Just as soon as the main office at the Bartholomew County Fairgrounds opened for the first time this year last Friday, the phone began to ring.

It was an inquiry concerning when Columbus’ most well-known celebrity would be signing autographs, fair board assistant secretary Susan Arnholt said.

While the 59th annual Bartholomew County 4-H Fair opens today, the public will likely remain fixated on racecar driver Tony Stewart’s upcoming fair appearance until the Monday night Three-Quarter Racing League event is over, fair board director Darren Collins said.

“With both the Brickyard (400) and his retirement coming up, that’s going to be a big thing,” Collins said.

Story continues below gallery

Stewart’s NASCAR victory at the Toyota/Save Mart 350 on June 26 might also have heightened the public’s anticipation.

Although the fair board hopes to learn the exact time of Stewart’s Monday appearance later today, the Columbus native has a history of not watching the clock with his fair appearances — and that’s just fine with the organizers.

“He can come whenever he wants to come,” Arnholt said.

“Yeah, Tony rules,” Collins agreed.

But for dozens heavily involved in planning and running the nine-day fair, this year’s biggest story isn’t who shows up but who is leaving.

Changing of the guard

After serving 20 years in various leadership roles with the fair, the past nine as board president, Larry Fisher will retire from the Bartholomew County 4-H Fair Board at the end of this year.

“It was a hard decision to make,” said Fisher, 67.  “It’s time for some younger people to come in.”

The decision on who will become the next fair board president will be made after the board’s annual meeting Jan. 9.

All current fair board members are eligible to seek the office, and all Bartholomew County residents 18 and older who attend the meeting are eligible to cast a vote, board vice president Mark Case said.

For Fisher, his board retirement is just another step in recent efforts to scale back after decades of community service in capacities that include county councilman, county coroner and law enforcement officer.

After deciding not to seek another term as coroner, Fisher began a year-long process of phasing in business partner Annie Harrison into taking over his long-established business, Fisher’s Flower Basket at 662 N. Gladstone Avenue.

“The coroner’s office and the flower shop has been 24/7 for over 30 years,” Fisher said.  “I have grandchildren in Texas, Fort Wayne, and here in Columbus, and I’d like to spend a little time with them.”

While Fisher said age, as well as an injured knee, might have slowed him down a bit, he said he has no intention of completely retiring from public life.

“I’m going to pursue other interests,” Fisher said. “I might go into the funeral business.”

A big family

Since the 1950s, most members of Fisher’s family have been active in 4-H, including all of his grandchildren.

“When I was a kid, 4-H was the only activity we had when we got off the farm,” Fisher said.

As a longtime 4-H leader, Fisher sees the same positive and productive qualities promoted by the clubs in most adult members of the fair board.

“Everyone works together, so you don’t have to micromanage ,” Fisher said.  “You turn them lose and let them go. These folks will stay until midnight to make sure something gets done.”

For example, Fisher pointed out fair board members and 4-H leaders just put up new stalls in the cattle barn in just under four days. Normally that would take almost two weeks, he said.

When Fisher sees young exhibitors cleaning stalls or caring for their animals, he takes tremendous satisfaction in knowing the same 4-H values he treasures will keep being passed down to new generations.

“4-H is really one big family,” Fisher said.

Best and worst

For many who came aboard the fair board during the 21st century, the worst disaster they’ve encountered was the June 2008 flood, which caused extensive damage to the fairgrounds and buildings just one month before the start of the fair.

But for Fisher, July 15, 1999 was much worse. That was when a vehicle driven during a grandstand mud bog event crashed through a fence and struck three Columbus teenage girls.

Amanda Monday, 13, was pronounced dead on arrival at Columbus Regional Hospital, while two other girls, ages 13 and 14, were hospitalized in critical condition.

While no criminal charges were filed, investigators concluded the size and configuration of the track contributed to the fatal accident.

“As a board member, you think you have everything covered,” Fisher said. “But then, all of the sudden …”

The retiring fair board president’s voice trailed off for a moment before he continued.

