For the first time, SLO County is home to the National Future Farmers of America (FFA) President—our own homegrown, born and raised … Luke O’Leary. When Journal Plus owner/photographer, Tom Meinhold, asked me to write about Luke’s impressive achievements, I readily agreed.
Luke O’Leary is a twenty-year-old young man with a straightforward smile atop a slender 6’ 4” frame. As soon as we sat down together to talk, his honest-to-goodness personality and convivial nature made me a fan. During the evaporating hour, Luke passionately (and intelligently) articulated the storied journey he undertook from private Christian schools to San Luis Obispo High to Texas A & M University. Luke first shared how he was raised with three inspirational older sisters, a loving mom, and a dedicated father who was the local pastor. As Luke sipped his coffee, I asked, “What else has led to your personal success?”
“My sisters have been instrumental to my success because they were all successful in high school, so I took a little of each of their strengths for my own. I also should thank my extended family, my friends, and my many mentors who all played a significant part in my journey.”
San Luis Obispo County has never had a person gain such national stature in the Future Farmers of America organization, so I asked him to tell how he managed to win such a coveted position.
“Actually, California continues to be the leader as far as producing FFA presidents,” Luke explained that Breanna Holbert (the first female African American National FFA Officer) from Lodi, California served as last year’s president.
“It is quite rare to have back-to-back presidents from the same state. Today, 45% of FFA membership is female, and a little bit more than half of the leadership roles are female.” Luke continued to explain how recruiting women involved a process, for women were not allowed to join FFA until 1969. That said, California was in the forefront of moving women into leadership roles.
“Jan Eberly (Fallbrook, CA) in the 1980s was the first female national president, and she’s from California, so there’s been plenty of important history made here in our state—including the fact that California is home to the most FFA national presidents in our country. Our state’s current membership is 90,000 members—second only to Texas with 120,000. I could see how proud Luke is of growing up here, so I asked him to mention some of his mentors.
“My passion was realized as a freshman at SLOHS when I signed up for Agricultural Education. The national FFA is the premier youth organization for agricultural education in the United States. My freshman year at SLO High, I enrolled in Ag Integrated Science with Dr. Anna Bates followed by Agricultural Leadership with Mrs. Evans. Those two classes were the ones that opened the doors that led me along the path to Agricultural Education. I can’t thank those two women enough. During their classes, I learned to refine my public speaking skills and much more. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Mr. Ivan Simon who helped me with my English skills, and presented me (and others) with an end-of-the-year tongue-in-cheek award for excellent grades for one who came to class most of the time. I missed several classes representing FFA statewide. Also, when I was regional vice-president my junior year, and regional president my senior year in high school, Greg Beard from the Department of Education (situated at Cal Poly) was my regional supervisor, and I could go to him at any time for help.
Another key mentor is Josiah Mayfield, assistant state advisor, who oversees our six-member team for the year helping us meet our schedule, which covers 30,000 miles up and down the state of CA. He and his family became our second family. After winning a few competitions such as reciting the FFA Creed and participating in many of the related competitions, I was hooked. You see, I loved to perform even before high school. I was involved in theater in middle school, which led to musical theater at SLOHS, but once I discovered FFA, I found my place as a student, as a person, and as an agriculturalist. It also led me to what has become a career path.”
Luke shared his close relationship with his grandfather (on his mother’s side) who started his own company (Plant Sciences Inc.) because he wanted to be his own boss. “It wasn’t easy for my grandfather, but today his business is globally successful. Building on that success, he started a cattle ranch in Central Oregon. As for myself, I started showing swine via 4H in middle school—enjoyed it, so during my first year at SLOHS, I wanted to be involved with FFA.
“I believe one of the reasons for FFA’s success (which began in 1928) consists of the opportunity to work with teachers who are providing lessons and hands-on learning inside and outside the classroom. Plus, the first time I ran for state office (during my senior year) I lost. I was devastated…crushed. Suddenly, my plans changed. I thought I had this…but suddenly I had to decide where I would go to college. I chose Texas A & &M. Fortunately, in FFA, you can run a second time (a year later). I decided to not dwell on that decision for almost a year.
Rather, I would focus on academics for my freshman year. I did well with my grades, made solid friends, and planned on going to the national convention in October, yet not as a candidate, not in a blue jacket; rather, I would wear a suit and tie and facilitate a workshop on “Leadership Is Influence”. The date was October 2016. At the conference, I met an older friend who served as state president of California in 2015. He mentored me up to this point; his name was Dipak Kumar from Tulare.”
At this point, Luke’s facial expression changes as he tells me how Dipak lost his bid for national office. Luke and his friends were heartbroken in the back of the grand room—stunned. Later, Dipak spoke to Luke. “Luke, if this is the last thing I do in this blue jacket … so be it, but you have to know this…you are not over … you are not done…no, you got this…you need to try one more time.”
Based upon those prophetic words, Luke decided to reevaluate. Dipak’s words breathed hope into Luke’s heart—Dipak’s last act in his blue jacket. Luke prayed … asked God for a moment … Dipak delivered that moment. Luke told me he will represent FFA in Japan in January and will travel between 80,000 and 100,000 miles in one year—approximately 60 flights in total. He hopes to visit most states, and his team of six national officers will cover the ones he can’t get to. When I asked him to explain his goal he shared the following.
“Well, my office ends in October 2019, but one question our team tries to answer is how will our organization remain relevant for the next ninety years? One thing I learned is that any student from any area, of any background, can be and is connected to agriculture and can be a part of FFA. We need not only farmers in FFA…we need people who support us in so many other ways: technology, law, marketing, business, and many other career paths. Our vision is to grow leaders, build communities, and strengthen the agricultural industry.”
Impressed, I looked at this young man and thought, someday he will be one of our political leaders, or a supreme court justice, or maybe even president of our country—no limits for this one; he is someone special…someone all of us here in SLO County can be most proud … he is one of our own.