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Virgil Strickler, Ohio State Fair's Longest Running Manager Retires From Dream Job
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No fair manager could wish for a better final fair than that of Virgil Strickler, general Manager of the Ohio Expo Center & State Fair. The 2023 Ohio State Fair was a recording-breaker event, reaching a reported 1,006,228, an increase of about 16.7 percent over the previous year's attendance, one of the highest year-to-year increases of the 2023 fair season.

It was a fitting capstone to a man who has been manager of the annual celebration of everything Buckeye since 2004, the longest tenure of any manager in the history of the fair first held in 1850.

 “With Virgil's departure, we will have some big boots to fill,” said Ohio Governor Mike DeWine. “I've had the pleasure of working with Virgil for many years and wish him nothing but the best as he begins his retirement.” 

In early January, The Ohio Expositions Commission named Adam Heffron to be the new executive director of the Ohio Expo Center and State Fair.


Strickler began his career at the Ohio Expo Center in 1993 as Agriculture Director. At his retirement announcement, Strickler said:  “I will be forever grateful for the last three decades at the Ohio State Fair. I've grown up at fairs, and Ohio's county and independent fairs are what makes our State Fair so strong. I've watched my children, and now grandchildren, grow up here. The State Fair means so much to generations of Ohioans, and I'm proud of the strong partnerships we've developed over the years, and how they have helped our State Fair grow and improve each year.”

Virgil with his senior year award winning heavyweight steer

At his retirement announcement,  the governor noted Strickler's work in creating the Ohio State Fair's nationally recognized Youth Reserve Program in 1995, which has awarded $4,691,150 in scholarships to more than 44,500 youth exhibitors. In recognition of Strickler's dedication to the Ohio State Fair over the past three decades, Governor DeWine renamed the program in his honor. “While Virgil has accomplished so much during his tenure with the state, this program and his support of Ohio's youth are truly his legacy,” said the Governor.

“Virgil has poured his all into these grounds over the past three decades,” said Angela Krile, Chairman of the Ohio Expositions Commission. “He has paved the way for continued investments in our next generation of leaders and for great improvements at the Ohio Expo Center through the Expo 2050 Master Plan, and I am confident that both the Fair and Expo will continue his legacy of excellence and dedication to the youth of Ohio for years to come.”

Before Strickler was fully out the door, he was kind enough to spend some time with Carnival Warehouse to explore what multiple decades guiding the Ohio State Fair to its current prominence in the industry has been like.
 

Carnival Warehouse: Was managing the Ohio State Fair a dream job?

Virgil Strickler: Yes. Being around the fair industry all my life, my dad was on a fair board and I attended the Ohio State Fair as well as Fairfield County Fair for many years, it was like coming to my home to be here and work in this capacity.

CW: The 2023 fair seems a successful swan song for your career. What did knowing this was your last fair as manager feel like?  

VS: Everything has been bittersweet. The last day, having the Sale of Champions Livestock Auction, capped everything for me. Seeing all of the exhibitors and the families involved in 4-H and FFA, our buyers, our commissioners, the entire event felt like the perfect send-off.


CW: Prior to 1993 when you became Agricultural Director, what had been your experience with fairs?

VS: My father was on the Fairfield County fair board for 30 years. As I grew up through 4-H and FFA showing beef and swine. I found my passion for the livestock and agriculture industry as well as for fairs. I worked for a livestock cooperative and through that co-op was able to work in the sheep barn at the Ohio State Fair which began my long tenure at the Ohio Expo Center & State Fair. I worked for that co-op for 13 years before becoming the agriculture director at the Ohio State Fair.


CW: What is your earliest fair memory?

VS: It would be when I was 9 years-old, my first year in 4-H. I had a swine project, so did my brother and sister. That was my first year competing.
Strickler Family - Farm Family of the Year, 1969


CW: What changes did you implement at the Ohio State Fair that you are most proud of?

VS: I'm proud of many key implementations during my time at the Ohio State Fair and as General Manager including safety, grounds beautification, clean facilities, growth in agricultural education through skill-a-thons, as well as establishing the Ohio State Fair Youth Reserve Program.


CW: There is a  close relationship between Ohio's county fairs and the state fair. As manager of the state fair, why is having a network of local fairs important for the success of a state fair?  

VS: The Ohio Fair Manager Association is very strong with support from county fairs and the Ohio State Fair. There are 94 county and independent fairs in Ohio and we have a great relationship with each and every one of them. It's important for all the fairs, including the state fair, to work together to encourage youth across the state to become involved in the fair industry through 4-H and FFA.


CW: How has the relationship between Ohio's Agricultural Industry and the State Fair changed over the years?

VS: Our relationship has continued to grow over the years. The agricultural industry and all of its commodities are heavily involved in the Ohio State Fair. There is no doubt in my mind that our partnerships within the agriculture industry are stronger than ever.


CW: In 2017, the fatal Fireball Accident occurred at the Ohio State Fair. This is one of worst nightmares of a Fair Manager. What was key to handling this crisis and what have been the long term ramifications of the tragedy?


VS:  Fairs are usually a celebration and bring joy to our guests. Someone losing their life, or being injured, on a fair property is absolutely heartbreaking. My heart continues to be with those impacted by the accident in 2017. When a tragedy like this happens, it should result in change. In this case, it did spur such change that implemented increased safety measures for amusement rides in the state of Ohio with the creation of HB 189, known as Tyler's Law.

CW: Now that the worst of COVID seems in the rearview, how well did the fair navigate the crisis? As a manager, what were you able to affect the most that made a difference?

VS: Like most fairs and other events around the country and beyond, we were heavily impacted by COVID-19. We canceled our Fair in 2020 and hosted a livestock-only Fair in 2021. During those years, our staff size was reduced by 90 percent. Fortunately, with immense help from our HR director, guidance from senior staff members, and an extremely dedicated group of outstanding employees, we were able to reassemble our staff in mid-late 2021 and host a very successful 2022 Ohio State Fair. We would never have been able to come back as strong as we did if it wasn't for the hard work and dedication of the wonderful maintenance and administrative staff we have here at the Ohio Expo Center & State Fair.


CW: What worries you most about the fair industry? What are the dire threats looming?

VS: I have no worries about the fair industry. In my mind, this industry continues to recruit young professionals who help us grow and improve year after year. In fact, several staff members at the Ohio Expo Center & State Fair are a part of the International Association of Fairs and Expositions (IAFE) Young Professionals group that encourages young people in this industry to celebrate their successes, build community, and inspire change.


CW: What about the current state of the fair industry gives you hope for the future of fairs?


VS: The future of the fair industry is looking very bright with continued support and involvement by young professionals pursuing careers in the fair industry.


CW: What has changed the most since your tenure at the Ohio State Fair?

VS: Through my tenure, safety has continued to improve for our facility and many other facilities across the country. For example, we introduced metal detectors in 2006, and these are now much more of an industry standard across fairs and festivals.


CW: What has changed the least for you as fair manager?

VS: From my time as an exhibitor through my retirement, I have felt the positive impact that fairs, and especially the Ohio State Fair, has on families. Seeing families come to the fair year after year to build lasting memories is one of the greatest joys of this position.


CW: My favorite fair foods are:

VS:  Fries, pizza, and apple dumpling  


CW: Favorite ride?  

VS: Our SkyGlider.

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