A life of generous giving

Doug Lewis is our superhero. He's a volunteer who is making a difference in 4-H, MSU Extension and across the state. His stories, energy and generosity inspire us and we can't wait for you to meet him on this episode of Partnerships and Peninsulas.

June 3, 2019

Doug Lewis headshot.

A Life of Generous Giving Transcript

Jeff Dwyer: Volunteers are crucial to Michigan State University Extension's ability to serve Michigan's residents. We depend on our network of more than 20,000 adult volunteers in 4-H youth development with the MSU extension master gardener program and on our extension councils throughout the state to help us achieve our mission. I'm Jeff Dwyer and I have the privilege of being the director of Michigan State University Extension. My guest on Partnerships and Peninsulas today is Doug Lewis, attorney and director of student legal services at the University of Michigan and one of our greatest supporters. So Doug, you probably spend more time volunteering for Michigan State University Extension than doing anything else, but sleep would be my guess-

Doug Lewis: Who said I sleep?

Dwyer: Well. There you go. That might be the reasoning behind all of this. You're involved in volunteering with us and for us at so many different levels at the 4-H club level at the local level where you live in the Washtenaw County area. And you help us tell the Extension story around the state and even you and I go to Washington DC on a fairly regular basis. So I'm looking forward to this conversation, but let's start with this question. Tell me the story of owning your first horse.

Lewis: Well my first horse was a complete accident. I had done a job for a client. In fact, it was a divorce. When we got to the end of the process, it was time to settle up and she came to me and said, well, do you want the money or do you want a horse? I was, what? 35, almost 40. Had never thought about owning a horse. So I went home to my wife being the dutiful husband that I am, and I said to my wife, dear, should I take the money or take the horse? Now you need to understand. My wife is deathly afraid of horses. I've owned a horse now for over 20 years. She's only sat on it twice and that was ugly both times. But my wife without hesitation said, take the horse. If you don't, you'll regret it for the rest of your life. So I took the horse and then suddenly my email became DE Cowboy. I started dressing differently.

One horse became two, two became four. We had to move. Now there are six horses in my backyard. And as I love to tell people like you, had it not been for that decision, I would never have met you.

Dwyer: So let's follow that thread Doug, how did that first horse and the ones that followed lead to you becoming involved with MSU Extension?

Lewis: Well, I had a guy at church who kept bugging me, hey Doug, you need to come and board your horse at my house. And it took me about a year and a half to get it there. But when I went to his place, they had a club, it was a buffalo soldiers reenactment club and they also had a 4-H club that was attached to it that they sponsored, but nobody else in the organization cared anything about kids except me. So when I left the club, I kind of took the forage moniker with me. I changed its name to the Calico kids, which is a kind of deference to the buffalo soldier history. Nowadays, every time I look around, somebody says, hey, you should go ride with Doug. I had two young ladies, they were sisters who had said, well, the other club that we're in makes us pay 25 bucks every time we go ride and we can't afford it.

They were a single parent household, and so another lawyer friend of mine said, well, go talk to Doug. And that was Mary and her sister and they rode with me for, oh, I don't know, must have been six, seven years. In fact, I brought Mary to a horse show up here at the pavilion once and her mom was sitting up next to me and I was laughing. I said, cool. They were in a payback class. I said, cool, I'm going to break even tonight on the fees. Her mother looked at me and said, what are you talking about? Oh, I said, I paid their entry fees and they're winning enough money that I'm going to break even. She said, you did what? I said, I paid their entry fees. She said, why? I said, because I wanted your daughter and my daughter to have this experience and there wasn't any other way that that was going to happen and this is why I go to work so I can support this work.

And that young lady has been one of my favorite students for four years. She now lives in Colorado, an amazing young lady. She was involved in a horse accident. She's now a paraplegic, but since her accident she's been whitewater rafting on the Grand Canyon, she downhill skis in Colorado where she lives. She has done so many different things. She's just an amazing kid. And again, that's one of those things. If it hadn't been for the horse, I would never have met Mary and that would have been such a loss in my life to have not met her.

Dwyer: That's a great story. And I know from our many conversations over the last few years, you have lots of stories like that.

Lewis: I have lots of stories and I had lots of kids in my life.

Dwyer: So tell us how your 4-H club works.

Lewis: Well, mine is probably, or at least in my county, it's very unusual. I have kids, none of whom own horses. Down near Milan, I've had kids drive from as far as Sterling Heights to come to my barn every Saturday and we get on horses. Every child has to be interviewed before they join because their parents and they need to understand who I am and how I function. I have been told several times that I can be very hard on folks, although I'm perceived as fair and some kids aren't ready for that. They all had to come in and learn that. The first rule of the barn is you will do what Doug says. You won't question, interpret or do anything else about it or hesitate, you'll do what I say to do. And if you can't do that, don't bother.

