Monday, July 28, 1997
Fair manager gives
tradition all due respect

The Cincinnati Enquirer

The demolition derby is ready to rumble. The milking barn is set for cows with full udders and some kids to help empty them.

Pennants flap in the hot breezes above the metal grandstand. Marty and Joe's tomato plants stand better than waist high, loaded with fruit.

Everything's set for Wednesday's opening of the 142nd Annual Hamilton County Fair. Everywhere you look, it's business as usual.

Except in the manager's office.

Joe Shields laughs as he sits behind the desk, beneath a ''Champion Bull'' blue ribbon. His office staff nailed it to the wall to make sure their new boss keeps his sense of humor amid the pressures of running his first fair.

Joe is the fair's first new manager in 34 years. He replaces Al Bicknaver who retired after holding the job for as many years - 33 - as Joe has been alive.

Like his predecessor, Joe respects the fair and its traditions. He says he's ''not really in charge. I'm just a custodian of an institution.''

Al & Joe

Al Bicknaver had the fair in his blood. He first went to the fairgrounds in Carthage when he was 12 and kept coming back every summer.

Joe Shields never went to the fair as a kid. He grew up in Park Hills, Ky.

''I didn't even know where Carthage was,'' he says, fidgeting to light a cigarette as he walks along the midway. ''For all I knew, it was in Toledo.''

He discovered its exact location when his public relations firm landed the account for the fair. That was three years ago.

Joe took his two young sons to the fair that year. He watched them as they stared at the arts and crafts exhibits ''and the giant tomatoes and the blue-ribbon sunflowers and honey-making display.''

He saw ''the wonder of discovery'' in their eyes. The same look comes over his eyes as he tells this story.

Normally, just witnessing that sight is enough for most people. They make a Kodak moment out of it and go home.

Joe Shields saw it and suddenly realized the fair was in his blood, too. He wanted to work at the non-profit event ''and help other people's kids see the fair with wonder.''

He lowers his voice and admits ''that may sound corny. But it's true.''

Corny's OK. County fairs and corny go together.

Blue ribbon

Joe Shields knows he's running the show. But he's also acutely aware of his inexperience.

''I'm not just the new kid on the block,'' he says. ''I'm more like the new kid on the planet. I've only been on the job for months. Other people have been here for decades.''

Bill Hammond, the fair's grounds superintendent, has been there forever. His great-grandfather and grandfather were grounds superintendents for a combined run of 50 years. He grew up on the fairgrounds and has lived there for the past 11 years. That privilege goes with the superintendent's job.

''The new kid's doin' just fine,'' Bill says in an office crowded with tools, autographed photos of performers from past fairs - ''Chubby Checker was the nicest'' - and enough spare parts to stock a small hardware store.

''He's got a good sense of humor. He jokes with you. And lets you do your job.

''All he has to do is hang in there for this first year,'' Bill says. ''Joe can handle the pressure. He just has to keep laughing.''

Outside the fair's offices and across from the tomato patch honoring Reds announcers Marty Brennaman and Joe Nuxhall, Joe Shields is smiling. He's looking at a plaque honoring Al Bicknaver's long years of service to the fair.

If he keeps laughing and manages the fair for as many years as his predecessor, Joe will be 66 when he retires.

It's a nice thought. But he'd rather not look that far into the future.

''Whether I leave next year or in the next century doesn't matter,'' he says.

''It's not a question of how long I'll be here. But how well I'll do.''

Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Available to speak to groups. Tips and comments most welcome. Call 768-8379 or fax at 768-8340.