The man at the helm of the Ohio State Fair doesn’t have a fancy title or a lavish office or a stunning view from a picture window.
Virgil Strickler would cringe at the very idea of such extravagance. His “general manager” title is just fine, thank you, and so is his small but cozy office filled with family photos in the unpretentious administration building at the Ohio Expo Center in Columbus. As for a stunning view, who needs one when most days he can walk outside his office and visit with a cow or a horse?
“He’s old school,” said fair commissioner Tom Price, who’s known Strickler since they both worked at the Producers Livestock Association more than two decades ago. “He’s able to manage exhibitors, some of whom have pretty big egos, and all these service organizations and his staff, who would lay down in front of a bus for him because they respect him so much.”
Strickler has led the fair and Expo Center for 14 years, longer than any other general manager in its history and under both Democratic and Republican governors. The longtime Franklin County Farm Bureau member came on board in 2004 after two controversial, high profile managers before him.
But long before he became manager, Strickler was a leader at the fair. He became its agriculture director in 1993, overseeing more than 30,000 agricultural, livestock and horse-show entries. He led the change to the junior livestock program so that young exhibitors had to demonstrate their animal knowledge as a key component of the competition. He also set in motion the Youth Reserve Program, which transformed the annual Sale of Champions from a winners-take-all program to one that spread money out to thousands of young exhibitors through awards and scholarships.
“It’s a winning combination and I’m very proud of it,” said Strickler, who grew up on a livestock farm in Amanda and showed livestock through 4-H and FFA. “There’s no doubt that both groups shaped my life and made me aware of what they can do for our youth today.”
Strickler is known for his ability to help people work together cooperatively, said Jack Fisher, retired executive vice president of the Ohio Farm Bureau.
“You have to be a part of a team; that’s No. 1 in my mind,” Strickler said. “I always said I was never an expert in anything but I’m an expert in finding experts.”
As manager, he’s spearheaded renovations of numerous fair buildings, the construction of others and the beautification of the grounds with flowers and plants grown on site. He and his staff have increased the non-fair use of the grounds extensively and provided financial stability that was lacking in the past. He’s been honored many times for his work, including his induction into the Ohio Agriculture Hall of Fame in 2017 and being named the Fair Manager of the Year by the Greater Ohio Showmen’s Association that same year.
The respect he’s gained over the years has helped him weather controversies, including last year’s tragic death of a fair goer on a Midway ride.
“I was heartbroken, but I knew I had to be strong and I had to be a leader and get through it,” Strickler said. “It could have happened anywhere, but it happened here. All I can do is pray we never have to experience this again and believe that some good will come out of it.”
Strickler’s love of the fair and everything it encompasses is particularly evident once a year, when he gives a short, often-teary speech for the official opening of the fair. He always talks about his family, including his wife, four daughters and four grandchildren, and what the fair means to him.
“When I open up the fair I’m thinking about the people who came before, who I’m representing, and I think about how I don’t want to screw that up,” Strickler said. “A lot of people in my past helped me get where I am today and I don’t want to let them down. I still have to make them proud.”
Visit Ohio Farm Bureau at the Ohio State Fair
Ohio Farm Bureau’s Land and Living Exhibit will again demonstrate agriculture’s link to everyday life through many interactive displays and activities.
Presented by Ohio Farm Bureau Federation and Nationwide, the exhibit offers family fun and a connection to rural Ohio.
Visitors to the exhibit, located in the Nationwide Donahey Ag & Hort building, can participate in a variety of interactive opportunities such as playing with local rescue dogs, learning about nutrition in the reimagined grocery store display and watching chicks come out of their shells. The ever-popular Country Cruise pedal tractors are back for children to enjoy, as is the augmented reality sandbox, a water quality learning tool that has been enjoyed by many in years past. Throughout the building, everyone can enjoy learning about Ohio’s crops, animals and other important areas of Ohio agriculture. Families can also have a commemorative picture taken, compliments of OFBF and Nationwide.
In addition, the Land and Living Exhibit activities include the Country Connection stage that will feature demonstrations such as agriscience experiments, local entertainment, visits from Columbus Zoo animals and more. Squash carver Gus Smithhisler will be back again this year to carve giant squash and 50 pound blocks of cheese each on July 25, 28, 29, Aug. 1, 3, and 5. A joint Ohio House and Senate Ag Committee Hearing will be held Tuesday, July 31.
This year the OFBF grocery store inside the Land and Living Exhibit is more interactive than ever. Building on last year’s display, children can go through this child-sized store and pick out their own groceries. This exhibit for youth provides the opportunity to learn more about putting together complete, quality meals. Each child who visits the grocery leaves with a goodie bag that contains various coupons from Ohio restaurants and grocery stores.
The Land and Living Exhibit is supported by the Ohio Soybean Council, Ohio Corn Marketing Program and the Ohio Expositions Commission. The Land and Living Exhibit is located east of the giant slide and across from the south entrance to the midway. All exhibits in the building are free.