The Fairest of Them All

Photo: Duane Tinkey

Writer: Michael Morain

Talk about extra credit: The southern Iowa kid who once wrote a letter to the Iowa State Fair director for a grade school assignment now leads the fair himself.

“Sometimes childhood dreams really do come true,” said Jeremy Parsons (pictured), who was named the fair’s CEO and manager in January. He moved into the manager’s house this spring with his wife, Kelsi, and their three sons — 14, 10 and 8 — and has spent the last few months preparing for the main event Aug. 10-20.

But really, he’s been prepping his whole life. Parsons, 46, grew up in Leon, where his dad ran the Decatur County Fair for years and often enlisted the family’s help. At 17, Parsons started working at the State Fair at the invitation of former manager Marion Lucas, who’d kept in touch after receiving that letter. Parsons helped with marketing and special events and, at least once, donned the Rosetta blue-ribbon mascot costume in the State Fair parade.

He kept at it through college and his early years teaching English and coaching basketball at a high school in Missouri, spending his summers back in Des Moines or at the Missouri State Fair in Sedalia. He soon stepped up to lead the Missouri State Fair Foundation and then the mighty Clay County Fair in Spencer. Every September, the event billed as “the world’s greatest county fair” draws 300,000 visitors to the town of 10,000 in northwest Iowa.

Parsons hasn’t won many ribbons himself — he’s always been busy behind the scenes — but last year he was named the Fairman of the Year by the Association of Iowa Fairs and rounded out his term as chairman of the International Association of Fairs and Expos. He’s a certified fair executive, a CFE, and has taken just about every course the association’s Institute of Fair Management offers, from crowd control to foodborne illness.

The Iowa State Fair’s industry awards and plaques cover nearly every wall of Parson’s office in the Administration Building and remind him of the legacy he’s inherited. His predecessor, Gary Slater, served for 22 years, and Lucas for 15 years before that.

“My job is to just observe and learn,” Parsons said. As he sees it, half the fairgoers come to see something new, and the other half “are all about tradition and nostalgia – ‘Don’t you dare move that corn dog stand.’”

As he learned in Clay County, “if you’re in charge of the ‘world’s greatest’ anything, your first job is to not screw it up.”

Book ‘Em

A few musical acts top Parsons’ wish list for the Grandstand:
1. Brooks and Dunn (if they ever get back together again).
2. Dolly Parton.
3. “I’d love to see how many tickets Elvis could sell — or the Beatles.”

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