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The making of a Graham Champion

Rose McAtee honors Tom Wall with swine project
Rose McAtee leads her hog Tom in the show ring at the 2017 Johnson County fair. (Photo courtesy of Michelle McAtee)

IOWA CITY­– “You’re going to be the one in your family who’s going to show hogs,” the late Tom Wall said to Rose McAtee, a fifth grader at Solon Middle School and junior member of the Graham Champions 4-H club.
Rose remembered the conversation she had with Wall at the annual Special Olympics banquet with which her family helps.
“He talked to me for about an hour about hogs,” she said. “He was a big pig farmer. We were kind of close to him. Then when I heard he passed away, I wanted to show hogs in honor of him.”
Area residents remember Wall for his service to agricultural associations, St. Bernadette’s church and the local fire department, to name just a few of the organizations through which he volunteered to help the community. Wall’s positive impact was also felt by the youth during the 38 years he served as a leader of the Graham Champions, a club comprised mostly of rural kids in and around the stretch of township between Solon and West Branch. The influence of Wall and his mother Mary Ellen,­ who led the club alongside Tom until retiring last year­, touched generations of 4-Hers who grew up in the area, including Rose’s mom, Michelle McAtee.
“We’re kind of like a big 4-H family, and now our club has two generations,” said Michelle. “Seems like people I was in 4-H with, now their kids are all in Graham Champions.”
The Wall farm is across the field from the 50 acres which Michelle and Terry McAtee sow with hay and soybeans and raise chickens, ducks, sheep, a handful of beef cows and most recently, Rose’s hogs.
Every year, the McAtee kids look forward to showing their livestock at the Johnson County Fair. Rose’s high school-aged brothers Joe and Ben take sheep, calves and even ducks to the fair as 4-H projects. In July, Rose attended the fair as a first-year club member. Like her brothers, she brought three sheep. But pigs were new to the family’s collection of livestock. Rose acquired hers from her uncle, a Lone Tree hog farmer.
For the McAtee family, the last two fairs have not quite been the same.
“You go around the corner thinking that you’re going to see Tom because Tom was everywhere,” said Michelle. “Whether it was the swine building or over at Montgomery Hall or out watching the show, he was around every corner.”
“Whenever we had a project, Tom would always get really into it and help us out,” said Joe, who will be a freshman at Solon High School. “He helped Ben with cattle and he helped us with sheep and helped set up the barn.”
Rose did not have the benefit of Tom Wall’s enthusiastic guidance as she raised the six hogs she showed at the fair this year. But she had her brothers’ support, her cousin’s tips on pig training, her own determination and the memory of Tom to inspire her.
“There’s Mary Ellen, there’s John, and then there’s Tom. Those are all the Walls I’ve named,” said Rose, pointing to three of her hogs. “And the rest are Sweetie Pie, and then Ben named a couple Ben and Baby. He named one after himself.”
A junior at Solon High School, Ben is the eldest of the four siblings.
The McAtee family believes Rose shared a special bond with the hog she named Tom, as if the spirit of their neighbor and longtime 4-H leader found expression in the animal.
“There’s a funny thing about Tom,” Rose said, recalling the first time the hog was weighed. Typically, hogs need to be coaxed and pushed through a chute to get them on the scale for weigh-in so rate-of-gain can be recorded and tracked.
But Tom needed no such maneuvering.
“I was like, ‘Tom, get in the scale,’” she recalled. “And he just went right in there. He’s the only one who listens to me.”
Brother Joe also got the sense the pig called Tom had an extraordinary relationship with his sister.
“Sometimes when she’s out in the pen, she’ll start talking to the pigs,” he said. “The only one that will look at her and turn its head will be Tom, just stands there at looks at Rose when she talks. Very strange.”
“Rose wanted to show for Tom because he had encouraged her, and then here it ends up the day of the swine show is Tom’s birthday (July 25),” said Michelle, pointing out the coincidence.
Teaching six pigs how to follow lead in the show ring takes time and practice. As suggested by her cousin, Rose learned marshmallows can be a useful training tool.
“I got a marshmallow and I had them eat it so they liked it and they knew what it looks like,” Rose explained. “And so I just put it on a stick and put it out in front of them, and they wanted the marshmallow, so they just followed it. And that taught them to lead.”
“I came home from work one day and a whole bag of marshmallows was gone,” Michelle said.
“Really nice huge ones,” Rose added with a grin.
The daily responsibility of caring for livestock is standard operating procedure in the McAtee household.
“So during school year, we all got up at 5:50 a.m. to go do chores, because the bus comes at seven, but then you have to take a shower because hogs, they get the smell on you that’s kind of bad,” said Rose. “Then you have to fight for the toaster to have breakfast, ­kind of a competition to see who gets there first.”
Collectively, Rose and her brothers took nine sheep, six hogs and two calves to the fair.
On the day of the swine show, the siblings worked together as a team to groom Rose’s six hogs to look their best.
“So Ben and Joe came with me. We got there early in the morning, about six… because the pens would be full if you didn’t get there early. So we started washing them and then we cleaned their pens first with fresh sawdust,” said Rose. “And then we put them in there after they dried and stuff, but they’d still have some sawdust stuck to them. So I just got a brush and combed it off.”
Rose won first place in showmanship with her three sheep. Showing her hogs in pairs, she won three blue ribbons and was in the running for showmanship except Ben, who’d been in the show ring earlier in the day and was tired, acted up.
“After the show, the judge came up to me and said ‘you did everything right, but that pig, ­he was acting up for you,’” said Rose.
On Friday morning of fair week, Rose sold Tom at the auction where bankers and other business people show support for 4-H youth by offering generous bids for their project livestock. Rose’s mom said letting him go was sad for Rose, but good for her college fund.
Tom Wall’s influence on his Graham Champions extended beyond sharing his deep commitment to farming and working with livestock. He also taught and encouraged them to practice valuable life skills, such as public speaking, in the safe haven of club meetings.
“Before I was in 4-H, I always went to meetings with them (Ben and Joe) because I thought it was fun to sit there and listen to them,” said Rose. “So when you had new 4-Hers, Tom had a special way to get them to talk if they were shy.”
“He made every new 4-Her feel very welcome. If they were shy, he somehow got them to speak in front of the rest. At the meeting, if they’re in charge of hosting for that night, Tom would call them up to the front and help them lead the 4-H pledge and then say the Pledge of Allegiance,” Michelle added. “Tom got them to open up and speak. He dealt with kids very well.”