John Riley gave back to the groups that gave him so much

John Riley

John Riley

By Zeke Barlow 

John Riley’s love of 4-H started at an early age, when the Augusta County native would show sheep and steers at county fairs. A quiet boy who loved academics, he relished the role that 4-H played in his adolescence, which is when he learned the business side of running a farm and how to become a leader.

“You know when you make a connection with something at a young age, and it sticks with you your whole life? For John, that was 4-H,” said Matt Hickey, Riley’s nephew and owner of Breezewood Hills Farm in Augusta County.

After 4-H made such a large impact on him, Riley spent a lifetime giving back to it and to a number of other programs aimed at educating youth about agriculture.

He received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in agricultural and applied economics from Virginia Tech in 1969 and 1971, respectively. He became a professor of agricultural economics at Kansas State University and later served as the dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and Natural Resources at the University of Tennessee.

Riley coached the National AgriMarketing Association — or NAMA — marketing teams in Kansas and Tennessee and was an advisor to the FarmHouse Fraternity at both schools. Students knew him as a trusted mentor and friend who offered them guidance and wisdom, both in their academic careers and personal lives. He was so well-liked, a national NAMA award was named in his honor — the Dr. John B. Riley Outstanding Advisor Award.

Though Riley passed away in 2013 at the age of 66, the impact of his life-long commitment to agricultural education will continue for generations.

Riley left gifts and endowments to a host of organizations, including the Augusta County 4-H program and his local FFA chapter at Buffalo Gap High School, as well as the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics and NAMA at Virginia Tech.

The joy and friendships that he had over his life he developed through 4-H and NAMA, and he wanted to share that with others. He was a very giving person.

– Matt Hickey

Riley was such a well-liked and respected teacher and mentor that students at the University of Tennessee held a candlelight vigil after his passing.

Riley was such a well liked and respected teacher and mentor that students at the University of Tennessee held a candlelight vigil after his passing.

Steve Blank, the department head of agricultural and applied economics, said the gifts Riley gave toward the department’s enrichment fund will benefit students for years.

“John knew that enrichment funds give us the flexibility to provide a host of different student opportunities depending on the need. One year we may use these funds to send students to Washington, D.C., where they can meet with agribusiness leaders and government leaders. The next we may use it to send our students to the national NAMA competition,” he said.

The gift to Augusta County 4-H, where it all began for Riley, will allow for investment in the 4-H program of today and innovation for the 4-H program of tomorrow.

And perhaps it will help inspire a young child to devote his or her life to helping people become leaders in agriculture – just like John Riley did.