This year's fair missing two great champions

For most of my life, a trip to the county fair has been an annual event. First there was the Marion County (Ind.) fair when I was a kid. As a news reporter in southern Indiana I'd spend days at different fairs writing stories and gathering 4-H contest results. For the last 10 years, I've enjoyed the fair here in Gwinnett County, which closes its 2009 version today.

The different fairgrounds I've frequented over the years look, feel and smell pretty much the same - barns full of cows, pigs and 4-H'ers, bright lights and corn dogs on the midway, even the crowd and the carnies appear eerily familiar.

Each year, I have my list of fair fare I must see, do and eat. (The latter category includes anything fried - corn dogs, onion rings, elephant ears and for the first time last year a deep-fried Snickers bar. I can feel the arteries clogging.)

But a couple of the items on my must-do list were missing this year.

In past years, I could set my calendar by it - J.W. Benefield, former Gwinnett schools superintendent and longtime leader and member of the Gwinnett County Fair board would come by the office in late August to discuss the Daily Post's plans to cover the fair. Never pushy or demanding, J.W., a native Gwinnettian who started his career as an agriculture teacher, just wanted to make sure the paper was aware of all the new events and attractions that would make this year's fair the best ever. He always had great story ideas to share.

So when I'd make my annual trek, I always checked in with J.W.

He could be hard to locate. He might be at the fair office or out in the barns or along the midway tending to whatever needed tending. Eventually, though, our paths would cross. The ensuing conversation would be short. J.W. didn't have a lot of free time during fair week.

He'd share a quick update on the fair's progress ... good crowds ... good family entertainment ... good times for all ...and then move on to his next task.

This year, however, health issues limited his time at the fair. He toured the grounds for about an hour Thursday night, but that's a far cry from being there night and day for a week and a half. It's certain, however, that during his time away, the fair was uppermost in his thoughts.

Another fair stalwart was missed this year. Wayne Shackelford was always easy to find - just check the livestock show arena where he mentored and tutored and judged. Shack was just as well known and recognized a 4-H leader as he was the state's director of transportation.

No doubt his growing up as the son of a sharecropper and his early career as an extension agent instilled his love of all things agricultural. A couple years ago, he was honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award from Georgia 4-H Foundation.

Shackelford passed away the first of this month at age 75.

The absence of two of the fair's biggest fans left me with two fewer stops on this year's fair itinerary.

The county fair remains a much-anticipated annual event for thousands who attend. The impact of Benefield and Shackelford will be felt by fairgoers for generations to come.

Just another way among many that J.W. and Shack made a difference.

So next time you're taking a break along the midway, raise your Lemon Shake-up and toast these gentlemen for their lifetimes of dedication to the Gwinnett County Fair.

J.K. Murphy is publisher of the Gwinnett Daily Post. E-mail him at jk.murphy@