Virgil Strickler turned around the once scandal-prone Ohio State Fair. Can he do it again following last year's tragic midway death?
When you're the big cheese at the Ohio State Fair, you can't avoid questions about deep-fried Oreos and bacon dipped in chocolate. So general manager Virgil Strickler, 63, has ready answers: No-thank-you to the cookies and give-me-more to the bacon. “Anything with bacon is awesome!” says the former hog farmer. “I'm grateful for my roots; they taught me what bacon is really all about.”
This year's fair, which runs July 25-Aug. 5, marks the 14th year Strickler has been in charge of one of the biggest, most successful state fairs in the country. He's been in the post longer than anyone in the event's 165-year history, under Republican and Democratic state leadership, budget tightening, youth scandals and, just last year, a tragic death on a midway ride.
Jack Fisher, the retired executive vice president of the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation, credits Strickler's longevity to the breadth of knowledge he gained throughout a lifetime of working in agriculture, beginning as a kid growing up on Strickler Farms near Amanda in Fairfield County. “He's self-taught, family-taught and community-taught all the way,” Fisher says.
Strickler's father, grandfather and uncle grew corn and raised swine and beef cattle. His dad, Elvin, was on the Fairfield County Fair board for 30 years, so young Virgil spent plenty of time on the fairgrounds and learned how to show livestock through 4-H and Future Farmers of America.
His love of the state fair began in 1969, when his family was selected as the Fair Family of the Day and toured the grounds with then-Gov. Jim Rhodes, the state fair's biggest fan. A photo taken that day is proudly displayed in Strickler's office still.
Though farming was in his blood, Strickler set his sights at first on a different career path: banking. “I decided I wanted to own my own bank,” he says, laughing at the thought. He also considered coaching and teaching but ended up studying business for three years at the University of Findlay and the Ohio University campus at Lancaster. Family obligations kept him from graduating, and soon he was working at a series of banks, culminating in a job as an agriculture lender.
That led to 13 years working with farmers at the Producers Livestock Association (now United Producers)—until a chance conversation with Kirby Hidy, the marketing director for the Ohio Department of Agriculture. “I was on a beef expo tour in Fairfield County, and I remember Kirby Hidy saying that the ag director at the fair was having bad health problems,” Strickler remembers. “I said, ‘I'd love to have that job!' He said, ‘Yeah, you and 4,000 other people.' And, I got that job.”
The year was 1993, and it wasn't long before Strickler was making waves in his job overseeing more than 30,000 livestock, horse-show and agricultural entries. During the fair that year, he saw professional “livestock jockeys” working on cattle, lamb, hogs and other animals that young people had entered in the junior fair livestock competition. Youths are supposed to handle all the work.
“That really upset me because I felt that the child is the one who's supposed to be learning about what's going on with their livestock,” he says. “And I also saw some animals that I couldn't understand how they looked the way they did.”
Experts suspected animals were being given the steroid clenbuterol. After much consultation, Strickler started a testing program for the winning animals in the junior competition. “I have to admit that after I said we're going for it, I was very worried; I felt like I could ruin everything,” Strickler remembers. But the testing was justified: In 1994, seven top steer and one top lamb were disqualified because injected oil, clenbuterol or other drugs were found in their carcasses.
The cheating hurt the fair's reputation: Several people were prosecuted, and a few competitors and their families were banned from the fair. “The livestock jockeys were the culprits, not the families and the exhibitors,” Strickler says. “But it all turned out for the better, and we got stronger from it.”
Strickler and the fair board attacked the problem in other ways, too. Rather than allow the top winners to take home the entire pot of money raised as each champion was auctioned off in the annual Sale of Champions, prizes were capped, and the extra money was used for other youth prizes and scholarships. Participants also were required to participate in skillathons to demonstrate their knowledge.
Tom Price, a longtime state fair board member and Delaware County farmer, says the changes in Ohio's junior program were noted nationwide (cheating wasn't just an Ohio problem) and copied by other fairs over the years. “Our youth programs are very, very special and show Virgil's love for 4-H and the fact that he wants to be fair,” Price says. “Virgil wants to do what's right.”
That ethic, say those who know Strickler, sums up his management style. “He's old school, lots of attention to details, very relationship-minded and he treats people right,” Price says.
Strickler, in fact, became general manager after scandals dogged his predecessors. In 2004, he replaced Rick Frenette, who resigned the year before after the state inspector general accused him of improperly accepting gifts from fair vendors. Billy Inmon, who held the position before Frenette, was fired in 1992 after turning the fair into a hotbed of controversy (from financial mismanagement to conflicts with gay-rights activists) during his just eight months on the job.
