After 38 years of service, Wesley Wyatt is ready to hang up the many hats he has worn over the years as manager of the N.C. State Fair. While we’re excited for him and the new adventures that lie ahead in his post-retirement journey, his presence will be missed across the fairgrounds, throughout the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, and beyond.
Wyatt’s career began at the fairgrounds in the summer of 1973 as a junior in high school working part-time on the landscape crew, helping with horse shows, setting up buildings for events and cleaning up after them. After earning an associate’s degree in applied agriculture from N.C. State University and a bachelor of science degree in business administration from UNC-Chapel Hill, Wesley began his full-time career at the fairgrounds. Throughout the years he was promoted to several different positions including facility sales director and assistant fair manager. After the unexpected death of Fair Manager Sam Rand just 13 days before the 1997 State Fair, Commissioner James A. Graham appointed him acting State Fair manager. Wesley had worked alongside Rand as assistant manager since 1992, and Commissioner Graham recognized his leadership by appointing him to the position of State Fair Manager shortly after the 1997 State Fair.
I sat down with Wesley to talk about his top 10 memories throughout the years, but when you’ve had a career as long and entertaining as his, it’s hard to stop at 10! Follow along as we take a trip down memory lane and recount some of the events that have made his career so memorable.
1. Saturday Night Massacre: Some may recall the name given to October 20, 1973—the night President Richard Nixon gave orders to fire special prosecutor Archibald Cox, which led to the resignation of Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus during the Watergate scandal. As a junior in high school, Wesley was working the Fair, shuttling people on golf carts to and from the Administrative Office and was in the presence of Commissioner Graham and his executive staff as they discussed the ramifications of President Nixon’s orders.
2. The Railroad Cross Tie Episode: In the summer of 1976, while in college and working on the landscape crew, Wesley and the other guys were setting up 400 horse stalls in the Graham Building on a blistering hot day when they got the offer to take a ride in the back of a dump truck. Thinking anything sounded better than their current assignment, they jumped at the chance. Little did they know the railroad company had cut the cross ties to be replaced with new ones, and they had just been tricked into their new assignment—to pick up all the cross ties along Hillsborough Street from the Waffle House to Burke Brothers Hardware and toss them into the back of the dump truck. In case you’re curious, it’s 1.4 miles from the Waffle House to Burke Brothers—I think it’s safe to say it didn’t take long for him to wish he didn’t jump at the chance for a new work assignment that day!
3. Summer of 1976: Wesley and a few co-workers were sent to the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill and given the task of removing some of the permanent seating from Carmichael Auditorium, transporting the seats back to the fairgrounds and installing them in the Graham Building Sales Arena.
4. Southern Farm Show: In the winter of 1978, the very first Southern Farm Show opened on the N.C. State Fairgrounds and was welcomed with bitter cold weather. Wesley recalled a 12 degree low and 37 degree high on opening day that caused the door locks to freeze up, and heat treatments were needed to make them open. There was no heat in the Graham Building until 2003, so propane heaters were used to heat the Kelley and Graham buildings during the show. Another memory from the early years of the Southern Farm Show was the opening ceremony, which included a log cutting that the State Fair Manager and Commissioner Graham participated in. Commissioner Graham was known for talking with his hands, which meant talking with his chainsaw during the log cutting and Wesley said he always kept an eye out for where Commissioner Graham’s chainsaw was headed next.
5. Wrestling: In the 1980s, wrestling on Tuesday nights in Dorton Arena was a big deal for wrestling fans across North Carolina. Working as a custodian for the shows was a unique opportunity to be up close to the performers and experience the excitement of the crowd.
6. Horse Shows: Prior to the completion of the Gov. James B. Hunt Horse Complex in September of 1983, horse shows were held in Dorton Arena and the Graham Building. Before (and after) each show, loads of dirt were hauled in and out of the buildings and set with heavy ¾” plywood and iron stalls—as a member of the landscape crew, this was a part of Wesley’s responsibilities and a pretty laborious task before and after each horse show.
7. Concessionaire Manager: Wesley became Concessionaire Manager in 1983 and one of his first radical changes was to replace the 12” ceiling fringe in all the buildings with 36” ceiling fringe and completely redo the layout of the Art and Photography/vendor area in the Industrial Building. Changing the layout of a building can be a risky move, especially for a new Concessionaire Manager. Vendors will always be the first to point out traffic issues, but the changes were well received across the board.
8. The Goodyear Blimp: During the 1984 State Fair, the Goodyear Blimp was in town and Wesley volunteered to drive a photographer to the airport to get some photos of the blimp. They were invited aboard to get some aerial shots of the fairgrounds. Everyone on board was given a chance to pilot the blimp above the fairgrounds—he said you could even smell the popcorn and cotton candy from below!
