Many FFA members and supporters may recognize Orion Samuelson as the host of the National FFA Convention & Expo broadcast each October, but his involvement in agriculture expands far beyond his work and love for FFA. The most recognized agricultural journalist in the industry, Samuelson has more than 60 years experience in broadcasting, more than 50 of those at Chicago’s WGN.
In his new memoir, “You Can’t Dream Big Enough,” Samuelson covers the highlights and lowlights of his exciting career, from his start in FFA and 4-H to dinner at the White House and his travels to 43 different countries.
We are honored to share an excerpt from Samuelson’s book and a special rate for FFA members, alumni and supporters to own a copy.
On a summer day after I finished the eighth grade, Dr. Walter Jones walked out of the X-ray room at St. Francis Hospital in LaCrosse, Wisconsin toward where my parents and I were waiting, looked at me and said, “I wish there was another way I could tell you this, young man, but there isn’t. You aren’t going to walk for two years.”
I loved school and was excited about moving on to Ontario High School. I was a tall kid, so I was going to play basketball. The school wasn’t big enough to have a football team, but we did have basketball and baseball. Early in the summer after eighth grade, I started experiencing pain in my left hip and it got worse rather quickly. It felt like something had come out of joint. My parents believed in chiropractic, so they took me to see three or four chiropractors, all of whom said they were going to cure me. But the pain just got worse. By August, they decided something else had to be done. That morning before we drove to see Dr. Jones started like any other morning on the farm. At 5 o’clock, I helped Dad feed and milk the cows. We cleaned the barn and then got ourselves cleaned up for the trip to the hospital. We figured we would be back in time to do the evening milking.
After Dr. Jones dropped the bomb on us, I just stared at him in astonishment for a moment, letting what he had just said soak in. Then I asked, “What do you mean I’m not going to walk for two years?”
“I mean you aren’t going to walk for two years. You have Legg-Perthes Disease,” which he went on to explain is basically a decaying of the bone that goes from the thigh and fits into the hip socket. “Your leg is already shortening, which is what is causing the pain. If we don’t treat it, you’ll wind up with that leg three or four inches shorter than the other. I want to put you in the hospital right now.”
That was the only time I saw my dad cry. The doctor left us to talk it over and once we regained our composure, we decided we’d better get going on this, we’d better do it. So, I was admitted to the hospital that day and was there for three weeks with a rope, pulley and 20-pound weight pulling on my leg.
After that, I was in a cast. First, a body cast for six weeks. The first three weeks, I was in the hospital, but then the doctor let my parents take me home to my bed, where all I could do was lie in that itchy body cast in Wisconsin’s summer heat and humidity. After the body cast, I was in a wheelchair for four months and finally crutches. It was a terrible time and I thought it was just the worst possible thing that could have happened to me. “God, why me?” I asked in frustration.
So I wasn’t in the best of moods when the Ontario High School Vocational Agriculture teacher drove his car into our farmyard. Robert Gehring made a point of going to each of his incoming freshmen’s farms to encourage them to take agriculture courses and join the Future Farmers of America.
“I’m here to welcome you to high school,” he said with a smile. I snapped at him, “You’re wasting your time. I’m not going to be in school for two years.”
He asked why and I told him the story. As we talked, I noticed that he had an artificial arm. He caught me looking at it and explained that when he was six, he lost his arm in a farm accident.
“Do you think you can study by yourself?” he asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Can you study without a teacher and students around you and keep up with your schoolwork?”
“Well, I don’t know, but I think so.”
“If you can give it a try, I’ll make the five-mile trip out from town two or three times a week. I’ll bring the assignments from the other teachers and I’ll take your finished work to them so you don’t fall behind. When you’re back on your feet, you’ll still be in the same grade as your friends and you can graduate on time.”
Mr. Gehring’s kindness was unexpected but I was very grateful because I’d made some real good friends in the eighth grade at O’Connell School and we were going into high school together. I wanted to keep up with them.
When I wasn’t doing schoolwork, I killed time by listening to the radio. This was before we had electricity on the farm, which I’ll write about later. We had a radio that ran on “B” batteries, which were rationed during World War II. So, we had to be very careful about our radio use. But, by the time I was confined to my bed, the war had ended and the batteries were available again. I listened to Bert Wilson doing Cubs games on WIND. WLS was the Prairie Farmer Station back then and had the National Barn Dance, featuring performers who went on to become big stars, like Gene Autry, George Gobel, Pat Buttram and others.
The more I listened to the various announcers, the more I thought that maybe it was something I might be able to do because physically, I wasn’t going to be able to do what I’d always figured I would: take over the family farm when Dad retired and be as good a dairy farmer as I could. But lying in bed listening to the radio, my world was opening up. Now, I was about as bashful and barefoot a country boy as you could find and the thought of me talking on the radio seemed ridiculous, but I spoke to my Vo-Ag teacher about broadcasting. He told me that he’d get me into public speaking and when I was back on my feet, I would be in FFA speaking contests.
When I was strong enough to go back to school in my junior year, I started making speeches. I got into Forensics classes with Mrs. Woods, my English teacher, and my new Vo-Ag teacher, Clyde Hutchens, helped me, too. By my senior year I was pretty good and I became a finalist in the Wisconsin State FFA Public Speaking Contest. I told myself, “Man, I’m going to win this for my little high school.” There were five of us. I came in fourth! I got my tail whipped. I was shocked. I asked Mr. Hutchens, “Gee, what did I do wrong?” He calmly told me that we would take some time, take a look at it and learn from it.
That’s one lesson I took from my illness and those two lost years, a lesson I’ve used throughout my life: Don’t evaluate a happening when it’s happening. Give it some time because God may have a reason. What was a tragedy at the time changed my entire life, totally changed it. Had it not happened, I’d probably be milking cows in Wisconsin, and be happy doing it (except for the price of milk).
To show his appreciation for the FFA program, Samuelson has created a special, FFA-only rate for his new book. You can own his book for only $25, with free shipping. To order your copy, visit www.oriondreams.com. Or, you can call (312) 912-8639.