Russell Pierson gets a kick out of throwing out a fact and then watching a person's eyes for his or her reaction.
Where were you raised, Russell? He replied: “In Greer County, three miles north of Mangum ... ” Then he paused before continuing with the part of the answer he knew would catch my attention “ ... on a farm that my great-grandmother filed on at Greer County, Texas, because it was Texas at the time.”
“It was Oklahoma by the time I got here,” he said and chuckled. “I was born in 1911 and if God lets me live another seven or eight months to Dec. 15, I'll be writing down three figures when I write down my age.
“I think I'll live longer if I keep my mind active.”
This week, about 1,000 4-H Club and FFA members, coaches and sponsors from 35 states will come to Oklahoma City for the 60th Annual National Land and Range Judging Contest, a three-day event that stresses soil and plant science, land management and conservation. While here, they will have the opportunity to see for themselves this 99-year-old is still witty and active.
He originally became involved with the competition during its early years in the 1950s while serving as the WKY radio and television farm and ranch broadcaster. Today, he's still involved as an ambassador. When contestants arrive for check-in, they'll hear a few words from Pierson. When it comes time to eat, Pierson will help direct traffic.
“It's important not only to me, but to Oklahoma and to the nation because these 4-H Club and FFA members need to know the basics of agriculture,” said Pierson, who graduated from Oklahoma A&M in 1937.
“They learn conservation, how to improve the soil, how to save the soil and of course in the range area they learn which plants are useful and which plants are of no value to agriculture. It really is important and the civic community has been so supportive of it through the years.”
While practice days are scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday, the competition is Thursday. The actual contest site remains a secret until contest day, so no one has an unfair advantage. Each year a different farm, ranch, company or some other organization or agency hosts the contest site on its land near the Oklahoma City metro area.
The teens match their skills in judging the adaptability of the land for various purposes, including farming, range management and home development. The skills the teens apply at the contest involve principles they can use in career fields such as environmental and agricultural management, natural resource conservation, home building and construction, said Don Bartolina, 74, coordinator for the contest and the Oklahoma County Conservation District manager.
They are competing for trophies and recognition.
“It's an important event that teaches young people about natural resources,” said Bartolina, who has been involved with the contest for 50 years. “And since youngsters have to compete for their own state, there's a sense of pride.
“A few years ago, a team from Nebraska won and when they got back to their small town, the police and fire department met them at the city limits and escorted them through town.”
Don't think for a second the contest is the only time Pierson is out and about. You can find him about any day in the east end office of Barn 4 at State Fair Park. This is where they handle the feed and bedding for show animals. Pierson will be answering the phone, or just visiting “with all the good people.”
By the time I met up with him at 9 o'clock on a recent morning, I knew Pierson had already been in the office for at least a couple of hours.
So I asked, “Russell, what time do you wake up in the morning?”
In doing so, I set myself up for another reply in which he waited for my reaction.
“Not as early as when I did radio and television, because back then I would wake up at 2:30 a.m.,” he said. “Now I sleep in until about 5 o'clock in the morning.”