John Kabat works with FFA students

John Kabat works with FFA students after school on tree identification skills for an upcoming forestry competition. From left are Kabat, Hayden Pilson and Hayden Locke.

NAT WILLIAMS, THE SOUTHERN NEWS SERVICES

MOUNT VERNON — It seems like John Kabat is always doing a dozen things at once. That may be because leading one of the larger FFA chapters in the state is a demanding proposition.

But he isn’t complaining. Anyone observing him has little doubt that he was made for this job.

“I first saw Mr. Kabat in third grade,” said FFA member Justin Huff, a senior at Mount Vernon Township High School. “His personality drew me into FFA.”

But Kabat, who teaches agriculture along with fellow teacher Cherie Rogier, prefers to talk about the students, not himself.

He has been FFA advisor here since 1985, beginning his 33rd year in a new high school building just into its second year of operation. The chapter has 262 students this year, and had nearly 300 last year. They don’t suffer from lack of activity.

“We do 280 things, and there are only 180 school days,” Kabat said. “We do stuff before school, at lunch, after school.”

Indeed, on a recent day he was helping several students after school with their forest identification skills.

The Mount Vernon chapter embraces virtually every activity offered by FFA. New members are asked to choose the events in which they would like to participate. There are 23 on the list, ranging from tractor driving to public speaking.

“They get a wide variety,” Kabat said. “We keep them busy.”

Kabat went to high school in nearby Waltonville, a small school with a small FFA chapter. Turnover was high, as three ag teachers spanned his four years of school there. He grew up on a farm and considered going into animal science. It wasn’t until his sophomore year at Rend Lake College that he thought about going into teaching after encouragement from an instructor.

He transferred to Southern Illinois University in Carbondale where he received bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Among other things — and if his teaching and FFA duties weren’t enough — he now serves on RLC’s board of trustees.

The chapter regularly sends students to conferences in Washington, D.C. and elsewhere. There is usually a contingent of 20 or more who make the annual trip to Springfield for the state conference. It has been ranked by the Illinois FFA as a top 12 chapter in 29 of the past 30 years.

A total of 68 Mount Vernon students have been awarded the high honor of a state FFA degree since Kabat has led the chapter; from 1928 through 1985 the chapter produced only 11. It is ranked in the top 2 percent of chapters by that measurement.

Kabat has considered retiring, but can’t seem to pull himself away from it all. He appears to be having too much fun working the long hours. The opportunity to continue to lead students at a new school further adds to his eagerness to head to work every day.

A new agriculture center is being constructed on school grounds just outside the agriculture and engineering wing that will bring state-of-the-art components to the program. The FFA chapter helped raise nearly $180,000 of the $420,000 project, which includes two buildings totaling 3,600 square feet. The school district — demonstrating its commitment to the school’s agriculture curriculum — picked up half the tab.

The new building will host research in horticulture, seed starting and aquaculture. It may even be home to a few trees to be used in the forestry program.

“Everybody will have a different part of the greenhouse,” Kabat said. “There will be six different ways to grow plants.”

The high-tech center will feature smart sensors that will provide alerts if the climate or watering systems malfunction. Kabat will likely be the one getting a computer SOS on his cellphone. A trip to the school from his farm isn’t out of the question.

“If it’s on a weekend or something and I have to run to town, I will,” he said.

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