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DOT legend works to keep rural culture alive

SNELLVILLE - He may be a legend in the road-building arena, but Wayne Shackelford's passion has a much more rural character.

The former Georgia Department of Transportation commissioner has dedicated his life to livestock, crafts and other contrivances commonly found at the county fair.

Last month, Shackelford, 73, was honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Georgia 4-H Foundation. This year, he also was given an honorary degree from the state Future Farmers of America.

While Gwinnett County has grown from a rural community to a suburb packed with people, Shackelford works to make sure people have the opportunity to experience agrarian culture.

And that opportunity will begin again Thursday at the Gwinnett County Fair.

"The families come to the fair in droves and love it. They want to touch the animals," said Shackelford, a member of the county fair board since 1975, who works on preparing for the 4-H shows. "Yes, the county is changing dramatically, but the need to get back to our roots will remain."

In a increasingly urban and diverse county, those rural roots cross racial and cultural lines, he said.

"It's very interesting to watch our diverse population, to see a Spanish-speaking person with a crowd gathered around explaining what's going on," he said.

While animals have had Shackelford's heart since a young age, he wasn't able to show a steer or a pig at his own local fair.

The son of a sharecropper, he had to wait until college to enter his first competition, although he became a judge when he was 14 or 15.

He remembers going to his first fair in the back of a Ford pick-up with the teacher who inspired him to study animal science.

After a stint in the Army, where he worked as a veterinary animal specialist with a platoon of scout dogs and later at a veterinary hospital, Shackelford joined the state extension service in Haralson County.

In 1960, he was transferred to Gwinnett, where he began volunteering with 4-H programs.

Over the years, as Shackelford worked his way up to the executive assistant to the Board of Commissioners, his three children became avid competitors with their own livestock, which they raised on the family's 6.4 acres in Snellville.

Several years ago, he sold some of that acreage and moved into a subdivision nearby, but Shackelford's wife Anna says her husband still "gets his fix" of working with animals, as the couple travel over the state and the country to watch their grandchildren compete.

"He gets the fun part and not the work part," she said with a laugh.

In a recent interview, Shackelford described his jobs as extension agent and as DOT commissioner the same way - "I'm a motivational engineer."

He's proud of his accomplishments in transportation, creating intelligent transportation systems - computer coordinated traffic management - to guide Atlanta through the Olympics, his role in the genesis of high-occupancy vehicle lanes in the region and working to create a more efficient transportation department.

"It's a rare opportunity for a kid that grew up a sharecropper's son to lead one of the most powerful agencies in the state," he said.

And that's one of the reasons he worked to inspire the next generation and the one after that.

"A person will never reach his potential if he isn't willing to risk failure," Shackelford said, adding that his granddaughters have made lasting friendships through the livestock circuit. "It's all about building self-worth."

But Shackelford said his proudest day was the one when his beloved Anna agreed to marry him.

"I make the living; she makes the living worthwhile," Shackelford said. The two met at the Baptist Student Union at the University of Georgia when he was in graduate school and she was a freshman, and they will celebrate their 48th anniversary later this year.

With his wife by his side, Shackelford, who still works four days a week as a transportation consultant, said he's going to continue his work with the fair and 4-H for the rest of his life.

"I may burn out, but I'm not going to rust out," he said.