Friendly rivals in a growth business Fair: Their friendship has grown since they met in 1962, she as the new supervisor of plants and flowers at the Maryland State Fair, he as a 12-year-old prize-winner. Now he succeeds her.

August 24, 1996|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

When she was asked to run the Maryland State Fair's flowers and plants division in 1962, Eleanor "Dink" Rigger was a vegetable specialist who had never seriously contemplated the complexion of a rose, much less the fury of a competitor whose flower arrangement wilted prematurely in a steamy exhibition hall.

That same year, 12-year-old Harvey Doster went looking for his ++ first ribbon at the fair. He was already a veteran competitor at the Hereford Junior Farm Fair, where his giant marigolds and zinnias, cultivated in his father's sprawling Sparks seed bed, garnered ribbons galore.

Both Rigger, an unflappable mother of four, and Doster, a precocious kid at ease in adult company, were quick studies. Rigger learned what to look for in a rose, and with diplomatic aplomb, supervised the judging of as many as 1,000 entries in more than 200 classes. Young Harvey entered some 50 flowers and plants categories a year, often blowing away competitors 40 years his senior.

"We kind of grew together, me as an exhibitor, she as an administrator," says Doster, 43, an acting teacher at Towson State University and St. Timothy's School.

When Rigger, 69, retired from her fair post in May, she asked Doster to replace her. The former 4-H president at Hereford High eagerly accepted. As she says with a smile, the "watering can" was passed from one generation to the next.

Country folks, Rigger and Doster grew up in the culture of the state fair, where rural Marylanders match milk cows, monster pumpkins, pickles, potted plants and patchwork quilts with life-or-death intensity.

Both know the fair's significance for those who live by the seasons, who routinely lay awake at night plotting germination times against the vagaries of a growing season.

And yet, they're an odd horticultural couple.

Rigger is a laid-back grandmother with a modest manner. Doster is type-A all the way, with shaggy red hair and a flair for the dramatic.

Rigger came to the fair as a young mother. She took blue ribbons for her canned blackberries and cherries. Her children -- entered the beef cattle that grazed the meadows surrounding the Riggers' 1884 Victorian home in Long Green.

As supervisor of the flowers and plants division, Rigger opened competition to children and instituted three different shows, so that fresh flowers and plants replenished the division during the fair's 10-day-run.

Rigger remembers a year when heavy rains leaked through an old exhibition building "like a sieve," and judges and staff worked in their bare feet as water flowed in the aisles.

And there was the year a man arrived with an entire sunflower plant, rather than its head, which is inspected by judges strictly for seeds. "He dug it up. It was seven feet long, and it took two people to carry it," she says.

Rigger also came to recognize the differences between female and male competitors. Women raise flowers "for beauty," she says. "But a man, he wants it to be the best."

Enter Doster.

Rigger remembers him as a kid. "Neurotic," she says. Also, "very gracious and genteel." Not too many young boys welcomed instruction the way young Harvey did. Adults appreciated his enthusiasm. "People tended to take me under their wing," he says.

Doster maintained a friendly rivalry with his competitors, one of whom recently died in her 90s. She was buried with a best-in-show ribbon for a flower arrangement she won shortly before her death.

Even as an undergraduate at Western Maryland College majoring in piano and drama, Doster competed at the fair, entering potted plants, dried and fresh arrangements, dahlias and annuals.

And then, while a graduate student at George Washington University, he quit. "I felt a desperate need for total separation from my parents," also avid fair participants, he says.

He didn't go near the fair for 12 years. Then, in the spring of 1993, Doster's mother died. At the funeral, he told Rigger that he would return to competition.

Doster built two lavish gardens in the skimpy backyard of his Parkville townhome. When he returned that August with dozens of entries, it was "almost as if I was never away." His old rivals welcomed him back. "Those people were still there!"

Winning is ever sweet for Doster. "It's not about beating other people, it's about doing the best I can do." He has won nearly 1,000 ribbons, over 100 best-in-shows.

Even as manager of the flowers and plants division, Doster can legally compete. But he'll be careful not to look like a "ribbon hog" by entering too many classes. That won't be a problem, since his rain-delayed garden is not at its best this year. It's "disgusting," he says with dismay.

Doster relishes his new administrative duties. Still, he admits to being "a little nervous. People will expect me to know so much."

Rigger says, "He calls me up every other day." This will be the first time in decades that she won't be at the fair. She and her husband Bob will be in Georgia, constructing homes for Habitat for Humanity.

In Rigger's stead, Doster will be at the fair's Home Arts Building, from start to finish. He'll make sure all runs smoothly while obsessing over his own beloved entries. And he'll cope with a new breed of competitor: "high-powered yuppies."

Like the farm wives before them, these overachievers from the suburbs and Baltimore's upscale neighborhoods should catch on fast. Doster knows the drill: "All you have to do is win the first time. Then you're hooked."

Pub Date: 8/24/96

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