My last few days as a full-time newspaper editor and publisher have been remarkable. I started writing sports for pay in 1974 and in a 46-year career had never covered a state championship team. I don’t count my first year as a part-time weekend writer for the Waterloo Courier when they sent me out to cover a Waterloo East boys basketball game.
Coached by Hall of Famer, Murray Weir, the Trojans weren’t supposed to do anything that year which is why I got that first assignment. They crushed their first opponent, Murray threw his clipboard at me as I entered his locker room and I never covered another one of their games as they marched to the state title.
The Albia girls softball team was my first start to finish state title team and I couldn’t have scripted it better, to have the girls win the title on my last “official” day on the beat.
But one of the best memories of that tournament was the introduction of Gov. Kim Reynolds, who was sitting behind home plate at Kruger Field in Fort Dodge. The P.A. announcer pointed us to where she sat and thanked her on behalf of Iowa girls and softball fans for allowing the tournament to be held. I joined the fans on both sides giving her a standing ovation.
It was one of those great political/non-political moments in Iowa history. And I’m guessing few in those stands won’t vote for her when she comes up for re-election. It took a lot of courage, a roll of the medical dice, but even more a profound understanding of who Iowans are and what their needs were after months of COVID-19 fear and dread.
Returning home, my wife and I dove right into a Friday night Bluegrass concert for Albia Restoration Days and then the Restoration Days parade on Saturday before heading out to the beef show at the Monroe County Fair.
Both places were buzzing with people of all ages (a few in masks, not many), most social distancing like the signs said (but some doling out handshakes and hugs). Near the end of the market beef show, the judge, a cattleman from Garner, stopped to thank the fair board, 4-H and FFA leaders who made the decision to have the fair. “A lot of people in a lot of counties were afraid,” he said (in a non-judgmental way). “You weren’t and I’d like to personally thank you for that. We need our kids to have the 4-H fair. It’s who we are.”
I’m guessing the exact same sentiment was shared at the Lucas County Fair held at the same time. Even with the changes and the fact that there was no state fair as the final crowning achievement, it was a great experience, made even greater when you consider what all we could have missed.
This might be the last time I cover a county fair, although I sort of doubt it. It’s a lot like people who immerse themselves in music or athletics in high school, graduate and never pick up a horn again or ever play a competitive sport again. I’m not like that. The fair is a fresh wind every year, with a lot of familiar faces.
I was counting backwards and thinking the first time I attended a county 4-H fair was in 1962 when my older brother showed pigs for the first time. My first fair experience as a showman started in 1964 as a first year 4-Her. Our summer enjoyment and entertainment, wedged around a whole lot of farm work, were organized around three things: baseball, the 4-H fair and visits with my mother’s family at Clear Lake.
Things haven’t changed much. Last week I covered the state softball tournament, visited those same family members at the lake and was at the fair.
Baseball was a summer-long activity, held virtually every night after chores were done. The fair was a week and the visit to Clear Lake between a long weekend and a week.
The Tama County baseball championships for American Legion ball would conclude mid-July and invariably a Montour team would be at least in the semi-finals, most times in the finals. Then we would head to the fair. Our farm was in the far southwest corner of Tama County and the fair was held in Gladbrook, a town located in the far northwest corner of the county. And it was always held in conjunction with the Gladbrook Corn Carnival.
It was a trek. And there was no overnight camping for us. We had livestock to tend to morning and night. So we would pack two sets of 4-H pig projects in our three-quarter ton pick-up (nobody really had livestock trailers back then) and for several years made a return trip to haul up a couple of steers and head to the fair; my dad driving, my brother and I sitting with him in the cab.
Our grandfather was dispatched to stay on the farm until the days of the shows. Same with our mother.
There are so many great memories of my nine years as a 4-Her. My brother actually met his future wife at the fair as an eighth grader. She was showing cattle and horses for a Toledo 4-H club. I thought I had laid eyes on a true love a couple of years later. Her family was about the only Italian farm family in the county and Rose Ann had long black wavy hair. She was a stunning sight leading her Angus steer at the top of the 4-H fairgrounds and when the steer bolted I grabbed the lead rope, she let go, I didn’t and it dragged me the length of the fairgrounds before stopping at a fence.
A number of 4-H dads came to my aide, patted me on the back for holding on that long and when I got back to the top of the hill, she was walking hand in hand with a 4-Her from another club. There was a lesson to be learned there. Fifty-two years later I don’t know what.
My dad had one of the best swine herds in the county and earning blue ribbons was pretty much a given. He also had a pretty good eye for cattle and a lightweight steer I showed to a fifth place finish (there were hundreds of steers shown at our fair back then) was sold to a professional steer jock who took it to a Chicago International Fair championship later that year.
My last year of 4-H, I made friends with a sheep showman from another part of the county and was invited to show one of his lambs (there is a first time for everything) and found myself showing for a weight class championship with my buddy almost in tears. Rules were different then and when the judge came over to question me about the lamb, I forthrightly told him I was standing in for friend and didn’t have a clue about this particular beast. They let my buddy take over and finish the job.
I cherish all of those memories. What’s more I deeply appreciate the courage and planning for county leaders who knew in their heart of hearts, the kids this year needed to make their own lasting memories of the fair.