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Fair chief Randy Thompson to step back after 50 years of fairs

JANESVILLE

If you see Randy Thompson at the Rock County 4-H Fair this week, consider giving him one of those big, baked carnival pretzels.

Or a butterflied pork chop on a bun.

The longtime fair volunteer and the fair board president for the past four years tells The Gazette he likes a good, seasoned chop. It’s his go-to snack at the 18-acre, county-owned fairgrounds in Janesville where he has spent countless hours every summer for the past 29 years.

By next summer, it’s likely Thompson will become a face in the crowd at the fair—just another guy in line for a twisted, soft pretzel.

Thompson plans to hang up his hat as the fair board president and step away from the board after this year.

In an interview with The Gazette last week, Thompson said he wasn’t sure what involvement he might have at the fair next year, but for the first time since he graduated from college in 1979, his summers likely won’t revolve around a leadership role at a county fair.

When Thompson ran for a second term as fair board president two years ago, he said he told colleagues it’d be his last term.

“After a while, you have a certain level of comfort or, you know, you’ve done things a certain way. It’s always good to have somebody new coming in that hasn’t been part of that. Change is good,” he said.

Thompson, a rural Edgerton resident and a Sheboygan native, has since 1991 served in multiple leadership roles at the fair—including 22 years in the 1990s and early 2000s overseeing the fair’s annual livestock competitions as a UW Extension agriculture agent.

Anthony Wahl 

Fair board President Randy Thompson has been involved with operating the Rock County 4-H Fair for more than 30 years. After this year, Thompson plans to step away from the volunteer post of fair board president.

Before that, Thompson volunteered and served as a livestock competition coordinator at 4-H fairs in Trempealeau and Sheboygan counties. As a kid, Thompson raised and showed Holstein calves at the 4-H fair in Sheboygan County. He paid for college with the money he made selling those animals.

In recent years, he has seen former Rock County 4-H members later be named the Wisconsin dairy industry’s most vaunted ombudswoman, Alice in Dairyland. Other youths have become bankers and professionals in the ag industry. Thompson’s proud to have seen 4-H youths grow up and grow into agriculture.

Thompson has been involved in county fairs as a youth exhibitor, an extension agent or fair board member for 50 of his 62 years.

“That’s a damn good run,” Thompson said. “But it’s probably long enough.”

After retiring from the Extension in 2012, Thompson for the past six years has served on the fair board. Under his leadership, the fair has reshaped its business model—namely, how it approaches booking main-stage music entertainment—with a focus on running leaner.

Despite having an aging, undersized venue that’s wedged into a residential neighborhood with a limited range of revenue sources, the Rock County 4-H Fair has bounced back from the post-Great Recession years.

Over the past few years, the oldest youth fair in the U.S. has begun to fight above its weight, even as it has faced at least one renewed call by county lawmakers to consider relocating the fair to a bigger, newer venue.

Fair attendance has increased every year since 2016. It cracked a full-week headcount of 71,000 last year and turned a small profit, recovering from a string of years in the red.

Gazette file photo 

Randy Thompson shows his hog calling talent at the Rock County Pork Fest, circa 2003. Since 1991, Thompson has been a fixture at the Rock County 4-H fair, volunteering in livestock showing, and most recently, serving as fair board president.

That’s under the same pressures fairs face nationwide: significantly fewer young families and increasingly fragmented cultural attitudes on entertainment.

Thompson served only a fraction as long as a few recent fair board presidents, a few of whom were at the fair’s helm nearly 20 years. And he’s arguably not as bombastic as some past fair chiefs, such as Paul George, the Evansville auctioneer whose booming voice and 10-gallon cowboy hat were legendary parts of the fair’s heyday in the 1980s.

Thompson, who (full disclosure) is the husband of Gazette reporter Catherine W. Idzerda, is more comfortable in plaid shirts and a Cargill ball cap.

Yet, Thompson’s faced the same rigors as fair chiefs past. There’s the occasional, angry 4-H stage mother or stage father. And that’s just part of Thompson’s job—being part of the fair’s de facto complaint department for everything up to and including ticket prices, the weather and the current state of any and every restroom on the fairgrounds.

For its organizers and volunteers, fair week is a tornado of constant presence required—a $500,000, week-long celebration that’s a blur of food, events, rides, farm animals with kid handlers and music that runs well into the evenings most nights.

Thompson remembers his first 4-H fair in Janesville in 1991. He was so busy with the “large livestock side of things” that year that he missed almost all the main stage music entertainment.

That year, Thompson did catch one snippet: a sidelong view of a young, up-and-coming country music showman Garth Brooks, who took over the fair’s main stage with electric exuberance, a two-tone cowboy shirt and impossibly tight blue jeans.

Thompson said he’ll never forget seeing Brooks, who would soon become a country and pop music icon.

He got to see the “Friends in Low Places” star leapfrog off the stage and onto the tops of stacks of amps and loudspeakers.

“I kept thinking, who is this guy? He’s going to fall,” Thompson said.

