Ron Wenger: The Hardest Working Man in the Fair Business.

Over the years soul singer James Brown was often referred to as “the hardest working man in show business”, but anyone who has ever been involved in the Kent County Youth Fair (KCYF) knows better. While he might not sing, shout, and do the splits like Mr. Brown did, Fair Manager Ron Wenger could easily take the “hardest working” trophy home.

Without a doubt the eight days of the 75 year old Youth Fair and the week leading up to it are the busiest of Ron’s summer schedule, but he can usually be found somewhere on the fairgrounds almost any day of the week from May until the middle of October. Much to Ron’s delight, the fairgrounds are busy with a variety of events from countless horseshows to Native American pow-wows, car shows, and two bluegrass music festivals. Throw in a circus, a barbeque cook-off, the annual duck race and a gathering of air boat enthusiasts and you can see why Ron took advantage of the one free week-end he had to visit one of his daughters and his grandkids over the Fourth of July.

Wenger has been involved with the Youth Fair in various capacities for decades. In addition to being in charge, he has been a volunteer as well as a member and president of the Board of Directors. He was very pleased to report that involvement in the Fair continues to grow: For 2009 he has 1,283 registered exhibitors and 171 Explorers – explorers are between the ages of five and eight. Most of the 1,454 kids who will be at the Fair are members of 4-H, but there are FFA members and some independents as well.

Ron didn’t hesitate for a second when asked about the most important aspect for the kids involved in the KCYF.

“It teaches young people life skills,” Wenger answered. “They learn about responsibility, commitment, and follow through. Book learning is good, but you have to apply what you learn.”
Not everything participants learn at the Fair is pleasant – mucking stalls and cleaning poop off your animal before you enter the show ring is hardly glamorous. Wenger cited an extreme example to demonstrate how young people can grow and learn even in the face of adversity. A few years ago he was called to the pig barn on a Sunday morning. One of the pigs had died. Ron and several other adults were concerned about the effect it might have on the young lady who brought the pig to the fair. She was a high school senior and this was her last fair – would she be crushed with disappointment? His face lit up as he described the way she didn’t let her misfortune drag her down in the least. She doubled her work efforts around the barn and did everything she could to help out other exhibitors. She even volunteered to help in the show ring since she was no longer able to compete.

Working with young people like that has given Wenger an abundance of faith in the coming generations. Ron doesn’t pay too much attention to all the negative media reports about young people.

“They need to come here and see the kids I get to work with all the time,” Wenger said with a smile.
He illustrated his point with another example of KCYF kids rising to the occasion. The Fair has a special Handi-capable Day (Friday August 14th this year) designed to encourage folks with special needs to come out and interact with the animals and the exhibitors. The rabbit barn has a gravel floor which makes it almost impossible to navigate a wheelchair through it. The kids showing the rabbits overcame that hurdle by bringing their animals outside for the visitors in wheelchairs.

“Those kids weren’t told to do that – no one coached them,” Ron explained with pride. “They did it all on their own.”

The more one learns about Wenger’s background, the more his position as Fair Manager seems like a natural fit. He grew up on a farm near 60th and Buttrick and his parents still live there. After a year and half at Moo U, Ron owned a landscaping business for a little over eight years. Then he bought a farm of his own. He “milked cows” for about ten years and then raised hogs for half a dozen years after that. Right before he settled in at the fairgrounds he was in charge of maintenance for the Ionia County Fair.

Ron and his wife Barb have three children. Julie is the oldest and she is a doctor in Stanford, CA. Middle child Carrie lives in Phoenix, AZ where she co-ordinates surgical teams who work with all kinds of surgeons. Mike is the youngest and he works in the energy industry in Houston, TX. Ron and Barb still live on the farm, but they have sold off over half of the initial 500 acres and rent out most of the remaining acres. Ron still makes maple syrup there and confessed that he likes to be able to look out at the cattle grazing on his farm every day – even if they do attract flies.

When the Lowell Farm Market launched three years ago, Ron accepted the additional responsibility of being the Market Master. The weekly farm market, which is open every Thursday from 3 to 7pm, is doing very well. Folks from MSU told Ron to expect it to take five years for the market to get established and it has happened in just three. There are consistently 20 vendors every Thursday and both customers and vendors are happy.

When asked how he managed to get the market going so well in a short amount of time and to avoid “problems” that many Market Masters experience with their vendors, Wenger’s answer was the fact that he is very much a hands-on guy. He has a booth selling his maple syrup in the market, but he gets out and talks with all the vendors every week.

“Just like in school – everything goes well when the teacher is in the room but when the teacher leaves then the spitballs fly,” Ron related as he explained his management style.
Wenger doesn’t miss a thing. During the recent Riverwalk week-end, my wife was walking on the fairgrounds with him. He spotted a trash can that was so full that two or three items that had overflowed to the ground.

“Looks like we have a trash problem,” Ron said. “We don’t have trash problems on my fairgrounds.”
The question on many people’s mind is, “How long will Ron keep running the fairgrounds?” It would appear we will continue to be blessed with his efforts. First, he comes from good stock – his parents are 90 and 89 and they still live independently on the family farm. Secondly, he has no desire to retire any time soon.

“I will stay as long as I still enjoy it,” Wenger said from his desk between phone calls. “Why would I want to retire? I am having too much fun.”

Looks like we are stuck with The Hardest Working Man in the Fair Business – and that is a good thing.
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