Work before pleasure

Fair is not all fun and games

August 03, 2007|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,Special to The Sun

For most of the year, the fair office on the Howard County Fairgrounds sits empty.

But on Monday that changed when Bettina Catalano bustled in. The 62-year-old grandmother has been secretary and treasurer of the Howard County Fair Association for the past 12 years.

She brushed off her desk, checked to make sure her pens and other supplies were still in the drawers and got to work. "There was dust all over," she said.

During fair season, Catalano is so busy that she hardly has time to enjoy the fair's old-fashioned pleasures, though she does stop by the dining hall most days for a roast beef special, she said.

Still, she knows everything about the fair, which started the year she was born.

Driving along the 50-acre property in a golf cart this week, as landscapers put the finishing touches on the lawn and workers wiped off rides, she pointed out some of her favorite sights. "That pit beef has been here for years," she says. A few minutes later: "We usually have the pig races over here."

"I love it," she says of her job. "All I have to do is mention that I work for the fair," and people gush with praise, she said. "Everyone can't wait for that time of year."

As secretary and treasurer, Catalano is in charge of everything from distributing hundreds of prize ribbons to judges to getting the best bids for the T-shirts that are sold. She makes sure all the supplies are ordered, and signs all the checks, including the prize-money checks.

Each year, the fair awards about $80,000 in prize money, she said. Most prizes are only a couple of bucks, but participants can build up their winnings by competing in several categories. While many fairs mail the checks afterward, the Howard County Fair has them ready by the end of each event.

During the fair, which runs tomorrow through Aug. 11, the office will be filled with people looking for wheelchairs, asking for directions, checking the lost and found and interviewing the new Miss Howard County Farm Bureau.

Most of the year, Catalano said, she works from home, preparing financial reports for the monthly meetings of the 18-member board that runs the nonprofit association and handling the financials for other events that take place on the fairgrounds throughout the year.

"I pay all the bills. I receive all the money," she said.

But the week before the fair, Catalano shifts into high gear, working eight to 10 hours a day, she said. The week of the fair is even more grueling. She comes in at 9 most mornings and doesn't leave till 10:30 most nights. "Sometimes I come in at 10," she conceded.

On Wednesday, Catalano's granddaughter, 7-year-old Madeline Cindric, colored at a desk in the office while Catalano sorted through judges' books. The phone rang constantly, stacks of programs sat on her desk, and boxes of ribbons, sorted into categories such as "open beef" and "4-H goat," lined one wall.

Several times, John Fleishell, president of the fair, walked in with questions or comments. "She's definitely the admiral," he said of Catalano. "She's the guardian of the fair."

Even though the board is in charge of deciding what to spend, Catalano is famously "tight with a buck," he said. "She doesn't like to spend anything. We kid about it, but she keeps me straight, and I keep everyone else straight," he said.

Catalano, who moved to Frederick County from Clarksville about six years ago to be closer to her family, had been working at the Howard County Cooperative Extension since 1980 when she learned of the job at the fair.

Her two daughters used to ride horses at the fair when they were younger, she said. Now, one daughter, Gena Cindric, Madeline's mother, works part time at the fair. On Wednesday, she was working with several other volunteers, fitting the many garbage cans on the property with decorative black and white covers.

With about 500 volunteers getting the fairgrounds ready for the big event, Catalano has to be available to answer questions, she said.

Once the fair is over, the first order of business is preparing for next year. She will meet with board members to discuss what went well and what could be done differently next year. But one of the appeals of the fair is that it hardly changes from year to year. Sure, the fence around the horse-show ring might be upgraded, or a road might get new asphalt, but the essentials remain the same -- the baked-goods auction, the horse shows and even the pie-eating contest.

"Very little has changed," Catalano said. "We don't want it to get real commercialized. This is a great fair."

The Howard County Fair

What:

Eight days of animal shows, exhibits, rides, contests, entertainment and demonstrations.

When:

Tomorrow through Aug. 11, 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily.

Where:

Howard County Fairgrounds, 2210 Fairground Road, West Friendship. Take Exit 80 off Interstate 70.

Admission:

$5 for those age 10 and older, $2 for those age 62 and older; free for children younger than 10.

Parking:

Free at the fairgrounds.

Information:

www.howardcountyfair.org, or 410-442-1022.

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