Extending a helping hand whenever it is needed: Jerry Cullison
It’s a favor he’s been paying forward for 60-some years since then, whether it’s the $1 million endowment fund he established for future agriculture teachers, his tireless service with the Arizona Agricultural Education / FFA Foundation or his writing a check each year so every freshman in FFA at Antelope High School can have the official blue corduroy jacket – something he’s done for more than 25 years.
“I’ve been in this business a long time and I’ve never met anyone with more passion for FFA and agriculture than Jerry,” Dennis Fiscus, operations manager for the Arizona FFA Foundation, said of Cullison. “Jerry is the heart of the foundation.”
In a show of appreciation for his service, Cullison has been selected as the first recipient of the Blue & Gold Award, a new honor to be unveiled at the foundation’s inaugural Blue & Gold Gala to be held on Jan. 28 in Phoenix at the Marriott Airport Hotel. In addition to honoring Cullison, the Agriculturist of the Year award will be presented and student success stories recognized. The event will include dinner and silent and live auctions to raise money for the foundation.
“It’s appropriate that Jerry be the first recipient,” Heather Rayner, foundation vice president and chair of the gala, said of Cullison. “He exemplifies the ultimate FFA supporter.”
No other person has come close to giving as much money to support agriculture education in Arizona, Rayner added.
“It’s nice to be recognized while I’m still alive,” said Cullison. “It’s a brand new award … guess I’m fortunate to be the first one. I put in a lot of hours but if you enjoy what you’re doing, it’s not work.”
He went on to reminisce about his own experiences in FFA as a youth. Cullison has the distinction of having served as a National FFA Officer – he was the vice president of the National FFA Organization in 1957-58.
“Guess I interviewed better than the others,” he offered as explanation for how he was selected for the sought-after position. An honor graduate of high school in Phoenix, where he was raised, he was attending the University of Arizona at the time.
For a year of his life, Cullison and other National FFA officers lived out of a suitcase as they traveled by bus and train around the country to meet with CEOs and other executives of major corporations that were sponsors of FFA.
The trip also included a visit to the White House, the Statue of Liberty and the United Nations Security Council Chambers. Among the mementoes on the wall of his office is a photograph of him and his fellow officers taken with then Vice President Richard Nixon.
“It was a wonderful experience … an educational process you couldn’t buy,” Cullison said of that year. “It made me much more aware of what was going on in the world.”
In a report on his year as an officer, Cullison wrote: “To each of you Future Farmers, I would like to say that never have I been more proud than when I wore the blue jacket of our organization. The friends I have made in the FFA are the treasures I shall keep though life. Even though I shall discard my jacket, I will always be interested in your activities and extend a helping hand if and when it is ever needed.”
That’s a pledge he has kept. In addition to his monetary support for FFA, he has also given generously of his time.
Fiscus related that Cullison had been a member of the original board for the Arizona FFA Foundation, which had become inactive. When Fiscus, state FFA advisor at the time, and other leaders determined the foundation should be revitalized, the efforts started with a phone call to Cullison asking for his help.
“He helped resurrect the board, made phone calls and served as president in the early years,” Fiscus said of Cullison. “He was very instrumental in making the foundation viable. And he’s still highly involved. He’s been on the board since day one in 1995 and I’ve known him to miss only two meetings in 22 years. Yet he has the farthest to come and he’s always the first one to arrive.”
Mike Jonjuria, Antelope High School agriculture teacher, credits Cullison with being an inspiration for him. “Jerry passed on his passion to me about FFA,” Jonjuria said.
And he holds up Cullison to his FFA students as a model of what a person can do. “Definitely, Antelope FFA is much stronger because of him. That goes back years before me. This award is well deserved. Jerry is a friend of FFA.”
Cullison’s generosity extends to the community as well. Cullison has been heavily involved in the annual Tractor Rodeo to support the Yuma Regional Medical Foundation since 1979, was a member of the Arizona Farm Bureau Federation and served as the local president for two years in the 1960s, sat on the Yuma Regional Medical Foundation board for nearly 40 years and served as president in 1983-85, and was active in Yuma Navy League and Yuma UA Alumni Club, serving as president for both organizations. In addition, his family through Cullison Farms gave $1 million to the Yuma Regional Medical Center Heart Center (where he and his wife both later had heart bypass surgery) and two years ago bought a new ambulance for Tri-Valley Ambulance.
“This is home,” Cullison said with a shrug as explanation for his involvement. “It has very good people and it was a good place to raise a family (that includes his son and two daughters, his wife’s Lynne’s son and daughter and their daughter).
Cullison moved to Wellton in 1959 to farm some land his parents owned. “We started with 480 acres and grew cotton and alfalfa,” Cullison said. “We expanded fast and ended up farming 3,000 acres we owned or rented. All I ever wanted to be was a farmer.”
He acknowledged he’s slowing down now and most of the land is leased out. But his son Greg and daughter Kim remain active in Cullison Farms and two grandsons, Chad and Travis, are carrying on the family’s farming legacy. In addition, daughter Kim was in FFA and grandson Chad served as an Arizona FFA state officer.
Cullison credits his passion for agriculture education to his father, Joseph Ralph "J.R." Cullison, one of the most highly recognized agricultural education leaders in the state of Arizona.
The elder Cullison grew up on a farm in Illinois. After graduating from college, he taught vocational agriculture first in Illinois, then in Tolleson, Ariz. He also was assistant professor of agricultural education at the University of Arizona from 1938 to 1946. He then moved to Phoenix to join the Arizona Department of Education, where he served in various capacities, among them state supervisor of agricultural education, a position that also made him the state FFA advisor, and state director of vocational education. In addition, he was active in multiple community and state affairs.
To continue his father’s legacy, Cullison established the endowment fund that provides scholarships to University of Arizona students who choose to become agriculture teachers. It also provides funding support for their student teaching.
“We have seen the results of that program,” said Fiscus.
Added Jonjuria: “I’ve noticed since it took effect that the quality and quantity of kids going into agriculture teaching has improved. This will be a real boost to the FFA program around the state.”
And that will have a long-lasting impact on the students who go through the program, said Rayner. “They learn leadership skills, skills of agriculture and love of agriculture. That love of agriculture they’ll never let go of even if they don’t go into an agriculture career. We need these people out there being agriculture’s advocates.”
For more information about the gala, visit www.BlueAndGoldGala.org or call the Arizona FFA Foundation office at (602) 705-9211.
Article written by Joyce Lobeck