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Taff, Paul C.

Published onOct 15, 2021
Taff, Paul C.

(1887 - 1982)

Quick Facts

Taff served as Assistant Director of the Iowa State Extension Service from 1917 until 1952. Taff was seemingly involved in every major 4-H event that happened in the state of Iowa during his time at Iowa State.

Paul C. Taff was born in McLean, Illinois, in 1887. He received a BS in agriculture from Iowa State College (now University) in 1913 and an LLD from Loras College, Dubuque, Iowa, in 1949. Taff trained under Perry G. Holden and served as Assistant Director of the Iowa State Extension Service from 1917 until 1952. Concurrent with serving as the Assistant Director of Extension, Taff was the Iowa State 4-H Club Leader for over three decades.

Taff was first introduced to Iowa State through a two-week short course in agriculture that the college offered in January 1904. The course brought together a diverse group of students ranging in age from teenagers to farmers well into their 70s. It was a good experience for Taff—he learned about corn and livestock, networked with older farm managers, and made the acquaintance of several of the regular students at the college, including Robert Buchanan. However, the most significant event to come out of the short course was meeting Professor Perry G. Holden who was in charge of Extension work at Iowa State. Taff’s consistently high marks in farm crops at subsequent short courses prompted Holden to invite Taff to Ames to help with county crop demonstration plots in 1907.

Determined to enroll at Iowa State, Taff first had to take some remedial courses to overcome his lack of a high school education. When he entered the college in the fall of 1908, he was listed as a “special academic student” due to the fact that he still did not have all of the required high school credits. Taff paid for college by working for Professor Holden in the Extension Service and finding other jobs around campus. Somehow he still found time to attend classes and be involved in over a dozen extracurricular activities.

Even though he was not able to work fulltime for Extension while completing his coursework, Taff was clearly a valued member of the team. During the fall of 1912, when Taff should have been completing his final three credits, Professor William Kennedy, then head of Extension, was able to persuade the administration to overlook the rules preventing him from hiring Taff fulltime. Taff accepted the offer and started his fulltime appointment in September of 1912. He received his diploma in January 1913.

The rest of Taff’s career was dedicated to serving the state through his work for Extension, particularly as leader of the state’s 4-H clubs. Taff was initially assigned to prepare materials for crops and club work. He also administered short courses and correspondence courses for teachers of agriculture and home economics who served the rural school districts. He even served as Acting State Extension Director for six months in 1914 when Professor Kennedy unexpectedly left Iowa State. In 1917, Extension Director Ralph K. Bliss appointed Taff to Assistant Director of the State Extension Service and in 1919 he was named the State Club Leader in charge of all 4-H club activities in the state.

Taff was seemingly involved in every major 4-H event that happened in the state of Iowa during his time at Iowa State. In 1915, Taff supervised a group of several dozen 4-H boys on a trip to the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco. As State Club Leader, Taff oversaw all 4-H club activities at the Iowa State Fair from 1920 until his retirement in 1952. He was proud to note that he served as a judge of some the agricultural exhibits for over five decades. During the 1940s, he planned and actively promoted a state 4-H camping center for Iowa and was greatly satisfied when the Iowa 4-H Center opened in 1952. During his tenure, Iowa 4-H membership grew to be one of the largest state memberships in the country.

Taff was no less prolific at the national level. He helped coordinate the first National 4-H Congress in Chicago in 1922, and served as superintendent of the next 15 Congresses. He attended many of the early National 4-H Club Camps held in Washington, D.C. and several times was put in charge of all discussion programs at the Camps. The Federal Extension Office appointed Taff to act as leader for a group of 54 youths participating in the International Farm Youth Exchange Program. He accompanied and supervised them during home stays in over a dozen European and Middle Eastern countries over a period of three months in the summer of 1951.

In his retirement, Taff took time to reflect on his work in 4-H, but he quickly realized that he was one of only a handful of people who could still recall the early years of the movement. He spent the next ten years collecting and organizing 4-H records and memorabilia for national 4-H organizations. Taff provided much of the historical documentation used by Franklin Reck in his book on the history of 4-H, The 4-H Story. Taff was particularly interested in securing historical documentation of 4-H club work in Iowa. The materials he collected comprise the bulk of the early 4-H records held by the Special Collections Department of the Iowa State University Library.

Taff was forced into retirement in 1952 due to an age restriction policy that was in place at Iowa State at the time. He continued working part time for Extension for another five years. Taff died in 1982, but not before donating his collection of historical 4-H materials to the Iowa State University Library. These materials, which are available for use by the public, are an incredibly valuable resource to anyone interested in the origins of the 4-H movement. They constitute one final parting gift from a man who dedicated his head, heart, hands, and health to serving others.

Selected Sources

Paul C. Taff Papers, n.d., 1901, 1904-1980, 1982, ISU Extension and Outreach, University Archives, Special Collections, Iowa State University Library, Ames.

Family History, 1977, Box 1, Folder 5. Paul C. Taff Papers, RS 16/3/56, Special Collections Department, Iowa State University Library.

Oral Interview, Paul Taff, 1974. A transcription of an oral history recording as given by Paul C. Taff regarding the early extension work. Includes personal recollection of Paul C. Taff about the extension before and after the war.

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