“Yes, the flood was more challenging,” Fisher said. “But the fatality was a real tragedy.”

In a much lighter vein, Fisher’s two fondest memories involve humorous conspiracies he took part in with the 4-H kids.

One involved disregarding a directive from an overprotective 4-H youth educator who ordered the tradition of an annual water balloon fight be stopped.

But when the leader left the fairgrounds one night, the kids pleaded with Fisher to let them have their fun.

“I thought, ‘What are they going to do me?’ And then, I said, ‘C’mon, kids!'” Fisher said. “Nobody was hurt, I ended up soaked — and it was lots of fun.”

A decade earlier, the 4-H kids talked Fisher, a sheriff’s deputy at the time, into performing a mock arrest of longtime youth educator Judy Matheny during the annual Parade of Champions, Fisher said.

“Lo and behold, Judy really thought I was taking her to jail,” Fisher said with a grin. “She took it way too seriously.”

Matheny retired in 2001 after serving 32 years as a local 4-H youth educator.

Legacy

Many fair board members, including Case, Arnholt and Collins, said the list of contacts Fisher has accumulated during his many years of public service has become invaluable to the fair board.

He also has been credited in many circles with keeping the organization financially healthy while initiating significant improvements at the fairgrounds.

Beside new cattle stalls, other fairgrounds improvements over the past year include new track fencing and the installment of a camping area for 4-H exhibitors.

“I would say that, in the 20 years I’ve been here, the fairgrounds have never looked better,” Fisher said. “We have also remained financially in the black since I became board president.”

However, Fisher insists he is not responsible for all the positive developments during his years on the fair board.

“It’s not a one-person thing,” he said. “It’s not an ‘I’. It’s a ‘we.'”

Today, Saturday at the fair

GETTING TO THE FAIR: 750 W. County Road 200S, near Southside Elementary School, on the west side of Columbus. General admission is free.

PARKING: $5 per day on fairgrounds property, or $25 per week when purchased at fair office; $7 a day on paved parking lot at Southside Elementary, operated by Columbus FFA, every day except Sunday. Fees collected starting at 1 p.m. daily except Wednesday, Kids Day, when fees are collected starting at 10 a.m.

MIDWAY: Opens 5 p.m. today with rides, games, food booths operated by Burton Brothers Amusements of Shirley, Indiana. Ride tickets today through 10 p.m. Saturday are $1 each, 20 for $18 or 60 for $50. Rides takes three to five tickets. Wristband specials 10 p.m. Saturday to 1 a.m., $12. Games cost $1 to $5 in cash. Food booths also take cash.

4-H ACTIVITIES: Lil’ Wrangler Poultry show begins at 8:30 a.m. today in the Pavilion, followed by the 4-H poultry show at 9 a.m.; 4-H Horse & Pony English Halter & Performance Show, Arena by the Horse Barn, 8:30 a.m. Saturday; Lil’ Wrangler and 4-H Dairy Shows, Pavilion, 10 a.m. Saturday, Pavilion; Lil Wrangler Goat Show, 12:30 p.m. Saturday, Pavilion; Pedal Tractor Pull, east of Farm Bureau Building, 5 p.m. Saturday.

FREE ENTERTAINMENT: Night Owl Country Band, 7 p.m. today, Share the Fun 4-H skits, musical numbers and novelty acts, 2 p.m. Saturday, Elvis impersonator Ron Hobbs, 7 p.m. Saturday, David Boll Theatre; Ferguson Road, 7 p.m. today, Wild Azalia Blue, 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Farm Bureau Building.

GRANDSTAND: Lucas Oil Pro Pulling Series truck and tractor pulls, 7 p.m. today ($10 adult, $5 for children 12 and younger); Demolition Derby and Auto Cross, 7 p.m. Saturday ($10 adult, $5 for children 12 and younger).

INFORMATION: Fair office: 812-372-6133. Fair website: bartholomewcountyfair.com.

Author photo
Mark Webber is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at mwebber@therepublic.com or 812-379-5636.