Ag teacher leads students to enter lifelong careers

SENECA, Ill. — One comment by his FFA adviser changed Jeff Maierhofer’s career direction that resulted in 34 years of teaching agriculture and advising the Seneca FFA Chapter.

“I was at the National FFA Convention to get my American FFA Degree and my ag teacher leaned over and said, ‘You’re going to graduate the year I’m done teaching,’” said Maierhofer, agricultural teacher at Seneca Township High School.

Maierhofer was attending the University of Illinois where he was studying agricultural business.

“I grew up on our family farm and I was the youngest of seven grandchildren and very involved in 4-H and FFA,” he said. “It was obvious there wasn’t going to be room for me on the family farm, and because my brother went to the U of I and I liked the basketball team, I went there.”

However, nobody had talked to Maierhofer about a career in ag education before the comment from his adviser, Dick Dunn.

“I really didn’t have a direction of what I wanted to do, so I changed my major to ag education and here I am,” Maierhofer said.

At the end of this school year, Maierhofer will retire from his position at Seneca High School, the only school he has taught at for more than three decades.

“I’m not counting the days. I’m going to make all the days count,” Maierhofer said.

“That’s something I did was to encourage my students to become teachers whether it was agriculture or something else,” he said. “There are three of my former students teaching agriculture now.”

Maierhofer had no issues with teaching at the same school he attended as a student. He taught together with Kent Weber until last year, when Weber retired from his ag teacher position.

“One of the first things Kent and I did with the kids was we took them to the state FFA softball tournament at the state fair and stayed overnight,” Maierhofer said. “We bonded with those kids and I think they thought we were crazy for taking them.”

The two ag teachers, Maierhofer said, jumped in and went full-speed ahead.

“We set the climate of if the students did some work, we’ll have some learning and then we’ll return the favor and help you along through life,” he said. “The Seneca fire chief was my first FFA vice president in 1989 and he is still here in the community.”

During his teaching career, Maierhofer has seen significant changes in the technology he uses in the classroom.

“I got a grant and bought the first computer for the ag department in 1989. It was an IBM 286 computer,” he said. “And I spent an extra $150 to get a mouse.”

Education has changed for the better, Maierhofer said, because it is recognized that not all students are going to college.

“Career and technical education has a serious place in every school,” he said. “I’m just as proud of all the kids that went to college and have master’s and doctorate degrees as I am of those who join the trades.”

The Seneca FFA Chapter currently has 157 members.

“We’ve had as high as 200 members, but it usually ranges from 150 to 170 members,” the chapter adviser said.

Maierhofer is proud of the community service the chapter has done including the recent 30 MPH program, where students spent two days picking up trash in ditches along the roads in the Seneca area.

“This is our 23rd year and it started with Adopt a Highway for two miles south of town with the Illinois Department of Transportation,” he said.

In past years, the entire student body would pick up trash all at one time.

“This year, we had 50 to 60 kids go out during each class period and they covered 36 miles,” Maierhofer said.

Seneca FFA members have helped with the local food pantry and raised money through the Food For All Program.

“We have a pork chop lunch and people pay what they want and we end up raising a lot of money from donations,” the chapter adviser said.

The same year Maierhofer started teaching, the school purchased 115 acres for the Seneca High School Land Lab.

“We’ve had livestock shows and our calf sale there and have been able to build it into a nice place for ag education,” he said.

The land is planted with a soybean and wheat rotation.

“We sell from 3,000 to 4,000 bales of straw every year to Walmart and local stores,” Maierhofer said. “It’s one of our best fundraisers and at the same time most educational because it gives kids a chance to be on a tractor, on a hayrack and learn what real work is.”

Seneca FFA members have assisted with displays at the Seneca History Museum located in the former Seneca train station.

“The Port Authority bought the old train station and we needed a place for the museum so it came together,” said Maierhofer, who is president of the Seneca Historical Guild.

“Running a museum is more than a collection of antiques. It has to tell a story with exhibits,” he said. “So, we created displays and I tied it into the curriculum with the history of grain elevators and grain barrens and how the canal was important to the creation of Seneca.”

Another project focused on area farmers in 1917.

“Prairie Farmer magazine put out a survey of all the farmers and information such as the tractor and car they owned, their livestock, number of acres and family members and we put all that information into a spread sheet and mapped it out,” Maierhofer said. “So, you can go to the museum and see where all the families were located.”

Maierhofer has many special memories of his years at Seneca, including 18 years in a row for the Seneca FFA Chapter earning the No. 1 chapter honor in the state.

“In 1999, we were the No. 1 chapter in the country for chapter activities,” he said.

“There’s all the trips we went to state and national FFA conventions, to Washington, D.C., and the career develop events the kids competed in,” he added. “We had 16 first-place state winning teams and 38 second-place state teams.”

Last year, the Seneca FFA members placed third in the nation in the Nursery Landscape contest.

“We have had 34 student-teachers and a lot of times we had two, which is one of the reasons we were so successful,” Maierhofer said. “And about half of them are still teaching.”

Although Maierhofer is retiring this month, he is not going very far.

“I’ll always be involved in Seneca High School because they need bus drivers and I’ve driven a bus for 34 years,” he said. “And if they call me, I’ll sub and I’ll help out the FFA program wherever they need me.”

The ag teacher will also likely serve as a judge for FFA contests.

“Because of all the contests that I’ve run and asked people to help,” Maierhofer said, “now I’m going to have pay all those people back.”

Once he is retired, Maierhofer said, he is going to miss the camaraderie with other ag teachers.

“And I’m going to miss the relationships I made with the kids and the lives and attitudes that I’ve changed,” he said.

Maierhofer and his wife, Jenna, who is a math teacher at Seneca High School, are the parents of Levi and Calvin.

Levi is currently the Illinois FFA state reporter and Calvin is a senior at Seneca High School.

“So, it’s all coming together at one time — Calvin’s graduating on May 21, Levi will be done with his officer position in June and I’m retiring,” Maierhofer said. “A lot is going to change.”

“There’s been a lot of emotional nights and days, lumps in throats and tears,” he said. “Then it hit me a couple of weeks ago that this shouldn’t be a sad time. This should be a celebration — not because it’s over, but because it happened and that’s where I’m at right now.”