My club is also not just about getting on a horse and going around in a circle. We're the only club in the county that does not show for fair. We've been participating in the state 4-H trail ride instead. I take my kids up north, turn them loose in the woods for three days. Through that experience, a lot of them made friends with kids from all over the state, a much broader view of the world and they've got to learn a lot of other lessons. I had a one young lady who started with me I guess last fall and when I was interviewing her she said, well, I don't like to do what my mom says to do. I said, really? Why not? I just don't want to. I said, well, you know, that's not going to work, not with me. And so I told her and her mom and said, tell you what, you can come out to the barn. We'll try this.

So one day she got there early and I asked her to go out in the pen and pick a particular horse. So she walks out. She grabbed him, grabs him by the halter and the horse did exactly what I knew he would. He jerked his head away and walked off. I said, go get him again. She did it again. He jerked his head and walked off. I let her do that for about 10 minutes. Then I kept waiting for the frustration to build up to the right level and then I asked her to come over and I said, you're getting a little frustrated, and she says, yeah, and it's because the horse won't do what you want them to do, right? Yeah. Now you know how your mother feels. She got quiet and I can almost hear her mother's smile. The smile is so big, I can almost hear it because she was standing about 20 feet behind me.

I said now here's how you go get the horse and here's how you cooperate with the horse. It's just like I said. It's not about riding, I'm trying to teach kids to teach the horse. My horsey philosophy, I guess, is that when you're on a horse or with a horse, you're supposed to be teaching that horse something. And if you're lucky, you're learning something at the same time. So it's not about giving them a skill set, it's giving them a way to see the world better, more clearly, to think about how they relate in the world.

Dwyer: Well I think that's a great example of what 4-H can do in general for the nearly 220,000 kids in the state of Michigan who are involved in 4-H this year, which is they may come because of the horse in your case or in other cases because they have the opportunity to raise a sheep or grow something or a pig or something like that. But they learn so many other things in the process. So just in your examples, they learn about leadership, they learn about cooperation. I think you've shared with me in the past that when you take kids up on the trail riding experiences up north, for many of them it's the first time they've been in that kind of location and what a great experience for them in so many different ways. So Doug as I said at the beginning, my guess is you spend time volunteering probably more than anything else you do for MSU extension and we're grateful for that.

Let me just mention the things that you're involved in. You serve as the vice president of the Washtenaw County 4-H council. You're a member of the state 4-H trail ride committee. You're the former president of the Michigan 4-H Foundation board and still on the foundation board and you're a member of the Council for Agricultural Research Extension and teaching for MSU. So I think we already have a sense from the conversation-

Lewis: But wait, you missed District 12. The District 12 advisory council.

Dwyer: That's right. The District 12 Advisory Council. Thank you very much for adding that correction. So I think we have a sense why you're involved with kids at the club level, but why be involved in so many different ways?

Lewis: I'm a person who has a real trouble with saying no. You mentioned the council on agriculture research. The way that I got there, I had taken a bunch of my kids down to Detroit to a 4-H facility down there. We took the horses, we took kids, we ponied kids around. It turned out that that was my interview for CARET because a couple of weeks later it was like the district supervisor or whatever, district director was there that day. Anyway, so I get this call, hey Doug, I get a call that they want you to join this thing called CARET. What is it? I don't know. I said, well, does it help kids in the university? Yeah. Okay. I'm in.

Dwyer: There you go.

Lewis: She says that's all? Yeah, a lot of 4-H volunteers only see 4-H. They see it in their local level and that's the extent of where they go to. CARET allowed me to see it's not just 4-H, it's Extension and in fact it's more than Extension. It's the land grant university system, and the more things that I saw, the more interesting that it was in my role as a CARET rep. I found out that there are land grant universities in Guam, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. I had no clue. And so I guess I liked talking to people. People say I'll talk to almost anybody and I've had that opportunity to go across the state and in fact across the country talking about 4-H, Extension and the role of the university in supporting our various communities and I just love it.

Dwyer: Well, we are grateful for all of the time that you devote. And let me say to our listeners that just two weeks ago we had the honor of giving you one of our key partner awards from Extension at our celebration event at our fall conference where we have all 600 plus of our people in attendance as well as some others. And it really was an honor for us to honor you in that context and we appreciate all that you do.

Lewis: Yeah, but that's one of those things that I laugh about it every time I think about it. I'm a U of M grad. I'm a U of M employee and here I am getting an award from MSU. If you told me that when I was an undergrad, I would have called you crazy. But in addition to that, you know, I asked people what have I done that's particularly special? I don't think I've done anything that's special. In my book it says present yourself a living sacrifice, which is your reasonable service. But I think the stuff that I do is just reasonable. It's not over the top.

