Originally created 10/25/98

Extension boss leaves career he truly loved



In his 30 years as an extension agent, there's one consistent thing people call Clyde Lester about.

Kudzu. What it is, where it came from and what can be done about it.

And it's all a part of his job to find that out.

The ubiquitous Southern weed was brought in from China during the Depression to cut down on soil erosion, Mr. Lester explained.

"It worked -- it served its purpose -- but it kind of got away from us," he said.

Mr. Lester leaves the extension service -- and kudzu calls -- behind when he steps down as extension coordinator Friday. He's a little ambivalent about retiring but does so to allow fellow agent Sid Mullis a crack at the position.

Mr. Lester has become a presence in the community as extension agent and a regular columnist for The Augusta Chronicle.

Given a blank page years ago, he said, he would have created a job like the one he's had with extension service.

"I really and truly love my work -- I always have. When you really like what you do, it's got to show -- your enthusiasm and attitude come across," he said.

The extension service, which began in 1914, is the off-campus service unit of the University of Georgia and is maintained by the College of Agriculture and Consumer Services. It's not only agriculture-based, but also includes programs for youths, such as 4-H, as well as those in nutrition and occupational safety.

"Our mission is to take research-based information to the people," he said. This includes testing soil and finding out about diseases that affect plants for horticulturalists and farmers.

His interest in horticulture began when he was an adolescent living in Rome, Ga.

"One of the things that got me into extension is in high school some of my buddies were planting pine trees. But you couldn't get in 4-H if you lived in the city," he said.

So he planted his own pine trees in his backyard -- only to have his father mow them down "accidentally."

Mr. Lester, who recently celebrated his 55th birthday, received bachelor's and master's degrees in forestry management from the University of Georgia.

After school and a two-year stint in the Army, he took a job with the extension service on Labor Day, 1970, in Cedartown.

From there he ventured to Atlanta and established the city's first 4-H Club program serving 3,000 youth in the city and 7,000 countywide.

At the time, Atlanta's growth was just starting to boom. Georgia Highway 400 had just been completed and farmers in North Fulton were selling their land.

"Now I go back and don't recognize the place," he said.

As an urban-trained extension agent, Mr. Lester had to learn to change gears quickly because of the wide spectrum of calls received. Master gardeners would call with questions he couldn't answer while one woman called to ask if she saved a tomato plant and put it in her window would it "make tomatoes."

"It took me a while to get used to calls and wondering who's going to be on the other end," he said.

But he said the best thing about the job is helping others. He's taught master gardening courses and developed programs for the community.

"That's the thing that keeps my battery charged. It's up to you to design the program as to the county's needs," he said.

Mr. Lester is ambivalent about retirement. He said part of him asks what he'll do not being an agent; the other side is excited for whatever lies ahead.

For starters, Mr. Lester said he'll take a couple of months off to relax and travel. He's also interested in further developing hobbies such as oil painting.

Staying active shouldn't be a problem for Mr. Lester. As a regular runner with the "Noon Platoon," a group of runners who meet at Health Central each weekday, Mr. Lester is sure to be seen around the city.

Augusta physician and running partner Randy Smith met Mr. Lester in 1981 through the Exchange Club, but didn't get to know him until around 1984-85 when he saw Mr. Lester at Health Central.

"No telling how many thousands of miles we've run together," Dr. Smith said.

The group of friends includes a preacher, a printer, a couple of bankers and an executive. On their daily runs, the group discusses politics, tells jokes or Mr. Lester shares his knowledge on B Western movies.

"We really enjoy his company," Dr. Smith said. "He's so well-read and just a lot of fun to be around."

For Jennie Bartlett, extension secretary, Mr. Lester's retirement will be hard because she's gotten so used to working for him over the past nine years.

"We've voted him best boss in the world five times and nominated him for best boss in the universe, but the jury's out on that one," she joked.

Mr. Lester remembers the first call he received from a Pope County resident almost 30 years ago about a dying mimosa tree. When asked what he expects the last call will be about on Friday, Mr. Lester hesitates.

"I can't say, but I'm sure I'll remember it," he laughed.

Margaret Weston can be reached at (706) 823-3351 or newsroom@augustachronicle.com.