May 15, 2014


First family of Extension keeps history alive

Harriet Armstrong
Agriculture Communication photo/Tom Campbell
Following in her grandfather’s footsteps, Harriet Armstrong has been an Extension educator in Bartholomew County since 2012.

By Tom Campbell

Harriett Armstrong as a child with her grandfather, Ralph Chitty(Photo provided) 
A young Harriet Armstrong clearly was the apple of grandpa's eye.

A year before the Smith-Lever Act funded the nationwide Extension system in 1914, a skinny, bespectacled man named Ralph Alvin Chitty, BS 1912, was hopscotching from farm to farm in Montgomery County, doling out advice as one of Indiana’s first county Extension agents — the equivalent to today’s county Extension educators.

Now, the centennial celebration of the Smith-Lever Act provides a perfect opportunity to honor Extension pioneers like Chitty and those who follow in his footsteps, including Harriet Armstrong, an Extension educator in Bartholomew County who is Ralph Chitty’s granddaughter.

“I would love to be able to sit down with him and talk about the similarities and differences in Extension from then to now,” said Armstrong.

Chitty worked as a county agent from 1913 until 1919, when he became a farmer in White County, just north of the Purdue campus. He may not have even realized the significance of what he helped start in Indiana.

“Being on the front end of a movement is both exciting and challenging,” Armstrong said. “And it certainly is rewarding to see how those efforts continue to grow and flourish over the course of time. It makes me recognize what a great history I am part of. Not only understanding that the Smith-Lever Act made 100 years of Extension possible, but how well it has not only continued but adapted to the changes of time over the past 100 years.”

She wasn’t quite seven years old when Chitty died in 1963, but memories of her grandfather are strong.

“Some of the fondest memories I have of my grandfather is that he always wanted to learn, even right up to the end of his life. He would always read to me,” Armstrong said. “He gave me my first picture Bible, which I still have.”

Chitty took the train from his home in Hope, Indiana, (population 2,100) to Purdue in 1908, blazing a trail that made it easy for family members to follow.

“My uncle, mom, husband, daughter and I all went to Purdue,” said Armstrong, a health and human sciences educator since 2012.

First family of Extension, Armstrong(Photo provided) 

Harriett Armstrong (front left), BS ’79, MS ’80, and family were full of Purdue connections as they posed for a wedding photo in 1962. Armstrong’s family members and relationship to her include (front row, continuing from left) grandfather Ralph Alvin Chitty, BS ’42; brother Alvin Clinton Chitty, Purdue Winter Short Course in Agriculture, 1960; uncle Richard Anderson Chitty, BS ’43, and his wife, Alice Louise Nickel Chitty, BS ’43; Esther Louise Gustafson Nickel; Steve Wheeler; and Charles Herman Nickel, who managed Purdue’s Lynnwood Farm in Carmel from 1937 to 1967. Also (back row, left to right), father Ralph William Chitty, BS ’42; mother Ruth Ann Clinton Chitty, BS ’53, MS ’55; Bill Wheeler; and Dorothy Jane Nickel Wheeler, BS ’49.

Bartholomew County is about 40 minutes south of Indianapolis and as fate would have it, the home county of her grandfather.

“Occasionally, I get a chance to go back to Hope to do programs or visits,” Armstrong said. “It gives me a chance to see some of the areas where he actually grew up.”

While their time together was short, Armstrong knows her desire to be a lifelong learner was passed to her from Chitty.

“My parents always encouraged me to learn,” she said. “I’m sure that was passed down from generation to generation to generation.”

And she knows her grandfather would be proud knowing she has followed in his footsteps.

“I know he would be excited,” she said. “It would be a validation of what had been a new endeavor at the time he started in Extension, and it has proven to be important in helping to meet the needs of people in so many settings.”

Contact Armstrong at

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