Dwyer: Well, that's a great attitude and you're obviously a terrific example in many, many different ways, but I think that's one of the great things about Extension and 4-H in particular, right? Because we can say that there are 20,000 others like you -

Lewis: There's a lot of folks-

Dwyer: Who are contributing in different ways. So changing topics just slightly one of the areas where you've provided tremendous services to the Michigan 4-H Foundation. The foundation has been an important partner to Michigan State University Extension since it began in 1952. Tell us a little bit more about the foundation and then maybe share a little bit about how people, if they have financial resources they might like to provide to the benefit of 4-H, how they might be able to do that and the kinds of things they could think about.

Lewis: Well there's lots of things to think about. The Foundation as you say, it's been around since 1952. We currently are in the middle of a capital campaign I learned yesterday we're about a half a million dollars short of goal, which is just amazing. The foundation supports so many different programs. The two largest would be the children's garden here in our campus and the second one would be the Kettunen Center up in Tustin. There are lots of other grants that are supported. One off the top of my head is one for shooting sports. They do grants generally in the range of 500 to a 1,000 dollars. Last year we tapped out at $405,000. I believe it was in grants to various institutions. We also manage funds that come in from local counties so that they get a better return on their money. Obviously the more money you're investing generally the better return you get.

 So we manage several funds for several counties, couldn't recall the number for sure. In addition to raising the money. It really is about trying to support 4-H programming. We don't do the programming, but we raise money to fund much of it. It has been my experience that there's a lot of people out there with great visions of things to do, but the thing that holds them back more than anything else, is finances. First we have to have vision and I think many of us do as volunteers, but then the second piece is how do you fund it? You've talked about my horse program. I have funded that out of my pocket for the last 20 something years, but my pocket's getting old and I look at the needs that I have with my club and I know that everybody else is in the same place.

I don't think that others are doing things quite on the scale that I'm doing, but I can see so much more than so many more kids. And sitting with the Foundation gave me a better place to see that from. When I go to the children's garden there and I see the amazing amount of kids that go through that program during the summer, I'm like, okay, here are kids that would not learn about this if it was not for the children's garden. The programs that are up at Kettunen, I see kids that would not have had that experience but for that. You talked about me taking kids up the trail ride. You're right. First time I took a group of kids there, I put kids on the back of a horse. They were out for a ride that lasted for well, it was a mistake. We took a wrong turn. So it was about two hours and 20 minutes.

None of those kids had ever been on a horse for more than 20 minutes at a stretch because I have more kids than I have horses. So they partner up and they trade up, so no kid on that group had been on a horse for more than 20 minutes. There was one that complained a lot and there's one that just laughed a lot.

Dwyer: That's terrific. Well, we should let our listeners know that if they're interested in learning more about 4-H, if they're interested in learning more about the 4-H Foundation, we have substantial information on the web and they can reach us through the MSU Extension website. They can reach us through the Michigan State University website.

Lewis: Absolutely. And again, it's not just about how much you can give. One of the advantages that the Foundation has it has a relatively low buy in if you want to create an endowment. We're now really exploring donations that are done through people's wills, which has made a great improvement in how we raise money. We've done some things in the last two years that have increased the rate of return by lowering what our costs are so that more money goes back into programming and less money goes to the actual functioning of the Foundation. And you're right, they can contact any of us. We have board members from all over the state. We have this wonderful crew that's in our development office that's always there, always wanting to help. And more importantly, you can direct that gift anywhere you want to.

Dwyer: It's a gift point.

Lewis: It's not like it just goes somewhere and you don't know where it goes. You can direct it and say, well, I want it to come back to my county. You can say I want it to come back to my county and support a particular program. I think it gives donors a lot of flexibility and a lot of hands on. We have our annual meetings. Everybody who donates more than 10 bucks a year is a member of the foundation, they can all come in and sit and see what we do. The 4-H Foundation is really an organization of the people who are its members. Be it the volunteers, the youth who benefit from it or from the people who donate to it because it's something they believe in. We've got a lot of great 4-H alumni who are part of this. Every time I go to a meeting, I'm listening to these folks who have been in the 4-H for two, three generations. I'm currently working on my third.

Dwyer: That's great.

Lewis:  Grandchild is going to be ... Grandchild's my cowboy.

Dwyer: That's great. Well, this is Partnerships and Peninsulas. My name is Jeff Dwyer. I have the privilege of being the director of Michigan State University Extension. My guest today is super volunteer for 4-H Doug Lewis. Thank you Doug very much for being here today.

Lewis:  Thank you for having me.

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