Gazette file photo 

Ag agent Randy Thompson talks to a group of Rock County 4-H youths about cow judging at Alvin and Barb Kayser’s farm north of Janesville in 2000. Thompson, 62, has decided after 50 years of being involved in county fairs statewide to step away from a leadership role.

By the time you see Thompson or any of his fair board cohorts at the fair—along with countless other fair officials, almost all of them unpaid volunteers who help run the fair—it’s likely they’re already hours deep into a long day.

Before that, they’ll have spent months planning the fair, its logistics, entertainment and marketing and registering a tome of 4-H competition entrants that sometimes reaches 10,000. All with just one full-time employee.

“I always stop counting when I hit 110 hours during fair week. It’s a lot more than an 8 to 5 job, for sure,” Thompson said. “And it’s not just me. It’s our whole 13-person board, all the volunteers. Our mindset is, ‘Whatever it’s going to take to make it successful, we do it.’”

Sometimes it takes a lot.

Thompson remembers the aftermath of one particular livestock competition and meat animal sale at the fair. It was the year a prize lamb got loaded onto the wrong truck and was errantly bound for the Great Plains.

At the time, Thompson and another fair livestock official had to canvass the entire upper Midwest to find the lamb. Thompson said fair officials finally located the lamb in Fargo, North Dakota.

Somehow wrapped up in the story was the topic of the 4-H Fair’s longtime animal drug testing policy—a policy Thompson helped put in place about 20 years ago. It’s meant to guard against performance doping of the fair’s competition livestock (otherwise known as cheating) and to ensure prize animals that might have been doped don’t eventually end up on someone’s dinner plate.

Thompson stopped shy of shading in all the details of the lamb story before he put the lid back on it. Maybe forever.

“I just look back and chuckle now,” Thompson said. “Some things seem funnier now than they did at the time.”

For full fair coverage, including a daily schedule, go to GazetteXtra.com/fair.

Correction: This story was updated at 11:47 p.m. Sunday to correct Paul George's name. 


Submitted photo 

Madeline, an 11-year-old bald eagle, helps foster two young eagles at Hoo’s Woods, a raptor rehabilitation and education center in Rock County. Madeline is an education bird who lives at the center because permanent injuries prevent her from living on her own.


Obituaries and death notices for July 21, 2019

Dennis M. Borgwardt

Kristina L. Croake

Anna Marie Cygan

Nancy Ann Deily

Vincent “Vince” F. Genatempo

Marshall “Marty” Guelker

Michael William Landers

Debra Ann Marzahl

John H. Runde

Sue M. Schmaling

Evelyn Joy Stahl

Kathleen M. Van Caster

Charles D. Wendorf

Robert Henry Williams

Timothy Anthony Zingshiem

Lisa Ziomek


Local
top story
‘Sustaining addiction’: Local officials disagree on what should be next in opioid fight

BELOIT

People keep dying, and those who don’t die from opioid overdoses are committing burglaries, robberies, theft and fraud to feed their opioid addictions.

A man charged with burglary in Rock County Court last week was using his student loans to fund his heroin habit, according to a criminal complaint.

The list of terrible things people do to others so they can keep taking the drugs—even after they can’t get high anymore—goes on and on.

Beloit Police Chief David Zibolski said his officers recently encountered a woman who had overdosed a fourth time, soon after giving birth to an addicted child.

Another Beloiter who overdosed for a fifth time was an escapee from the Rock County Jail’s Workender Program, which lets people work off their jail sentences while staying out of jail.

Rock County officials don’t all agree on what should be done next in the fight against opioid addiction.

Zibolski has a radical suggestion. But before talking about that, consider some numbers.

Zibolski’s Beloit Police Department started tracking overdoses Jan. 1, 2017. Through May 31 this year, they have counted 149 overdoses, more than one each week. Eighteen of those were fatal.

Janesville police recorded 109 overdoses from 2017 through July 5 this year, including 44 that were fatalities.

And that’s just the overdoses police know about. Drug users are surviving on their own, often because loved ones keep Narcan/naloxone on hand. The drug can stop an overdose in its tracks.

These cities are not the poster children for the heroin/opioid epidemic. The whole country is immersed in it. Zibolski said Beloit just reflects the larger, frustrating picture.

Just 20 people accounted for 46 of Beloit’s overdoses, that’s almost one-third of the city’s total of 149 overdoses, he said.

Of those 20, six have died.

“So you can see the progression, here, and that’s what I’m trying to point out: To continually administer Narcan and (clean) needles and whatever else sustains life for these folks is not solving the addiction problem, and unsolved, it’s likely to lead to their death,” Zibolski said.

“We’re sustaining addiction. That’s as far as we’ve gone with the problem, and nobody seems to want to push the ball along,” Zibolski said in a recent interview.

Fighting an epidemic

Efforts are being made. Thanks to government grants, Rock County authorities have established medically-assisted treatment programs, using Suboxone or Vivitrol to give people a chance to fight their addictions. Special drug courts help addicts avoid criminal penalties as they work toward sobriety.

