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'Columbia's Gem': After 32 years with Cooperative Extension as FCE agent and the first woman county director, Frances Voliva still serves in retirement as a volunteer. --- By Natalie Hampton
Frances Voliva takes pride in the Eastern 4-H Education and Conference Center (where she stands, right), a facility she helped bring to Tyrell County. (Photo by Becky Kirkland)

ornate letter S taff at the Eastern 4-H Environmental Education
and Conference Center
know Frances Voliva well. The retired director of Cooperative Extension in Tyrrell County, Voliva was one of the individuals who actively worked to bring the new 4-H facility to the eastern part of the state.

But staff members who greet her as “Miz Frances” may have no idea of the historic role Voliva played in North Carolina Cooperative Extension. In 1975, Voliva, then a home economics agent in Tyrrell County, became the first woman in North Carolina appointed a county chairman (now “director”) for the organization then called the Agricultural Extension Service.

Voliva came to Tyrrell County in August 1963, shortly after graduating in home economics from Limestone College in her hometown of Gaffney, S.C. She had planned to take a job in the fall teaching biology at the local high school but accepted the chance to travel to Raleigh for a job interview with Extension, as she says, “to get my brother out of my mother’s hair.”

Her brother accompanied her to Raleigh, and the following morning, Annamerle Arant, district home economics agent, drove her to Columbia in Tyrrell County for her interview.

She was interviewed by Tyrrell County Commissioners, and she was impressed with what she saw of the community. “I just thought this would be a wonderful place to be,” she said.

When she returned home after accepting the home economics agent’s job, she didn’t have a map of North Carolina to show her family where she would be working. So she pointed out the location to her mother in an encyclopedia.

Voliva married in 1965 and has never left Columbia. She and her husband, Bobby, have two children. Daughter Dee Furlough now works for Cooperative Extension in Tyrrell County as the family and consumer education agent. Voliva’s son Robert lives in nearby Beaufort County.

When Voliva was FCE agent in the 1960s, her duties included responsibility for 4-H. Though her husband was never employed by Extension, Voliva describes him as “an unpaid Extension employee” for all the time he spent as a volunteer for 4-H trips and projects. Tyrrell County 4-H’ers traveled from their remote coastal home on ski trips, visits to the State Fair and other destinations, she said.

In those days, coastal 4-H’ers like those in Tyrrell County alternated their summer camp experience between 4-H mountain camps and a summer camp on nearby Roanoke Island. The coastal camp, a former World War II army barracks, was “bare bones,” Voliva said.

“ But it was a camp, it was on the water, and the kids loved it,” she said.

When the camp was abandoned, 4-H promised a replacement center for youth in eastern North Carolina. The dream of an eastern 4-H center was picked up by Dalton Proctor, who became 4-H director in 1984 and started looking for property.

Proctor told Voliva he had a possible site for the center — 250 acres on the water — but he was not terribly excited about it. Voliva herself knew of a large piece of land on the water that might be available.

After a series of meetings, 242 acres on the Albemarle Sound were acquired for the center. Voliva was one of the center supporters who traveled to Raleigh regularly to meet with N.C. State architects and plan the center.

“ This was a dream of a lot of people,” Voliva said. “I was just lucky enough to know where 250 acres were.”

The center has been a real boon to the area. Before the first building was completed, the center held an open house to show the site to local residents, and Voliva recruited some of her former 4-H’ers to help host the event.

“ For a sleepy little place like this, a facility like the Eastern 4-H Center is a big deal,” she said. “Lots of people showed up that day.”

Voliva made history in her Extension career in April 1975, when she was appointed county chairman of Extension in Tyrrell County. She believes her appointment came at the recommendation of her friend and mentor, Pete Thompson, county chairman in nearby Chowan County, who later became a representative in the N.C. General Assembly.

“ Pete opened doors for me, and I felt comfortable in his presence,” she said.

At her first statewide county chairmen’s meeting in Raleigh, Extension Director George Hyatt introduced Voliva to the crowd and then announced that, in spite of her appointment, the position title would continue to be “chairman.” Voliva wished that the floor would open and swallow her up.

“ This was the first, but not the last time” she was singled out, she said. “After that, it didn’t really bother me. Obviously, I was the only woman in the crowd.”

Her room at the district chairmen’s conference was in a different building from her male colleagues. But she brazenly walked to their quarters to join a card game because “I wanted to let them know that I was part of the crew,” she said.

“ Everybody in our district just accepted me,” she said. “I knew what I was supposed to be doing.”

As a condition of her appointment, Voliva was required to take agriculture courses “so I could speak to farmers,” she said. She wondered how many of her male counterparts were required to take home economics courses so they could talk with women clients.

But Voliva was not alone in her position for long. Helen Dozier was the next woman appointed chairman in Alleghany County. “She floated when she walked,” Voliva said. “I’ve always thought of her as a genteel lady.”

Lois Britt’s appointment as chairman in Duplin County followed. Voliva and Britt were good friends from their days in 4-H.

Today, Voliva believes, gender is not an issue in Extension hiring. Other things about Extension work have changed as well from the early 1960s when agents wore many hats.

As a young agent, Voliva’s job included teaching swimming lessons to youth. The swimming program was conceived by Extension’s community development groups, which were just getting started in the early ’60s.

“ We taught things you wouldn’t expect, but when you think of doing something for the good of the community, we just did what needed to be done,” she said. “Swimming was a safety issue because there’s so much water here.”

“ I enjoyed my work 99.9 percent of the time,” she said. “That other teeny part was paperwork.”

Her involvement with Extension has continued into retirement. She supports the Eastern 4-H Center and volunteers with the Extension and Community Association and Master Gardeners. Along with other retired agents, she helps organize an annual District Crafts Workshop in Plymouth, which draws participants from as far away as Virginia.

It was the people of Tyrrell County who kept Frances Voliva employed in Extension for 32 years and involved as a volunteer to this day. “I just fell in love with the people here,” she said. “Everyone works together on things. Farmers helped each other. It was yesteryear, but it was wonderful for me.

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