Perspectives Online

College Profile - Watauga County’s Sue Counts has built a legacy of community service, one demonstration at a time.

Photo by Art Latham

As Percilla Sue Counts can tell you, Cooperative Extension is not only about demonstrating research-based information applications to improve peoples’ lives. It’s also about constructing community coalitions to launch learning projects derived from that research.

Counts retired Nov. 1 as Watauga County’s Cooperative Extension director. And her career stands as a monument to such demonstrations as clearly as the outline of nearby mountain peaks on a blue-and-gold autumn day in her adopted county.

Sue Counts and guests enjoy her retirement celebration. The event featured the creation of an endowment in her honor that, she says, will “bring funds to Watauga County so there can be more family and community development programs.”
Photo by Art Latham
So committed was — and is — Counts to Extension’s goals that her self-planned “Green Retirement Event” was itself a demonstration of some of the countless demonstrations she presented to the people of her beloved mountain communities during her 15-year service.

On a sunny, breezy October Sunday, more than 150 of her admirers attended her retirement shindig, enjoying locally grown foods, water-quality education stations and live mountain music amplified by a portable, on-site, wind-powered generator. The truly green celebration produced zero waste, with all garbage composted on the historic Blair family farm, the event’s site.

“I wanted to showcase some of the things I’ve believed in since I’ve been county director, hold up an example so others could see this type of event can happen,” Counts says. “For instance, featuring all-local foods is a big thing for me. We need to promote local farmers and buy from them. To me, that is making a statement.”

The Blair farm locale, which she picked, also made a fitting statement. As was true of Counts’ own family, the early Blairs and most of their neighbors relied on the livestock and poultry they raised, the crops they grew and commodities they produced.

“I’m an Appalachian Mountain girl, born and bred from good stock,” Counts told the crowd.

She was born and reared in the mountain-ringed Sand Lick community of Dickinson County, Va., about 100 yards from the county’s first settlement, founded by her great-great-great-great grandparents, Richard “Fighting Dick” Colley and Crissa Counts.

Her first Extension-related memory is of her mom taking her at age four to an Extension homemakers meeting, where the county agent demonstrated “soup bean sandwiches” made from mashed cooked soup beans, pickle relish and mayonnaise spread on sliced bread.

Counts’ maternal grandmother, “Mommy,” who helped raise Counts and her siblings, was a farmer by necessity, left with seven children and 50 acres when her husband died. Seamstress, quilter and cook, she kept her family together, riding horseback into town on Saturdays to sell her fruits, vegetables, eggs, chickens, milk and butter.

So it probably came as no surprise to Mommy when enterprising Counts graduated first in her class from nearby Haysi High School, then earned her 1965 bachelor’s degree in home economics and 1968 master’s in human nutrition and foods from Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University (Virginia Tech).

Counts’ first job out of college was as a U.S. Department of Agriculture nutrition analyst, working as an intern on food composition tables and co-authoring several articles on the National School Lunch Program.

A licensed nutritionist, she later worked with New Jersey’s department of health nutrition from 1969 to 1970, with Union Forge Nursing Home from 1970 to 1973 and with Howard University’s School of Dentistry from 1975 to 1977. She also was the American Friends alumnus officer at London School of Economics from 1975 to 1980.

When her marriage broke up in 1980, she was again employed by USDA. Proving “you can take the girl out of the country, but you can never take the country out of the girl,” she worked a five-acre spread with a large garden, bees and goats, near Mt. Airy, Md.

With both her daughters active in 4-H, Counts was a busy 4-H leader and Extension advisory leadership council member, often judging at county fairs. At the retirement party, her daughter Heather recounted childhood memories of milking goats at 4 a.m. and gardening and recycling, “when recycling wasn’t cool.”

Counts decided to move back to the Appalachian Mountains, applying for jobs in Virginia. But an out-of-the-blue call from Dr. Jack Beasley of Appalachian State University steered her to an interim ASU Home Economics Department opening.

Counts resigned from her USDA job, helped her children with the county fair, then sold their animals and had friends help her pack and load her belongings on a rented truck and trailer for the more-than-400-mile trek to Boone.

While her daughter Lisa eventually moved back to the D.C. area, Sue and her daughter Heather stayed in Boone, where Counts taught foods and nutrition and holistic health and nutrition at ASU. She next worked as a public health nutritionist in Avery County’s Toe River District for seven years, then for four years on a state Department of Human Resources team that surveyed intermediate care facilities for the mentally disabled.

But in 1993, Counts says, “I finally found the job most suited for me.”

That’s when she took her first Cooperative Extension post, signing on to coordinate the Southern Appalachian Leadership Initiative on Cancer project, a position she held until she became the Watauga County family and consumer education agent in 1996. She was promoted to Watauga County N.C. Cooperative Extension director in 1998.

That’s when Counts really got busy.

Among her copious educational initiatives were programs in sustainable tourism, agri-tourism and environmental education with MountainKeepers; in sustainable energy, collaborating with ASU to found the Appalachian Regional Initiative for Sustainable Energy; with ASU and Caldwell Community College to develop High Country Amigos, to serve the Latino community and others; and with the not-for-profit Blue Ridge Women in Agriculture, dedicated to empowering women to overcome economic and social disparities that sometimes make their children an at-risk population.

Then there were her efforts creating farmland preservation educational programs, which encouraged the county to adopt a farmland preservation ordinance; holding community meetings on land-use planning; helping organize a High Country chapter of the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association and holding its annual meeting in Boone; and bringing about an innovative “farmer/businessperson” exchange, video-taped by the Mountain Television Network and aired during Farm City Week.

She also helped New River Organic Growers and helped to get Food Ventures, a USDA-certified shared-use kitchen in Ashe County up and running. And she published and distributed a quarterly newsletter to help the county’s Extension Community Association start a club to serve the disabled.

“Nothing Sue does ever goes away,” said one of her admirers at the Green Retirement party.

Counts also sits on the boards of many entities she helped found. She served on CES’s extension and administrative councils for the last three years, as well as on its Change Management and Marketing Initiative. She also chaired the Boone Area Chamber of Commerce’s board of directors in 2007 and 2008. And she’ll be installed as president of the N.C. Family and Consumer Science Foundation’s board of directors in 2009.

Counts has received numerous awards from Cooperative Extension, Epsilon Sigma Phi, the N.C. Extension Association of Family and Consumer Sciences and the Boone Area Chamber of Commerce.

A graduate of five leadership institutes, including Extension’s Natural Resources Leadership Institute, Counts was elected for two years to represent Extension’s West District county directors to Extension administration and represented all county directors on Extension’s administrative council. And she has traveled extensively — France, Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales, Mexico and New Zealand — often presenting at international meetings and then presenting educational programs upon her return home.

Counts has spearheaded demonstrations throughout her Extension career, and now she wants to demonstrate that some gifts can keep on giving.

“Sue has invested herself in the community ever since she moved here,” says Nancy Reigel, Cooperative Extension’s Watauga County Advisory Leadership Council chair. “As she’s retiring, she wants to continue that investment with an endowment to fund family and community development programs in Watauga County, whether through Extension or non-profit agencies.”

Reigel and John Cooper, Watau-ga County commissioner, who serve as co-chairs of the Sue Counts Family and Community Development Endowment, signed the official endowment documents at Counts’ retirement event.

“I’m doing this,” says Counts, “to bring funds to Watauga County so there can be more family and community development programs.”

And her plans for the future?

“I want to leave a legacy,” she says, “but I plan to remain in Watauga County. I just want to see the community get better and better and better.”