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Longtime 4-H Club leader teaches the children well


Despite the mound of paperwork heaped on her "desk" -- the kitchen table -- and a phone that never seems to stop ringing, Shirley Geis appears tireless.

It was 3 a.m. before she got to bed one recent night, after preparing for a contest involving members of the Clarksville Spur and Stirrup 4-H chapter, which she has led for 25 years.

That kind of dedication prompted more than 100 club members, former members, friends and family to "roast and toast" Geis, 63, at a surprise anniversary celebration at the Howard County Fairgrounds Saturday night.

"She is a very special lady, and the kids are always her foremost interest," said Cathleen Cahill, a parent who organized the event.

After Geis had knee surgery last fall, for example, she conducted 4-H meetings in her living room from a hospital bed.

Cahill recalled one telephone call from Geis' husband.

"He asked if I could type the club's newsletter, since Shirley was in a cardiac-care unit with oxygen up her nose," Cahill recalled. "As it turned out, she was OK, but her concern during that crucial time was getting the newsletter out before the next meeting."

Since retiring three years ago from her job as a microbiologist with the National Institutes of Health, Geis has even more time to contribute to the club, although there seems little to spare.

A few days before Saturday's surprise celebration, Geis managed some time to sip a cup of coffee in her homey kitchen. She lives on 20 acres in Clarksville with her husband, wildlife biologist Dr. Aelred Geis, 63, five dogs, one cat and three horses.

Geis has led the riding club since 1967, when her son Dean's High Riders 4-H Club split into two groups, and she was asked to head one. Fifteen young riders, ages 8 to 18, made up her first club, which has grown to about 50 members.

Between then and now, Geis has introduced hundreds of children and teens to riding.

Cahill says the club is remarkable because of the emphasis Geis puts on teaching children about horses.

"Not just to get on a horse and ride, but to understand everything about the horse," Cahill said. "She is extremely knowledgeable about so many aspects of horses.

"She knows so many people, and has contacts all the way up to the state level in 4-H," Cahill said.

Although the club focuses primarily on horses, a broad variety of projects, including gardening, cooking, puppy and dog care, child care and woodworking, is undertaken by the members. Parent or student leaders organize the projects.

Ask Geis what it's been like to steer hundreds of children and young people over the years through the ranks of the 4-H Club, and she will tell you about the monthly meetings, annual trips to the 4-H Horse Roundup in Louisville, Ky., community service projects, numerous horse shows, fund-raisers and much more.

Much of Geis' success at this work seems to have come from her own riding experiences as a teen.

"I had always wished when I was a kid that there was some place I could go to learn about horses," she said.

Although Geis owned a horse as a teen, she says she was not instructed adequately in horse safety or care.

"I learned by my mistakes," she said.

Motivating 50 or so 4-H'ers of different ages can be a challenge, but Geis seems to enjoy it.

"I take a child's field of interest and use it to develop his or her sense of responsibility and leadership," she said. "Everyone turns in a record book of their various projects through the years."

Sportsmanship and integrity are key elements in teaching her students, and both qualities are recognized during the club's annual Achievement Night. Even members who don't own a horse have the opportunity to win recognition in the club.

Karen Kolbe, a former 4-H member and the club's first president, has fond memories of her tutelage under Geis, and recalls the time she tagged along to work with her to learn about microbiology.

Geis also takes her students to art museums, horse breeding farms and racetracks and to the National Symphony. She likes to share her interests in classical music, opera and ballet with the members.

"It's neat to take kids to places in which they are interested," Geis said.

After 25 years of leadership, Geis hears often from former 4-H'ers who are now adults.

"It's such a great feeling to go to a lot of graduations, weddings and, now, even christenings," she said. "I don't miss any of these occasions."

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