Remembering Mel Thompson

By Jennifer L. Sirangelo August 08, 2023


Melvin John Thompson was a genuine, 4-H-grown leader. He taught teens how to pursue peace through understanding and to strengthen ties through civic engagement. He turned the power of positive youth development – which was central to his life – into a catalyst for change in the international community. While I didn’t have the pleasure of working with Mel, I’ve seen the beautiful fruits of his labor.

During my career at National 4-H Council, I’ve met countless prominent alumni who were inspired by his passion, influenced by his leadership, and impacted by his mentorship. From government officials to corporate leaders in agriculture, he instilled in others the importance of service and connection while sharing from his abundance of knowledge.

Mel’s leadership of the International 4-H Youth Exchange (IFYE) Association is legendary. The program attracted high levels of talent and gained prominence in Washington under his management; but even so, Mel was humble about his role in its success – always pointing to the incredible accomplishments of our 4-H youth. Over the course of 20 years, Mel empowered thousands of young people to have an integral role in international relations.

Mel passed away last month leaving behind his beloved family and a powerful legacy. I asked Don Floyd – Former President and CEO of National 4-H Council and a personal friend and mentor – to share his memories of Mel. Here are his reflections:

By the time I joined National 4-H Council in 1991, Mel was already retired from his work with IFYE. Everyone knew Mel as the thoughtful mentor, the guru, the father figure. He meant so much to these young 4-H’ers who were part of the international program.

When I started exploring the potential of a Global 4-H Network with 4-H programs around the world in the mid-2000s , Mel was the wise counselor who helped me navigate international waters. He had a particularly warm spot for Council from his time as an associate and had a deep understanding of 4-H, so he wanted to do what he could to help our programs succeed. One of the ways he did this was by introducing us to the right people. For example, he connected me with Ambassador Dan Mozena at the State Department. Dan would open doors for me and for Council like you wouldn’t believe – and that’s all through the connection with Mel.

Mel would do anything for “the Clover” and always had his heart in the right place. It was a pleasure to know him and an honor to partner with him in creating a better world for young people through 4-H.

4-H was a family tradition for Mel. His great grandmother started the Ravenna 4-H Club in 1925 and his mother was heavily involved in 4-H. He joined as a young boy in 1943, won the State 4-H Achievement Award in 1951, worked for Michigan State University Extension for many years, and then went on to hold leadership roles within 4-H at both the national and international level. His accomplishments didn’t go unnoticed, as he was inducted into Michigan State University’s Emerald Clover Society and the National 4-H Hall of Fame.

In fact, Mel’s foundational 4-H experience is part of what made him an incredible leader with unparalleled character and integrity. During his Hall of Fame induction in 2012, Mel shared that 4-H “provided the whole focus for [his] life.” I’m so grateful that, for all that he credits to his 4-H experience, he chose to give back to 4-H youth and the global community ten-fold.

Mel will be remembered for many things: for his character, his friendship, his military service, his prominent roles in 4-H and the U.S. Peace Corps, and even for his “Michigan-famous 4-H Pineapple Upside Down Cake Demonstration.” But the most enduring part of this legacy is the profound impact he had on so many lives, young and old alike.

When someone makes a positive difference that has outward influence, it’s often called a “ripple effect.” And for Mel, those ripples have crossed oceans – bringing youth together from across the globe – and will continue to spread as his legacy impacts generations to come.