students accept their award at the National Convention in Kansas City was a true honor.

Personal benefits: I developed these leadership skills – public speaking, parliamentary procedure, record-keeping, team building, livestock judging.

Favorite story: Developing the plan and setting the goal to have our State Officer team (Gene Schwarm, President, Dave Rothermel, Secretary, and Tom Scheider, Reporter) visit every chapter in the state during our term in office. The second semester of the year, all four officers took a leave from school to make this a priority. We didn’t make it to every chapter but we came close. At that time there were over 400 chapters in the state. Chapter Visits still take place every year.

Favorite FFA event: Washington Leadership Conference, a week-long leadership conference held in Washington, DC.

FFA accomplishments: Greenhand, Chapter, State and American Farmer degrees; Section Parliamentary Procedure winning team; State winning Poultry and Livestock Judging Teams; Section 6 Reporter; Section 6 President; District II Director; State Prepared Public Speaking winner; Supervised Agricultural Experience (SAE): Sheep, Beef, Swine, Poultry, Diversified Livestock Production.

Sycamore FFA advisor: Jim Guilinger, a man who taught me as much, or more, about life as he did agriculture and FFA. A true inspiration.

Parents: Richard and Betty Hall

Ag background: I grew up on a farm northwest of Sycamore raising corn, soybeans, oats, alfalfa, swine, beef, sheep and poultry.

College education: Associate degree from Kishwaukee Community College; Bachelor of Science degree in Ag Education from University of Illinois.

Current job: Manager, Ashton Animal Clinic, a three-veterinarian practice in Ashton, IL.

Residency: Steward, IL

Family: Wife, Melody; adult daughters, Tina and April; grandchildren, Abby and Logan.

Hobby: Spending time with family,  judging and exhibiting at sheep shows.

Darwin Hall (right) with FFA President Gene Schwarm (left) took a leave from his second semester of college to make Chapter Visits a priority with his officer team in 1974. From then on, state officers took a year off of college to devote to FFA.


John Rich
State FFA Vice President

Best memories: Meeting FFA members from around the state, speaking at banquets, participating in State FFA Convention.

Personal benefits: Developing public speaking skills, organizing and conducting meetings, developing confidence to interact with professional business people and elected officials of government.

Favorite story: At an IAA sponsored FFA Christmas conference held during my birthday at Illinois State University, it was decided by my fellow state FFA officers that an after-hours pizza party would be held in my dorm room. As the gathering continued more and more FFA members crowded into my room until finally it was announced that to celebrate my birthday I would be thrown into the shower fully dressed. They were successful in their mission.

Favorite FFA event: State FFA Convention at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

FFA accomplishments: 3rd place in State FFA public speaking contest 1969, 1st place secretary at Section Parliamentary Procedure contest, 1968.

Sycamore FFA advisor: Bob Howey, 1965-1967, Jim Guilinger, 1967-1969.

Parents: John and Gladys Rich

Ag background: I grew up on the family farm on which we raised corn, soybeans, oats, sheep, cattle, and hogs. I was a 4-H member in DeKalb County for many years.

College education: Bachelor of Science in Agricultural Education, Illinois State University; graduate of Amerock University, high honors in Business.

Current job: Supervisor of dry fertilizer and grain operations for CHS Elburn Cooperative at Elburn location.

Residency: Kirkland, IL

Family: Wife, Laurie; adult children, Sunnie, Dana, and Jonathon; grandchildren, Cora, Isaac, Lilly.

Hobby: Spending time with family,  gardening.

John Rich showed his fat steer at the Section 6 FFA Fair held in Belvidere in 1969.

John Rich (center) was the first state FFA officer to be elected from Sycamore High School with guidance and support from advisor Jim Guilinger (right).


A Blast from the Past

Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz with Larry Firkins in Washington, DC, 1976.

SHS Chapter Officers, 1969: (from left) Harold Shearer, John Diedrich, Don Tyrell, Paul Johnson, Steve Schroeder and John Rich.

Sycamore High School Chapter Officers, 1974-1975: (front row, from left): Kevin Bolander, Larry Firkins, Cliff Henson, (second row) Greg Ekles, Ron Lind and Dean Johnson.

Participating in the Sycamore FFA Banquet in 1990: (from left) Sheila Heide, Ryan Drake, Mindy Elvidge, State FFA Reporter, and Steve Dietz.

Some members from DeKalb County at the Illinois Farm Bureau-FFA Conference in 1969: (from left) Dean Lyons, John Rich, Rick Hoffman and Darwin Hall.