Last school year, as a junior at Northside High School, John Michael Leuer wanted to do something bigger than himself. He decided to become more involved in his school and community.
He was reared in the family business of leadership. His father, Joseph Leuer, is the training development division chief at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security and Cooperation, and one of his grandfathers is retired Maj. Gen. Kenneth Leuer, a former commander of Fort Benning. But he chose an organization whose roots are in the traditionally female realm of what was called home economics, where the stereotype would repel men worried about their image.
The Future Homemakers of America, however, evolved into the Family, Career and Community Leaders of America in 1999. The students don't focus on cooking and sewing anymore. They traded their housecoats for blazers.
So the trail John Michael blazed as he soared up the organization's ladder is more about geography than gender. There have been other male presidents of Georgia FCCLA, but he became the first one from Muscogee County. And he is only the second one since 1946 to ascend to the presidency in the first year in the organization. His one-year term ended last month.
"It was a great experience," John Michael said. "At first I was scared, not very sure about it. But then, after a while, you get into the hang of things and you get through your first couple of conferences, then you feel good and feel that you know the job."
'Ultimate leadership experience'
FCCLA bills itself as providing "the ultimate leadership experience," and John Michael is a prime example.
During the state camp in Covington last year, John Michael achieved a perfect score on the Georgia FCCLA test and aced the interview to qualify for the final step in becoming an officer. After giving a three-minute speech, his peers elected him president.
"I returned home with energy and the goal to make a large impression in my community," he said. "My goal was to bring my school and community together for a grand event."
That goal became the 5K race he organized to benefit the Georgia Firefighters Burn Foundation. The 120 runners who registered and paid earlier this month enabled the event to collect $3,137, John Michael said.
After expenses, he said $2,000 will be donated to the foundation, which provides fire safety and prevention education, supports medical facilities and assists burn survivors in their recovery.
"Two months ago, we had 15 signed up, and I was sweating, not knowing what I was going to do, thinking I was going to go into debt having to pay out of pocket," he said. "But, in the end, it worked out."
John Michael appreciates the chance to test his networking skills and benefit others. He solicited organizations for sponsorships or partnerships, and he executed a plan to conduct a large event that produces a positive impact.
"I have learned through experience the importance of networking, public speaking and servant leadership," he said. "This organization helped to create an environment where I could learn and succeed. The lessons learned have given me a head start and will be carried into my future endeavors."
John Michael plans to attend the University of Georgia on the HOPE scholarship, as well as aid from the College of Family and Consumer Sciences at UGA. He likes the options that studying family and consumer sciences can give him. He could major in nutrition and go to graduate school to become a physical therapist. He could study consumer finance. He could have a career in public relations.
"I think it's kind of rare that I'm starting to find my passion this early," he said, "and that's due to FCCLA, and I'm grateful for that."
Since his freshman year, he wanted to become a dentist. "But then I joined this organization," he said, "and I'm really enjoying the business world now."
All of which seems like a world away from home ec. Northside FCCLA adviser and family and consumer sciences teacher Karla Buckholz explained the evolution.
"We're in specialties now," she said. "Here at Northside, we teach a nutrition and food science pathway. These are science-credit courses. Then you have Jordan, who does culinary. Then you have Carver, who does early childhood education."
Science, culinary arts, fashion design, early childhood education, leadership and community service are among the added areas when FHA became FCCLA. For example, John Michael is taking the Lifespan course at Northside. They start with pregnancy, then cover infancy and toddlerhood, childhood, adolescence and adulthood. Other FACS classes at Northside: food, nutrition and wellness; food for life; and food science.
"We're no longer sitting here sewing something and saying, 'Hey, let's go into the kitchen and make spaghetti,'" Buckholz said. "We're saying when we cook, 'Why did we make this? What is in this dish, and how can how break that down?' As opposed to just, 'Hey, I know how to make something.' "
Buckholz praised John Michael for his leadership.
"He presents himself as a well-educated adult," she said. "He is not easily persuaded by his peers. He is more of a leader instead of a follower. That's why I really pushed him to get into this."
"He has a great way with people," said Northside senior Caleb Harbin, the local FCCLA chapter president. "He's really good at speaking. He's really easy to get along with. He's not shy in front of large crowds. He's not intimidated at interviews."
Northside senior Seth Benoit, the chapter's vice president for community service, added, "When John Michael joined, that's when me, Caleb and a bunch of other guys started to join."
Buckholz graduated from Hardaway in 1991 and took family and consumer science classes and participated in FCCLA.
"That's when the transition was happening," she said.
But she saw very few men in her classes.
"They were there to eat, basically," she said. "A lot of my classes where I used to have only four or five males. Now, we're looking at a third to a half of the classes are now males."
And the Northside FCCLA chapter increased its male members from seven to 15 this past year out of 44 total.
"It makes me happy to see that these guys are breaking that stereotype," Buckholz said. "I'm happy that we're no longer known as home ec, because it's not just the women. The workforce has changed. It's not the Forties anymore."
The revolution has gone across America. The national FCCLA officers are eight men and two women, John Michael said.
Buckholz requires members to perform two community service projects each month.
"That's what we focus on," John Michael said. "That's what we're good at."
"We wanted to compete with all these other organizations," Buckholz said. "FBLA focuses on business, and DECA focuses on marketing. Well, here in Family and Consumer Sciences, family is our No. 1 priority, but our community is a big part of who we are. I want to show these kids, 'This is what you can do for your community because they do so much for you.'"
John Michael reflected on the lessons he learned during family visits at his grandfather's house.
"I was raised in a certain way," he said. "He's always encouraging. We always have talks. We have dinner over there a lot, and in our dinner conversations, it's always educational. We'll talk about politics, what's going on in the world."
John Michael laughed and said his family didn't completely understand what FCCLA is all about until they witnessed the gavel being passed to him at last year's state conference in Athens.
"They saw my stage presence," he said. "They saw the image part of the organization, and they could see how professional it was."
Despite being the wrestling team captain in 1952 at Wayzata High School in suburban Minneapolis, Maj. Gen. Leuer actually was in a male home ec club as well, so the stigma didn't stick to the Leuers even then -- it slid off like a well-greased frying pan. Now, the retired commander admits he still doesn't know what FCCLA stands for, but he understands the lessons his grandson is learning.
"I've reminded him that his best day up to today needs to be the worst day in his future," he said. "What you did yesterday isn't good enough for today. I think he's bought into that."
Mark Rice, 706-576-6272.