Once again, Strickler needed to clean up the fair's tarnished image. “With all that I'd already been through on the agricultural side of the fair, I think I'd proven that I want to do things right and turn things around.” he says. “I just said, ‘This is the way it's going to be, and we're going to do it right.' ”
He started by assembling a team of trustworthy senior staff and a plan to improve three areas of the fair: security, cleanliness and beauty. Metal detectors were added to fair entrances to keep out weapons, and Ohio State Highway Patrol troopers, who provide security for the fair, tamped down unruliness on the midway. Cleanliness was improved by making sure the grounds were rinsed down each night, increasing trash pickups around the grounds and paying closer attention to bathrooms.
To beautify the grounds, greenhouses were set up so staff could grow flowers and other plants to fill the landscape with color and greenery. Strickler also welcomed a proposal by Ohio Gov. John Kasich to add shade trees to the fairgrounds. A hundred already have been planted and more are added each year.
Much of the credit for the fair's success belongs to Strickler, says Marla Calico, president and chief executive officer of the International Association of Fairs & Expositions. “Fairs are businesses; there's no doubt about that,” she says. “But the truly successful fairs are the ones whose leaders are passionate about the fair. Virgil has a passion for agriculture, and I know he feels very strongly about the role the fair plays in telling the story of agriculture.”
Strickler's first fair as general manager was the year the event shrunk from 17 to 12 days, a change approved the year before to save money. Despite some criticism from exhibitors, competitors and fairgoers, attendance dropped only slightly. “It was a big turning point when it came to dollars,” Strickler says. “At that time, it cost us about $50,000 just to open our gates every day. So we ended up making money on the fair for quite a few years since I took over, which is something you don't see very often from a fair.”
In part, that's because Strickler and his staff are very conservative when it comes to the Expo Center's $15.5 million budget. “I do more with less,” he says, noting that his full-time staff has shrunk from 73 to 56 since he took the post. While the fair and fairgrounds were heavily subsidized by the state before, in recent years the state has reduced its contributions to just capital improvements and about $350,000 a year to support youth activities. The Expo Center has compensated by renting out the fairgrounds more and holding on to lucrative events such as the month-long All American Quarter Horse Congress, the largest single breed horse show in the world.
Strickler has dealt with many other challenges to the fair's success. One year, he cancelled the poultry show due to bird flu; another year he suspended the fair's popular youth choir director amid a sex scandal.
And last year, on the first day of the fair, 18-year-old Tyler Jarrell was killed and seven others injured when an arm broke off a thrill ride they were riding on the midway. “I will never forget it. ... It just broke my heart right away,” Strickler says.
Strickler still chokes up when he talks about the accident, which was caused by massive corrosion on the ride's metal support beam. State inspectors hadn't noticed the corrosion on the Fire Ball, owned by the fair's ride provider, Amusements of America.
After the accident, all rides were shut down for several days while they were reinspected. By the end of the fair, attendance had fallen by 13 percent and four people remained hospitalized from the accident.
“I still have problems dealing with it,” Strickler says. “I took my grieving as it hit me and then I said to myself, I got to pick up the pieces and let's see how we can make things better. This accident could have happened anywhere, because the ride was at other locations before it came here.”
“It put a negative on our fair, and the negative aspect is what we have to get over now,” he adds. “It set us back and our attendance was down.”
To improve safety, Ohio fair organizations have new protocols for ride owners that include servicing and inspecting rides as mandated by ride-manufacturer directives, keeping detailed inspection records and providing them to the Ohio Department of Agriculture, which handles ride inspections.A bill to strengthen Ohio ride inspections is pending in the Ohio House of Representatives. House Bill 631 would require the hiring of professional engineers as inspectors if possible and the adoption of national ride-inspection standards. The agriculture director also could require amusement-ride owners to keep photographic and written descriptions of all ride repairs under the bill.
Strickler finds himself in familiar territory. With its reputation tarnished from last year's tragedy, the fair is once again counting on Strickler to lead it through a difficult moment. His passion, savvy and dedication have served him well during challenging times in the past, and it appears he hasn't lost any love for the institution he's served for so long.
The accident will lead to improvements in ride inspections and safety both nationally and on the state level, Strickler believes. “It has to,” he says. “It's a matter of the [rides] industry coming together and figuring out how to make things better. And they will; I have no doubt in my mind. I can guarantee you this: There won't be a ride out there that I will be afraid to ride.”
When the fair officially opens this year with a speech by Kasich, Strickler will say a few words, too. As he does each year, he will praise his staff, honor his mentors and thank his wife and children for their support. He will probably shed a few tears.
“When I open up the fair, I'm thinking about the people who came before, who I'm representing, and I think about how I don't want to screw that up. I put that on my shoulders, and that's why I get so emotional; I don't want to let them down. I want to make them proud.”
Kathy Lynn Gray is a freelance writer.