9. Turnovers: Wesley will be the first to tell you he’s had his fair share of event turnovers in his 38+ years on the fairgrounds. He recalled turning the buildings over from the Lions Club Horse Show to the Southern Ideal Home Show, Ringling Brothers Circus to a boat show and the IceCaps hockey to Bullfrog basketball as some of the most difficult and taxing turnovers he was a part of. For example, when the fair ended at midnight the floors in Dorton Arena would need to be cleared immediately so coils could be rolled out, dasher board could be placed around the perimeter of the arena and sand could be placed between the coils. Once all was in place the crew would spray water on the coils to start making ice for the IceCaps game the following Saturday. When the Bullfrogs were scheduled to play in Dorton Arena during hockey season, plastic and particleboard would be laid on top of the ice as a base for the basketball court. While the Ringling Brothers Circus was in town, they would perform 3-5 shows per day. Wesley came up with the idea of assigning staff to certain sections of Dorton Arena based on their last name, his goal was to make clean-up between shows more efficient and hold staff members accountable for their section.
10. Meg Scott Phipps resigns: In the summer of 2003, Commissioner of Agriculture, Meg Scott Phipps, resigned from her position and was replaced by interim Commissioner Britt Cobb. Upon her resignation and just 4 months shy of the 2003 N.C. State Fair, Wesley was left with a voided carnival contract with Amusements of America and set off on the task of finding a replacement before October. Wesley’s plate was full that summer creating a request for proposal for a new carnival provider and making trips to visit other fairs around the country to take notes on potential carnival providers. He visited the Illinois State Fair, Indiana State Fair, South Carolina State Fair, Cleveland County Fair, Skowhegan State Fair and North Carolina Mountain State Fair. In the end, Powers Great American Midways won the bid and has been the carnival provider of the N.C. State Fair ever since.
11. The Dorton Triangle: In 2008, the area in front of the Graham Building, Expo Center and Dorton Arena was changed dramatically. Masonry walls were built in the shape of a triangle and new power, water and sewer lines were installed in the area. The goal was to change past patterns of storage for vendors and modify the flow of traffic in the area, but most importantly to make the area safer and cleaner for staff, vendors and fairgoers. Other notable accomplishments during Wesley’s tenure include the expansion of facilities across the fairgrounds, including the Expo Center, Martin Building, new midway, Heritage Circle expansion and the recently completed parking complex off Edwards Mill Road. The visible improvements are what visitors will notice, but Wesley is most known for the seemingly invisible improvements to the grounds, including significant improvements to aging water, sewer and power lines, installing Wi-Fi across the fairgrounds, replacing the roof of Dorton Arena and introducing online ticketing.
As our journey down memory lane comes to a close, I had a few of my own rapid-fire questions to ask.
• What is your craziest fair memory?
1992 State Fair: On October 21, 1992, President George H. W. Bush stopped by the fairgrounds as an incumbent running for re-election and addressed a crowd of 17,000 people outside the Commercial and Education Buildings. Wyatt was given a 1-2 week notice of the visit, and had to coordinate all the logistics with the Secret Service, in addition to his usual fair duties. Things took a more chaotic turn when the President decided to stay an extra night so he could appear on a morning radio broadcast from the Scott Building the next day. According to Wesley, there was some last-minute scrambling, but as always the staff made the changes work.
• What are you most proud of from your time at the fair?
Building careers: After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, tighter security measures were put into place and the fairgrounds had to let go of several undocumented workers.
With a shortage of staff members on the rise, Wyatt reached out to Lutheran Family Services, who works with refugees, and the fairgrounds has become a career path for new U.S. citizens from countries around the world, including Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Iraq, Gabon, Togo, India, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia. Workers have been able to advance from general utility workers to plumbers, electricians and carpenters because they’ve had the opportunity to learn a trade and excel in their field. Additional accomplishments Wyatt is proud of include fighting for better compensation for employees and infrastructure upgrades including water, sewer and power lines, paving throughout the grounds and building improvements, like the addition of air conditioning to the Graham Building and Commercial and Education Buildings.
• What is the biggest change you’ve noticed throughout the years?
It’s a business: The fairgrounds as a whole has morphed into a business of its own that services the citizens of North Carolina. Operating as an Enterprise Fund, the fairgrounds must work with the support of various NCDA&CS staff, to be constantly mindful of generating revenue to meet expenses. From putting on the fair to renting facilities for year-round events, the fairgrounds is all things to all people, fostering small-businesses from across the state and beyond by providing a space to exhibit products, beliefs, hobbies and more.
• What is your favorite food at the fair?
Ice cream: Butter Almond Howling Cow Ice Cream to be exact. Not only does it taste great, it supports the education of tomorrow’s leaders in dairy and North Carolina.
• What will be your first stop when you visit the fair post-retirement?
Visit: My first stop will be the Administrative Office to say hello to co-workers.
As you can imagine, sitting down to discuss memories with the second-longest serving State Fair manager isn’t a quick conversation. There is such an abundance of history and knowledge from Wesley’s 38+ years that it’s hard to summarize all that he has accomplished during his tenure and how much his knowledge and leadership will be missed.
Congrats Wesley! And thank you for your 38 years of service and commitment to the N.C. State Fair, it wouldn’t be what it is today without you!