Had It Not Been for 4-H House

My Generation

A cooperative housing unit at the University of Illinois made a profound difference in my life. May it continue to do the same for generations.

Published on: February 17, 2012

Aside from the obvious - things like my family and my husband - there are basically three things that have made me the person I am today:

1. God
2. The University of Illinois
3. 4-H House

And pretty much in that order.

For purposes of this blog, I'm going to skip to number three.  

4-H House rocks. It was my home-away-from-home in college. It's a cooperative housing unit for women on the University of Illinois campus, which until now, required five years of 4-H experience. The girls do their own cooking and cleaning (serious good times, masquerading as work), and the whole place costs a fraction of what residence halls charge.

It was that place where, the moment I landed there, I knew it was right. When my parents pulled the loaded Caprice Classic up to the curb at 805 W. Ohio on a hot August morning and a dozen girls descended upon it, grabbing boxes and bags and hauling them – and me – upstairs, it just felt right.

That's the essential premise of 4-H House: to live and work together, to reduce costs of living, to promote the natural camaraderie that comes from working together, and to create a more affordable place to live on campus. And, as an aside, to create a community of women of similar backgrounds, anchoring them to what they know in order to give them the ability to branch out and experience all the best of the university. When your roots are strong, you can spread your wings. Or something like that. That sounds like a plaque but I totally just made it up.

Anyway. There's an oddity at 4-H House right now, or at least it seems so to me. Over time, 4-H enrollment has declined, and with it, some degree of interest in 4-H House. The house, of course, has no ties to the Illinois 4-H program; the requirement was simply a way of gathering young women from rural backgrounds – not surprising when you consider the women who first organized the house did so during the Depression and paid their house bills with home-canned goods. Given that history, it seems impossible to believe that in a time when college costs have sky-rocketed and when our economy is as troubled as it is, that a low-cost housing option for rural women would see less interest. I very clearly remember standing in the foyer at 4-H House with my dad and a 4-H House girl when I came up to interview, in the spring of 1994. At that time, residence halls cost between $4,000 and $5,000 a year. She told us that 4-H House would cost just $900 a semester. Dad – a southern Illinois farmer not so far removed from the '80s – looked at me and said, "You better get in." Point taken.

And yet, here's the house in 2012, with fewer applicants.

So, what to do? For years, alums have debated whether to lower the requirement. And now they have. This year, for the first time, applicants will be accepted who have either three years of 4-H experience or three years of recognized leadership in another organization. That is, intentionally, wide open: it could be FFA, student council, youth group or more. 4-H House alumni will vote on this measure later in the year, but in the meantime, the alum board has opened up the application process for this spring.

My wish, I suppose, is for the high school girls who are considering the University of Illinois to really, deeply consider what 4-H House could do for them. There is so much value in living under the same roof together. I cannot overstate that. That's where the living happens.

That's where the practical life skills happen, too. Like how to unplug a toilet. (Thanks to House Manager Jane Bickelhaupt, who, in teaching me to be house manager, pulled me aside and showed me the finer points of toilet plunging and toilet repair. I have never seen anyone attack a toilet the way she did. It was, in a word, impressive. I just used that knowledge to help Jenna's piano teacher fix her toilet. See? Practical.) Also, conversely, how to make massive amounts of mashed potatoes. How to plan pork chops for 50 people. How to show up, do a job, do it right, and move on. And how to get along with 55 women, to work in a group, and to do your best when everything else seems to go wrong. Amen.

It was also the place where I was encouraged to give back. To join a worthy cause, to work hard and to use whatever gifts I might have to better the people and the places around me. There's very little like having an upperclass woman you look up to grab your hand and say, "You need to go to (fill in the blank). You will learn a lot. You will meet good people. Let's go." That's powerful motivation.

For me, most of all, it was the place of deep, valuable, long-lasting friendships. Friendships that were carved out while baking party potatoes, while figuring out how to lead a houseful of women, while cleaning bathrooms together and painting porches. Friendships that were made during late-night conversations, rowdy half-hours and saran-wrapped dorm beds (use heavy-duty saran and a hairdryer, just a tip from me to you).

I have written before about my dear, sweet, silly friend Rachel, who died so suddenly just six years ago. I can hardly overstate how heart-wrenching it was to lose her; and how every day, still, I think of things to tell her that only she could truly appreciate. I was blessed to have a friend so wonderful that it hurt so much when she was gone. Yet some of my most favorite memories of Rachel were of late-night talks, of sleepy-Rachel-in-the-morning, of all of us in our 4-H House sweatshirts and laughing until it hurt. Of crazy answering machine messages and silliness and fuzzy blue slippers.

What I would have missed out on had we not lived together. Had it not been for 4-H House. That hurts to think about.

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  1. social signals provider of content-creaters.com says:

    I’m impressed, I must say. Really rarely do I encounter a blog that’s both educative and entertaining, and let me tell you, you have hit the nail on the head. Your idea is outstanding; the issue is something that not enough people are speaking intelligently about. I am very happy that I stumbled across this in my search for something relating to this.

