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Sorely missed: Notable figures absent from this year's county fair

LAWRENCEVILLE - Wayne Shackelford would likely be outside in the barn sharing his infinite knowledge of livestock, while J.W. Benefield would probably be inside the fair offices overseeing the event's finances.

This is the first year in decades that the Gwinnett County Fair has gone on without two of its longtime and most dedicated supporters.

Shackelford, one of nine members of the fair's Board of Directors, died Sept. 1 at the age of 75 after a battle with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. Benefield retired from his position as treasurer last year, and health issues have kept the 84-year-old from being more involved with this year's event.

While both men had been prominent leaders locally - Shackelford as a former county administrator and Benefield as a former county schools superintendent - their work at the fairgrounds was perhaps less visible to those who came and went through the gates only when they were open to the public.

For those who spend as many as 18 hours a day working at the fairgrounds, both have been sorely missed.

The remaining members of the fair's Board of Directors and the fair staff have their share of stories and sentiments about the two men.

"Both of them were outstanding individuals," said Roger Sartor, who was hired by Benefield in 1965 to teach vocational agriculture classes at South Gwinnett High School. Benefield was already involved in the fair at that time, having joined the Gwinnett County Livestock and Fair Association in 1952, the same year the fair was chartered.

The man whom Sartor fondly calls "Mr. B" was known around the fairgrounds for his frugality with fair money.

"It was hard to spend a penny without running it through J.W.," said Bill Atkinson, laughing. "When you get ready to go get something now, it seems funny not having to ask J. W., say, 'Can we spend a nickel?'"

Atkinson, also a member of the Board of Directors, was a student of Benefield's at Bethesda High School. He later attended Berry College with Shackelford in 1953. The two worked together for years when Atkinson was county commission chairman and Shackelford was administrative assistant before both became fair directors and members of the livestock committee.

"It just don't seem right without him," Atkinson said of the fair. "He's been very much missed."

Although he wasn't able to attend this year's fair, Shackelford was still part of the planning for the event.

"Up until a week before Mr. Shackelford passed away he was still right in the midst of making plans for this year's fair," said event manager Dale Thurman.

A portrait of Shackelford will be hung in the boardroom alongside other directors who died while serving on the board.

"I know that if he could select where he was going to pass away, he'd be in the barn," said Bill Baughman. "He'd want to be sitting right there looking at a show."

Shackelford, or "Shack" to his friends, was known for his power of recollection.

"He knew people all over the state ... and with his memory, he could call most of them by name," Baughman said, "or he'd know they had a black steer with a white face."

Benefield, who holds a lifetime membership in the fair association, which was given to members in 1990 when a new fair charter was formed, was able to spend about an hour Thursday evening at the fair, where he made a round through the carnival and then headed over to the barn.

"Both of the gentlemen were tremendous business leaders," said Thurman, who was hired by Benefield to run the annual county event. "They had guidance you need to make things successful."

The influence the two men had on the annual county event is illustrated in the photos that line a wall outside the J.W. Benefield Boardroom, which was dedicated Jan. 13 in honor of Benefield's more than 50 years of service to the fair. From posed pictures with Miss Gwinnett County pageant winners to candid snapshots that capture only a brief moment in the countless hours both men spent working to make the fair an event to remember, the contributions they made have not been forgotten and have certainly been missed.

"They had the love of the fair," Thurman said. "You have to love it to be here and they both did."