Health-care providers are doing a better job when prescribing opioid painkillers. Pill drop boxes are available so medicine cabinets don’t become targets for young people seeking a high.

Janesville even has a police officer dedicated to steering addicts to treatment.

Zibolski doesn’t see the impact. Police and paramedics are still encountering people overdosing in their cars and homes with little indication of improvement.

Legislators have passed laws to help, but Zibolski said the problem seems to have dropped out of legislators’ sights recently.

No place to go

Zibolski’s suggestion starts with in-patient addiction treatment, something that doesn’t exist in Rock or Walworth counties. Those who can afford it or have insurance that covers it have to go to Rockford, Illinois; Madison; or the Milwaukee area.

“Arresting them and sending them to jail will also sustain them for a while, but we have nowhere to go with them, as far as a place where they can be treated and have the opportunity to detox.”

In-patient treatment can help but is not a cure-all, experts say.

“I don’t necessarily think it’s a gold standard, that someone is going to do better if they get inpatient treatment,” said Carlo Nevicosi, deputy director of the Walworth County Department of Health and Human Services.

Inpatient treatment provides an artificial environment where an addict can get clean and learn to stay that way for 30 to 60 days. Then the patient is back in the drug-using environment, Nevicosi noted. Many don’t make it.

For their own good …

Zibolski knows a local government-run inpatient facility would be expensive, but he said it’s vital for the second part of his idea.

Now, people get help when they decide to do so. Zibolski would take that choice away in certain cases.

State statutes allow police to commit people with mental-health problems to a mental institution without their permission, if they can show a danger to the public or to the person with the problems.

Zibolski suggests altering the statutes to allow police to commit repeat overdose victims.

“I would posit that someone who has overdosed multiple times is a danger to themselves or others, as well,” he said. “But we are not able to apply that statute to this situation because there’s no place to put these people.”

An inpatient center “would at least give law enforcement guidelines and authority to say, ‘Look, this your third overdose, and we know from the data that if we don’t do something, you’re likely gonna die. So, you are a danger to yourself, and here’s an inpatient treatment facility, … so you can detox enough to make a lucid decision about your future,’” Zibolski said.

Zibolski made similar comments to his colleagues at a meeting with the Rock County Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee recently.

The committee is working to arrange a meeting with local state legislators on this topic in the fall.

Other voices

Erin Davis of the nonprofit anti-drug abuse organization Janesville Mobilizing 4 Change has collected data suggesting the growth of the problem is slowing.

From 2009-13, Rock County saw a 255% increase in overdose deaths, but from 2013-17, the increase was 47%, Davis said.

On the other hand, Narcan might be saving a lot of people who would have died, masking the true picture.

Davis is working on a report due out later this year that will update the local situation. She has found that Rock County has done a good job on most of what the state recommends, except for one thing.

Most businesses lack a clearly written workplace drug policy and training for supervisors to identify and deal with drug use, Davis said.

As for inpatient treatment, “I would agree that it’s not the silver bullet,” Davis said. “Illinois has a lot of inpatient beds and still has a problem.”

Loveland said it appears more research into involuntary commitments is needed, but some contend those who volunteer to get treated do better.

Loveland favors wider access to medically assisted treatment.

“If we’ve got a silver bullet, I think MAT (medically assisted treatment) is really key,” if it’s coupled with case management, Loveland said. “You need to have that regular contact with people who are willing to help you.”

Janesville Police Chief Dave Moore counsels patience. He sees less prescription painkillers, better education of the public and criminal justice efforts to steer people away from courts and toward treatment as efforts that will take five or more years to have their effect.

Even now, Janesville overdoses seem to be leveling off, if not declining, Moore said, and he suspects local efforts have helped. He agrees more state or federal funding is likely needed.

Chad Woodman has been the Janesville Police Department’s DROP (death, recovery or prison) officer for almost four years. He builds trust and keeps in touch with addicts, hoping to steer them to treatment when they’re ready. He also talks to high school students about the dangers.

“I understand Chief Zibolski’s frustration with it,” Woodman said. “I do feel grassroots efforts in the community are best.”

One problem is where the victims live: “How do you expect to get clean if it’s always around you?” Woodman said.

He works to find them stable housing during recovery.

Ideally, Woodman would like a place where people could detox for a month or more, then a halfway house where they could build life skills. The problems include lack of funding and awareness, he said.

“Drugs have hijacked their lives for so long that it’s hard for them to get back on track, and unfortunately it’s easy for communities to forget about them,” Woodman said.

Janesville, meanwhile, is on a pace to have fewer overdoses this year than the two previous years, but it’s early.

“I’m hoping it’ll be down,” Woodman said.

For the long run, Woodman said he would put his money into addiction research because for all the efforts, no one has found the perfect solution.


Angela Major 

A kicker participates in a punting competition during a Kohl’s football camp Friday, July 19, 2019, at Perkins Stadium at UW-Whitewater.