Walter Walla: Extension Visionary
When the rank and file of Cooperative Extension Service specialists and agents met Walter Walla for the first time in 1989, they didn't know what to make of him. First, he wore boots-- exclusively. And on occasion he would talk about Alabama football, although he had worked in Texas most recently. Who was this guy who had just been hired as Associate Director of the Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service, their new boss?
Now, twelve years later, Walla only mentions Alabama football every now and then (he played for Paul "Bear" Bryant as an undergraduate), and mostly wears shoes. During that time, he has won the respect and support of those specialists and agents who didn't quite know what to make of him when he arrived. He has also won the support of agricultural leaders and clients throughout Kentucky. Walla retired from his post in June.
And during that dozen years, Walla has been an indefatigable champion of Extension and has been a moving force in modernizing the Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service.
The hallmark of Walla's modernization process is a rather simple equation:
good people + the right tools = a great Extension Service
His translation of the terms of this equation led to his vision of a dynamic, modern Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service.
First, the tools: a combination of technology and infrastructure. Walla set out to take advantage of the technologies of communication. He procured funding to provide equipment so that every county Extension office would be connected to the world through the Internet. His rationale was that county Extension offices should be the window to the world of information for all Kentuckians.
In addition, he championed the use of technology inside the system. Streamlining how county agents did their jobs--using distance learning and Web-based reporting systems, for example--meant agents could spend more time doing what they were hired to do, and less time on paperwork and other routine matters.
Second, count the number of new--modern and efficient--Extension offices dotting the state. Noting early in his career at Kentucky that county Extension offices often were secreted away in dark, damp basements of aging courthouses or worse, he worked with Extension area program directors and agents to educate local officials about the needs for new facilities. More than 60 county Extension offices have been built as a result of his vision, and more counties are in the process of securing funding for such facilities.
The key to understanding Walla, it became apparent, was his concern with vision. He wrote about the importance of vision in a Journal of Extension article in 1992: "Before we can discuss, or even define our mission, all of us in Extension must have a futuristic vision for our organization....This vision must be shared and shaped by those who will be living it--Extension faculty and clientele."
To complete his vision and make it a reality, Walla worked closely with county, area, and state Extension councils to make sure that programming decisions were in tune with client needs. He not only met routinely with council representatives, he listened to them and acted upon their needs.
"Walter Walla's steadfast commitment to a Cooperative Extension second to none has resulted in a foundation for a dynamic system that will continue to provide Kentuckians with a progressive and robust source of information and education for many years to come. Walter understood that the job is never done, that we only maintain excellence by continuing to change and respond," said M. Scott Smith, Dean of the College of Agriculture.
His leadership and accomplishments in modernizing Kentucky's Cooperative Extension Service were noted nationally. In 1994, he received the Epsilon Sigma Phi Visionary Leadership Award from the national Extension professional society. Again, that group recognized Walla's leadership and vision by awarding him the Ruby Award for Distinguished Service in 1999.
Nationally, Walla is known as chair of the national Extension Committee on Organization and Policy (ECOP) and for his involvement in securing the passage of the Agriculture, Research, Extension, Education Reform act of 1998, commonly known as the Farm Bill.
Prior to coming to Kentucky, Walla served in various capacities in the Texas Cooperative Extension Service: agent in Angelina County, assistant in agricultural chemicals, Extension plant pathologist, and assistant director of Extension for agriculture and natural resources.
After Walla hangs up his Kentucky Cooperative Extension boots, he and his wife, Jo Ann, plan to continue to live in Woodford County, Kentucky.