  2. H. Spangler says:

    Wow! I am overwhelmed by your responses. And so glad to hear of so many positive 4-H House experiences, across so many generations. It speaks volumes about the house's ability to welcome young women into its arms. And yet, clearly and according the most-recent anonymous comment, not all are positive. I don't think anyone involved with 4-H House would declare the interviewing process a perfect one – that doesn't exist, in any housing unit. But I also don't think you can argue both against and for preferential treatment in the same comment. And I really hope that any girl, regardless of her hometown or any stories she may have heard, will take an honest look at the house and decide for herself whether it's the right place for her. I'd hate for anyone to miss out on that opportunity. --Holly

  3. Anonymous says:

    4-H house has strangled itself with a lack of diversity. Too much nepotism. Too many bright girls not let in. Others in their area no longer apply. Two examples: granddaughter of one of the "4-H House Cookbook" that made tens of thousands for the house wasn't good enough (now she's an engineer); nor was a girl whose father and grandfather did free repair and maintenance for ten years (she's now a medical professional. No one from their home areas even bothers to apply any more.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Where would I be without 4-H House? A retired tray girl from the local hospital! A person who would have missed out on the special joys of being a 4-H House girl! I would have missed out on the friendships and love that have seen me through the good times and the bad for the past 43 years. What I found amazing while helping to plan the 75th 4-H House celebration was that my life was fuller because of the women who belong to this sisterhood. I hadn’t met most of the committee before we started working on our task and indeed we did not meet in person until we arrived on campus but it didn’t matter, we were all sisters and each could be counted on to do what they said they would do. Each brought a special set of talents and together we did Ms McKee and the “Pearls” proud! For those of you fortunate enough to have been there, please reread “Our Stories,” remember “Our Songs,” and cook and bake “Our Recipes.” This sisterhood is too important and too special to be lost. Each of us fortunate enough to have lived there must rally and do whatever it is we are good at to make sure it is perpetuated for the sisters yet to be brought into our circle. Pat Fuchs '68

  5. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for posting this, Holly! I'm a senior, and much like you have had similar experiences. My U of I experience would not have been half of what it has been if it weren't for this house. Knowing that I have a "home" to go to every day after class is comforting. The memories I've made are endless. I don't know how many job interviews I've been in where my 4-H House experience has helped me either in answering questions, or been a great opportunity to be an ambassador for what we do - to show that we know what it's like to work in teams, be professional, learn to handle conflict, and the list goes on. Cooperative - it's what we do best! Thanks again for a great read!

  6. Anonymous says:

    Sorry. I thought that would put my name on it. Keith Bradbury.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Your experience reminds me of our son entering Christian Campus House (not far from Ohio St.) in the fall of 1998. His experience there has stayed with him these many years as have his friends. He was able to further his faith and cultivate our families love of music along with saving a few thousand dollars. He ate a lot of rice and pasta but the fellowship was gourmet.

  8. Anonymous says:

    A great post! 4H House does, routinely, change the lives of the students who live there. It can't be stressed enough how wonderful the experience truly is. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us! - Erin Spaur, Alum, '08

  9. Anonymous says:

    I loved my time at 4-H House. (Except for the zucchini incident when as commissar I had put too many zucchini dishes on the menu and then found my bed full of this tasty squash!) It was a wonderful experience - learning and living with 50 some other women. Our daughter didn't choose the University of Illinois for her college experience, so she'll never get to live there. But, she will definitely agree that 4-H shaped her into the person that she is today. She learned so many practical life skills and developed a passion for serving others in 4-H. LHK, Class of 77

  10. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for writing this article! I live in the house right now and could not agree with this more. Two years ago I had the hardest time choosing between the dorms and the house, and now I could not see myself anywhere but the house. It has changed my life in so many great ways and have made long lasting friendships between the cook crews and late night conversations that could not have been made elsewhere.

  11. Anonymous says:

    I moved into 4-H House this year an already I have been changed for life. It began with awkward conversations with my pledge class but now I can't imagine not knowing them. The house is a great place to save money and to make good connections! This is perfect in describing 4-H House. Thanks so much for posting this!

  12. Anonymous says:

    This is so very well stated!! My daughter lives in the 4-H House and it has been an awesome experience for her as well as our entire family!! I hope more young ladies will read this and check into living at the 4 - H house in the future. I am so thankful that we found about it when my daughter was considering attending U of I!!

  13. Anonymous says:

    I am a current senior at 4-H House and I would just like to emphasize that everything mentioned in this article is the way I feel as well, 100%. The friendships I have made here amid scrubbing floors and making cakes the size of a table top are ones that will truly last a lifetime. By the first day of school I already had 50 good friends and by only a few weeks after that I had 50 new best friends. We are accepting applications for our second Interviewing Weekend on March 10-11 and would love to see as many come in as possible! Tell everyone you know, and thank you, Holly, for writing this awesome article!

  14. Anonymous says:

    I have one of my 4-Her's applying for 4-H house for the fall semester and she has been in 4-H for 9 years now. So hopefully she gets in. Known several others from our county who have lived there and loved it.

  15. Anonymous says:

    Thank you for sharing Holly! Very well put! It helped me remember all the good times and memories that are not far behind me. I could not agree more and am happy that they have opened up enrollment. 4-H House is definitely a life changing experience. - Dorothy Tate

  16. Anonymous says:

    I was a freshman/pledge in the Fall of 1962. The house was new. When I toured it during the 75th anniversary, I was surprised to see some of the same furniture, the same closet doors, the same kitchen equipment. Fifty years. We're talking antiques. The alumns from the '30s, '40s and '50s built 805 We. Ohio. It's our turn -- the '60s, '70s, '80s, '90s and '00s to rennovate, remodel. I'm ready to donate. Cheryl Smith Wormley indepublisher@comcast.net

  17. Anonymous says:

    Could not have said it any better than this blog! 4-H House prepared me to succeed in a corporation, understand the value of volunteering, know what true friendship is, and the meaning of life long committment! Tina Ankney-Vandermyde 1988 Alum