Kilgore Looks Back As He Looks Forward To Retirement
By Darryal Ray
When Mike Kilgore called up his dad in early November to say he was retiring as executive director of the Alabama Farmers Federation on Jan. 31, 88-year-old Cecil Kilgore had a few questions.
|From left front row: Samuel Treadwell (4), Thomas Treadwell (7), son-in-law Tommy Treadwell, daughter Kelly holding James Treadwell (2) and son Rylan Kilgore; back row, Wilson Kilgore (4), son Shane and Linda and Mike Kilgore.|
He wanted to know if Mike had bought the boundary marker paint he'd asked for a few months earlier and if he'd be bringing it with him on Thanksgiving.
"I said, 'I have it, and I'll bring it with me Thanksgiving, but that's not why I'm calling. I want to tell you what I've done.' And I told him of my decision to retire January 31. It got quiet. Then, Daddy said, 'January 31?' I said, 'Yes, sir.' And he said, 'Well, just forget about bringing that paint up for Thanksgiving. You just bring it up in February, and you can paint those boundary lines for me.'"
He laughs when he tells it, but it's a story that pretty much sums up the past and the future for Mike Kilgore, who came to the Federation in June 1974 as an energetic 25-year-old area organization director charged with oversight of 10 counties.
Over the next 35 years, he would serve in other capacities, including director of the Department of Organization. But the first job change would come much sooner than he expected.
By August of 1974, Doug Rigney convinced him to take charge of the Young Farmers program with a challenge to build it into a division. "When Doug asked me to do that, I turned him down," Kilgore recalled. "(But) he sold me on the program, saying it was to bring in new leadership, that it was the most important part of the organization, that I would have the most important job because our future presidents, our future county presidents and our future board members would come from the program. He said it was the growth part of the organization."
Kilgore jumped in with the same tireless work ethic he'd learned from his father back home in Winston County. "My goal was to give every young farmer the opportunity to become a part of this organization," said Kilgore, who hit the road with field staff to hold Young Farmer meetings around the state.
First, however, he had to convince the leadership in some counties that it could be done. "Some told me, 'There are not any young farmers out there. We've been looking for 'em, but there are none out there,'" Kilgore said. "So I asked them, 'If I can find them, will you have a meeting? Will you sponsor a meal?' .... 'Well, sonny boy, if you can find them, we'll do it.' That was the response."
Of course, finding them was only half the task; he still had to convince them to get involved.
"If they said they didn't have time, I suggested that they couldn't afford NOT to take the time," he said. "I wouldn't accept 'no.' I told them, 'If you want to stay in business, this is what's happening out there. ... Even if it's only 5 percent of your time, you've got to give some time for it, and you've got to decide how much time it is. If you're not in there, getting involved and helping set the policy and direction, somebody else is going to be setting it for you. If you want to have a legacy for your children and future generations, you've got to get involved, and the best organization to do it is this organization because the grassroots sets the policy from the bottom up.'"
"We were reaching out to anybody and everybody we could," he added. "Membership was not a prerequisite -- it was an enlistment tool."
It was also a bumper crop. Today, the fruit of the Young Farmers program can be seen throughout the organization. Jerry A. Newby, president of the Alabama Farmers Federation, was among Kilgore's first recruits. North Area Vice President Hal Lee, Central Area Vice President Dean Wysner, Southeast Area Vice President Ricky Wiggins and District Director Sammy Williams also got their start in the Young Farmers program.
Kilgore downplays his role, saying that he didn't "develop" today's leadership. "I just opened the door and gave them the opportunity," he says. "They developed themselves."
With an infusion of young blood, the Young Farmers program began to flourish, adding the Miss Agriculture pageant and a Young Farmers Leadership Conference.
The Outstanding Young Farm Family competition grew from fewer than 10 contestants to almost 60 and quickly became a highlight of the Federation's annual meeting.
And when President Jimmy Carter imposed an embargo on soybean exports to the Soviet Union, the Young Farmers gathered between 30,000 and 40,000 names on a petition in opposition to the decision.
After 20 years as director of organization and then, assistant executive director, Kilgore became executive director in 2000. It's a position he describes as "more strategy and administrative." Part of those duties is providing direction and support for all departments in the Federation.
The challenges as executive director were many, but so were the achievements. Among those were helping Newby improve the organization's image and strengthen its political action committee. Likewise, when the Federation faced a statewide lottery vote that had overwhelming public support, Kilgore's team-building skills helped ensure a sound defeat.
During the Amendment One battle, Kilgore helped form a small coalition that defeated the constitutional amendment that would have reversed all property tax laws that the Federation had fought so hard to win for farmers and homeowners.
Recognizing the value of having someone in his corner, Kilgore established the Federation's Department of External Affairs, which has helped bring several important political victories.
More recently, he worked with Federation leaders to secure an agricultural vehicle exemption from federal Department of Transportation registration. "When others said we could not do anything to fight it, we did and won," Kilgore said.
Even if the Federation's stance on an issue is unpopular, Kilgore says defending that position is fairly easy because they are the right ones. "I firmly believe that our people take their policy positions based on what's right and what's good, and that makes it easy to take a stand on issues," he said. "When some people try to decide what's politically correct, we take a stand based on what's good for our members, not what's politically expedient."
He keeps those same values close to him today. He remembers with fondness the early days when he and his brother and sister performed as The Kilgore Family on the Wally Fowler Gospel Hour as well as venues with such Southern gospel quartets as The Statesmen and Florida Boys. Mike, a baritone, sang lead; his brother Johnny sang tenor; and sister Becky sang alto. "Those were some good days," he says, "but I still can't read a lick of music."
Inside his office, the walls are covered with photos of his grandparents and parents Cecil and Beatrice's rural upbringing as well as photos of his four grandsons.
"Don't ever forget where you came from, who helped you get there, or forget what the future is about," he says as he points to the photos. "That's why those pictures are up there the way they are - that's for my benefit."
For Kilgore, he intends to spend a good portion of that future in a motorhome he just recently purchased.
"I've always said that when I retired, I was going to buy a motorhome and travel for two years and see this country," he says. "The grandsons are going to put a kink in the two years of straight traveling. But I figure it will take about two years to do what I want to do."
His itinerary calls for a tour that would've made the late Charles Kuralt envious. "I want to see places that were important in the formation of this country," he says. "I want to go to Yorktown. I want to stand on the ground Washington stood on when he defeated Cornwallis. I want to go to Jamestown, to Plymouth Rock. I want to go to Martha's Vineyard. I want to go up to Maine and sit on the pier of a little fishing village and see the boats come in and unload their catch, and boil and eat a live lobster right there on that pier."
So which will be his first stop?
"Nobody knows," he says. "I don't know yet. But one of the first things I'm going to do is I'm going to Winston County, and paint those boundary lines for my dad. I may be 62 years of age, but I still do what he tells me to