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Cooperative Extension chief to retire at end of month

In nearly four decades, Richard Mahacek has mentored tens of thousands of young people in Merced County's 4-H program. He's retiring at the end of the month as director of the University of California Cooperative Extension program -- but won't vanish from the scene when it comes to 4-H programs.

Mahacek, 60, started as 4-H adviser here Dec. 1, 1976. He figures he has worked with 1,000 to 1,500 youth a year and close to 5,000 volunteers but isn't particularly worried about the future of the program.

"Sure, we raise lambs and build footstools," Mahacek said, "but leadership is a key part of 4-H. We're really interested in building kids and raising young adults. The leadership and development coming out of the program, that is looking pretty good."

Life is all about choices. Fresh out of college with a bachelor's degree in 1974 in industrial technology from San Jose State University, Mahacek could have taken a job as shop teacher at his alma mater, Piner High School in Santa Rosa. Instead he took the 4-H adviser job in Merced and met his wife of 32 years, Susan, a lifelong Mercedian. They have three children and a 16-month-old grandchild.

"4-H gives lots of opportunities to build, make, cook, sew and grow plants," Mahacek said. "I'm seeing a third generation coming through the program. Are they different from ones 30 years ago? Kids today are sophisticated and tech-savvy. But I see a lack of hands-on activities where they (students) don't do this at home or school as much."

Mahacek is applying for 4-H emeritus status and plans to stay involved in robotics. He has masterminded state and national programs in "junk drawer robotics," where common household items such as Popsicle sticks, paint stirrers, tubing, syringes, toy motors and ping-pong balls find their way into robotic science projects, especially at the middle school level.

Spencer Downey of Winton, 18, has known Mahacek 10 years. She's a freshman biology major at Modesto Junior College and hopes to become an occupational therapist. She's a member of the Le Grand High School 4-H club and has been involved in robotics for four years.

"He is the most dedicated adviser you could want," Downey said. "No one works harder than he does. He's such a great guy and lets us reach our potential. His commitment is just unbelievable."

Les McCabe, a Merced College trustee and retired ag leader at the college, said Mahacek has set the standard for 4-H farm advisers and is a hard-working individual.

Mahacek's retirement will be celebrated Saturday at a dinner program at the Castle Challenger Science and Technology Center in Atwater. The program begins at 3 p.m. and runs through 7 p.m.

When he retires, Mahacek hopes to do a little traveling, including a trip to Nice, France, where his son is involved in a research project.

He also hopes to get back to his roots -- woodworking, electricity and auto repair.

Mahacek has a 1967 Pontiac Firebird coupe that he has owned for 42 years and needs putting back together. He also has a 1929 Ford Model A sedan that needs a total rebuild, along with a 1967 BMW 2000CS two-door coupe. His sister has a 1952 Chevrolet three-quarter-ton flatbed truck needing the restorer's touch, and there are old tractors also looking for a second life.

The choice to become part of 4-H came easily at an early age.

Mahacek was born in Santa Rosa and grew up on a small farm with chickens, cows and crops. His four sisters also were 4-H members, and his mother was a volunteer leader for more than 30 years.

"I was exposed to a lot of 4-H growing up," Mahacek said. "That's what we did. Kids today may have different types of clothes, but they haven't changed fundamentally. They still like building and creating things. They want to be involved with other adults and their peers."

Jim Farley, a retired Cooperative Extension livestock adviser, said Mahacek has been an outstanding 4-H youth adviser and was totally engaged in the 4-H program his entire career.

"He's a wonderful person who works very well with youths and adults. His roots are in 4-H," Farley said.

Helen Gallichio of Los Banos, a 4-H volunteer leader for 50 years, said Mahacek always supported club activities and will be missed. His retirement will be a big loss for the program, she said.

Der Vue, a former 4-H member and college student, treasures his 4-H experience.

"I'm really happy that I was in 4-H," Vue said. "I am capable of doing things on my own with confidence and thoughtfulness. When my friends ask me how do I handle so much on my own, I tell them about 4-H and all the good people I look up to."

Mahacek's successor has yet to be named. The program is recruiting a 4-H adviser for Merced, Madera, Mariposa and Stanislaus counties, and farm adviser Maxwell Norton will be the acting county director until a final determination is made in about six months.

Programs like 4-H are needed even more in these days of changing family dynamics, Mahacek said. He stresses the need for hands-on approaches as well as heads-on activities, where youth learn scientific processes, technological applications and engineering design.

Steven Worker, with the state 4-H office at UC Davis, said Mahacek was a great personal mentor and a pleasure to work with. Worker said Mahacek has masterminded junk drawer robotics on state and national levels and he is sad to see him retire.

While today's youngsters are telling adults how computers work, Mahacek would like to see students have a better grasp on how engines work, what a hybrid engine does and even build al birdhouse, a traditional project in the 4-H program.

Reporter Doane Yawger can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or dyawger@mercedsunstar.com.

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