If you’ve been to the North Carolina State Fair and marveled over jars and jars of ribboned preserves presented for competition, have you ever wondered what it takes to make sure the thousands of entries get into the fair? Each year, a group of hardworking staff members in the State Fair Entry Department make sure those entries are received, tagged, and distributed, working 10-12 hour days, 7-days a week as the fair gets closer.
Recently, I sat down with two long-time Entry Department employees to capture their memories for the Blue Ribbon Memories project. Ms. Betty Shaw (Entry Department Superintendent) and Ms. Alice Mangum, both of whom have been bringing in entries for almost 20 years, told me about what goes on behind the scenes.
In this interview, you can hear them describe how the entry department has changed over the years, including accepting more entries and using the computer to keep carpal tunnel syndrome at bay. They’ve developed a close relationship with the folks who enter the competitions year after year, considering some to be like family. They’ve nurtured younger competitors, who find the fair gives them important life skills. This interview left me with an impression of their genuine fondness for the fair and its participants, and their straightforward but powerful goal of serving the public.
Some of my favorite excerpts are below. The audio interview along with a written transcript can be found over at the Blue Ribbon Memories site. And thanks to Ms. Shaw and Ms. Mangum for their candid willingness to record their memories of the fair for future generations.
Alice Mangum: We try to be here for the public. That’s what our job is – to be for the public, and that’s what we strive for every year, is to be here for the people that are coming in. Because we’re here to work for them. We get paid the little salary we get to be here for the public.
Betty: Well people call and ask you, like I had a lady call yesterday and wanted to know about a hand-painted birthday card – could she enter it. Well I couldn’t find anything in the book that really fitted it. So then I have to call the superintendent and find out from her. She didn’t really know, so she called some of the people that do the judging in decorative creations and in decorative painting. So then they had to come up with the best place to put it. And we have things all the time that it’s not in the book and we have to find a place to put it. For instance, the casket. We had a casket – was it three years ago?
Alice: Uh huh.
Betty: And we finally came up with a place for him to put it and he won a blue ribbon.
Lisa: You ever lose your patience?
Alice: Not really. I have been exhausted. Not really lost my patience.
Betty: It’s hard. Back in those days, it was hard not to. Some people will try your patience. I think I’ve only been cussed out one time.
Lisa: What was that about?
Betty: About flowers. And the guy was either on drugs or drinkin’, one.
Alice: I agree to that.
Lisa: I hear you keep saying girls, you don’t have any young men that you supervise?
Alice: No. We haven’t been that lucky yet. [Laughter]
Betty: One of the questions was who are the people you’ve worked with over the years. Some of the superintendents are just absolutely fabulous to work with. Some of them are not quite as cooperative as you might like them to be. But Dr. [Carmen] Parkhurst has been–he’s on the list of the best.
Alice: Top notch.
Betty: And the year that we didn’t count the ribbons, his was the one that we came up short on. Wouldn’t you know it, the nicest guy out here, and we were short on his ribbons. But he did not say a word, but I was just so upset. But, you know, nobody told me I was supposed to count all those ribbons. [Laughter]
Alice: I don’t think we ever did. The three years before then, I don’t think we counted them.
Betty: Well we found out that they had to be counted to make sure we got them all, I tell you that.
Alice: And I mean we count every ribbon. Now you get a stack of ribbons that have got 50 to the pack, you have to count each one of those ribbons and they’ve got strings hung on them, and make sure there’re 50 ribbons in that pack. And if there’s not, you write it down and make sure you have 3,000. If you’ve ordered 3,000 red ribbons, you’ve got to make sure you’ve got 3,000 red ribbons with horticulture written on them.
Lisa: I have one more question, and that is, let’s say you’re talking to someone who’s in your position say 30 years from now. What advice would you give them?
Alice: Have all the patience in the world with the public, because you are working for them.
Betty: Just get good people, and people that you can trust and that are responsible and that you know will talk nice to people and be cooperative. We’re in close quarters and we have to get along.
Alice: You saw our office back there.
Lisa: I did.
Alice: When you put 21 ladies back there, it was one on top of the other. We never had very many disagreements. It was always very cooperative and everybody got along pretty good. She has been an excellent superintendent.
Betty: Well, you know, you go by the golden rule — do like you would want to be treated.