Fair Enough

If you grew up in Tennessee and, certainly if you grew up with Tennessee 4H, you more than likely have been to a county fair more than once.

I don’t know exactly how many times I have been to a county fair, but the number would have been at least 12 or so by the time I moved out of my parents’ house for college. In the small town of Sparta, where I grew up, everybody went to the White County Fair, at least once every year. The younger you were, the more times you went.

The White County Fair always began on Labor Day and ended on the following Saturday. I would help my mother and grandmother complete entry forms for canned or baked goods or needlework they would enter into competition. Entry was free, and winning entries earned $2 or $3 each. My mother usually brought home $20 or $30 in winnings, making it worth the effort to her and my grandmother.

My older brother and a high school boyfriend of mine competed in the cattle show. You’d be surprised at the extent of cosmetic measures involved—shampooing, coat oil, black spray paint for the hooves and buttons left from de-horning—in making solid, healthy cows look their show-worthy best.

I usually had a supporting role in various 4H activities going on throughout the week. Except for a couple of years when I ventured into new territory for the first time.

At the age of 11, I entered a new talent contest in its debut year. I had to try out before the fair committee to qualify, and my a cappella singing of an Olivia Newton-John hit ended up winning first place and $50. That was the first money I ever made. Six years later, I was slightly less successful in competition.

Second-in-line to the County Fair crown.

My then-boyfriend urged me to enter the beauty contest—the Fairest of the Fair.

I’d never been interested in such a thing, based on my thinking that a girl had to think of herself as a prize-winning beauty to enter a beauty contest. My boyfriend insisted, despite it being little more than 24 hours until the contest, which always kicked off the Labor Day first night of the fair. After Sunday church, I went to the home of a couple who organized the contest, filled out the application and got word of a contestants’ luncheon the next day.

I didn’t own a pageant-type dress. Immediately after the Monday luncheon, my mother took me to a local store to look for a dress to wear on stage in a few hours. We found something acceptable and—bonus—it was on clearance and cost $5. I ended up being named second runner-up. That was it for my competitive beauty career.

Saturday night—the last night—at the fair always drew the biggest crowd.

People seldom seen in public otherwise would be seen wandering the midway, playing the shooting, throwing or sledgehammer-banging games; having a burger and fries at the Lions Club food concession.

I once heard a charismatic gospel preacher decry it as “a place of sin and beggars.”

As a teenager, it was a place to observe all the new couplings and uncouplings of high school romance that may have occurred over the summer just ended.

Since moving away from my hometown, I’ve never lived in a place where fair-going was so widely practiced. I went to the “Mid-South Fair” once while living in Memphis and the “Tennessee Valley Fair” a couple of times while living in Knoxville. That’s it—until venturing to the Hamilton County Fair this weekend.

It was the first time the county fair in Chattanooga – annually on the last weekend of September – happened since we moved here in June 2018. Unlike the near-drought conditions we find ourselves in today, torrential rains in 2018 began on Labor Day weekend and seldom stopped until March. Last year’s Hamilton County Fair was rained out for the first time in history.

Only you…

When I saw that this year’s is described as the 30thanniversary fair, I was puzzled. How could Chattanooga not have had a county fair prior to 1989? Turns out, the anniversary is of when the fair began being staged in Hamilton County’s Chester Frost Park after a history of being relocated several times since the first one in 1915.

One is real…

Chester Frost Park is a popular boating, camping and fishing spot only about four miles from our house, so we were both curious and convenient to check it out.

Fair-bound shuttle

Shuttle buses manage traffic and the limited parking, since the park is still home to dozens of campers and the same number of fishing and recreational boats buzzing across Chickamauga Lake.

Other than the unusual location—shared with a lake, fishermen and campers at a public park—and no midway, this fair offered all the usual agricultural, livestock and home-centered competitions.

It had a fairly diverse collection of farm animals, and I surprised myself approaching animals I grew up around as if I were at a petting zoo.

Guess I’ve been gone from the farm longer than I thought.

It’s only a two-day event, and I’m glad for the live animals that this is so, since the weather is ungodly hot and the animals are confined in pretty tight spaces to allow the 50,000 of us who’ll visit the fair this weekend to get an up-close look.

Hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Bill and I didn’t get there until about 4 p.m. on Saturday.

Though it was actually Bill’s idea to go, he said arriving at 4 p.m. was plenty early since he didn’t plan on spending more than a couple of hours there.

