Phyllis Lee died Friday from injuries suffered in a car crash. She was 79. While the cause of her death can be stated and her life can be measured in years, what cannot be so easily expressed is the impact she had on her neighbors or the number of lives she touched. She was a gentle and persistent force for good.
Lee spent 44 years with the Colorado State University Extension Service, first as a home economist in Ignacio and then 26 years in Durango also as a home economist and then as executive director. For the urbanites among us, or newcomers to the state, the Extension Service is a pillar of Colorado life. Often thought of as a feature of rural living, which it certainly is, in fact, it offers something for almost everyone.
The Colorado State University Extension of La Plata County says in its mission statement that it “offers informal education in agriculture, horticulture, consumer and family education and 4-H and youth development.” Phyllis Lee was a tireless advocate for those values and for the extension agent’s part in promoting them. And with that, she epitomized the role. Always cheerful, she was an emissary, an administrator and, above all, an educator.
Lee did her part in a number of ways. For two decades, she wrote a column for the Herald about cooking at high elevation. Straightforward and solid, it, too, reflected the mission of the Extension Service.
When not working on the ranch she owned with her husband, Brice, she applied her tireless energy to the La Plata County Fair Board, the La Plata County Cowbelles and the Colorado and American National Cattlewomen’s associations. She judged food exhibits at fairs in nearby counties and at the Colorado State Fair in Pueblo.
But it was probably through the Extension Service’s role in 4-H and fostering what it calls a “revolution of responsibility” that Lee touched the greatest number of lives. Too often thought of as a club just for farm kids, 4-H actually is a values-based organization that offers programs for kids of all sorts.
Of course, 4-H does include programs centered on agriculture and animal husbandry, and in an area such as La Plata County, those are highly visible. But it also offers programs for kids with no interest in farming or ranching or no ability to have large animals.
The actual focus, which is most clearly evident in 4-H programs that center on things such as firearms and large animals, is to foster responsibility. Leaders of programs such as shooting sports or horsemanship put up with zero nonsense but also promote enjoyment of the skills they impart. They teach kids that they can have fun while being careful, respectful and responsible. It is a critically important message, one obvious to ranchers, farmers and others who routinely deal with power tools, heavy equipment or handle large animals in situations where carelessness can kill or maim. But it is a message too often out of step with popular culture.
Through her work with the Extension Service, 4-H and the fair, Phyllis Lee helped teach those positive values to generations of La Plata County youths. With that, as with all she did, she enriched the lives of those around her and left the world a better place.