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.
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.
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.
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.