Unfortunately, our timing was too late for the two editions of Mayfield’s Ice Cream Eating contest, and we missed the racing, swimming pig shows.

Oh, well. Next time.


Tennessee: The State of UT

My relationship with the University of Tennessee began when I was 9 years old.

UT’s White County Extension agent, Linda Koger, walked into my 4th grade classroom for the first time and enrolled me in the 4-H club, along with the 20 or so other kids in my class. I can’t speak for the rest of them, but I remember being wide-eyed at the whole new world of possibility Ms. Koger promised through 4-H. I’d heard a little about it through my older brother’s involvement, and at last I was getting my turn.

Ms. Koger came back once a month, for an hour each time, and we in the Cassville Elementary 4th Grade 4-H Club got to dabble in everything from photography to public speaking to poster making.

4-H-Clover-RGB_digitalI learned what 4-H’s four Hs are, as referenced in the 4-H pledge, which we recited to start every club meeting: “I pledge my head to clearer thinking, My heart to greater loyalty, My hands to larger service, and my health to better living, for my club, my community, my country, and my world.”

What better philosophy for a young person? For any of us?

The first chance I had, in the summer between 4th and 5th grade, I went to 4-H summer camp at the Clyde M. York Training Center near Crossville. I went back every year until I was a high school sophomore. For all of those years and on into high school, 4-H involvement took me to places all over the state, especially ones operated by UT.

My dad was a farmer, and UT Extension agents shared ideas with him for growing yields or shrinking pests. My older brother competed in crop judging, cattle judging, and building and wiring electrical systems.

When time came for college, Tennessee Tech was closer and less expensive than UT Knoxville, and I got an excellent education there that enabled me to go to Knoxville and start my professional life as the first reporter hired straight from college by the News Sentinel. When time came for graduate school, I enrolled at UT. Doing so felt like completing some kind of life circle. From being introduced to the idea of UT at 9, to being engaged in UT-backed activities up to adulthood, to finally becoming a UT alum.

But there was more to the circle, since just before I completed my master’s degree at UT, I had the exceptional good fortune to take a job as the first director of communications for the UT system.

2018 SOUT Event Speech
UT President Joe DiPietro

Obviously, not everybody who grows up in Tennessee ends up graduating from UT and being employed by UT, but there is almost nobody in Tennessee whose life is not impacted, made better or, in some cases, even enabled by the presence of the University of Tennessee.

Which is the vast and important story I get to be involved in trying to tell every year since our current UT president, Joe DiPietro, began presenting a State of the University address in 2016.

On Feb. 28, the president made his third annual address, one of those events involving a cast of thousands, but if everybody works hard enough and does everything just right, it looks easy. It isn’t easy, but it’s one of the most gratifying work experiences I’ve ever had.

2018 SOUT Event Setup
UT messaging in the speech venue.

Because I don’t just work at UT, and I’m not just a proud alum–I’m a believer. In higher education and in what the statewide UT system brings to higher ed and people from all walks of life across Tennessee. I know from personal experience.

I’m part of an enthusiastic, talented team that works on every phase of planning and execution of the presentation event that’s held in Nashville.

crowd.jpgAbout 150 UT leaders and key stakeholders attend in person, and the speech is available live on a webcast and–this year for the first time–via Facebook Live on the president’s Facebook page.

2018 SOUT Event setup
UT messaging in the event venue.

The president recapped system-wide UT highlights of the past year and plans for the year ahead. His remarks were built around a series of video stories that brought to life the University’s impact in each of its three mission pillars: education, research and outreach.

And in the final video story–one about the ways the University is bringing its full spectrum of capabilities in all three mission pillars to bear–the message was what the University is doing about the opioid crisis in Tennessee. You can watch that 2-minute video here:

UT On The Opioid Crisis.

As the president said, the opioid crisis “is exactly the kind of problem land-grant universities are meant to take on.”

Every word mattered. And all the words together painted a picture of how the statewide University of Tennessee isn’t just in Tennessee, it is Tennessee, woven into the fabric of life all across the state. That’s also the message of the video the event opened with:

Everywhere You Look, UT

The same message is the theme of the new UT System marketing campaign that launched a couple of days after the 2018 State of the University event.

As someone who dreamed of going to college from childhood and who today knows, personally, how the University of Tennessee changes lives, it’s an honor to be part of telling that story.