As visitors to the N.C. State Fair filled the midway on an unseasonably warm day this week, Wesley Wyatt watched the hum of activity from his office window.
The 60-year-old North Carolina native has been manager of the fair since 1997. His career there dates back even further – to 1973, when he, as a Broughton High School student, worked with the landscape crew, helped with horse shows on the property and took part in setting up for and cleaning up after special events.
Typically, the 11 days of the state’s annual fair would be long ones for Wyatt, a soft-spoken man who enjoys watching the crowds react to both the new and old exhibits, rides, entertainment and food. This year, though, Wyatt is being routinely reminded by his family at home and the one he has built at work over the past four decades that he doesn’t have to be at the fairgrounds from before sunup until after midnight.
Last year, around this time of year, Wyatt was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a bone marrow cancer. The pain in his back was so sharp and severe that even riding around the grounds in a golf cart hurt him.
After seven rounds of chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant in May, Wyatt might be moving around the fairgrounds at a slower pace than he was accustomed to before the multiple myeloma diagnosis. He walks with a cane to brace himself or takes the golf cart out to cover greater distances between exhibits when he might have walked before.
I’m doing much better than I was last year. I have a lot of people to remind me not to push it too hard.
Wesley Wyatt, manager of the N.C. State Fair
“I’m doing much better than I was last year,” Wyatt said this week. “I have a lot of people to remind me not to push it too hard.”
Wyatt, who moved to Raleigh when he was 13 years old and his family relocated from Burlington, smiles as he talks about the fairs that have shaped his life through the years. A sheepish grin spreads across his face as he looks at Sarah Ray, a marketing and promotions assistant for the fair, and reveals his favorite spot this year.
“I know what you’re going to say,” Ray said, waiting for the words to spill out of his mouth.
There has been a big marketing push to highlight the fair’s new brand store.
“I know what I’m supposed to say,” Wyatt said as Ray waited for the answer.
But they both made the big reveal together.
“The flower show,” they said, talking about the exhibit at the opposite end of the fairgrounds from Wyatt’s office that resembles a small park with winding pathways past flowers in full bloom and plants from the mountains to the sea, all in one walkable place.
“The blacksmith shop, too,” Wyatt added, noting that the exhibit next to the flower show in the fair’s Heritage Village has been updated this year.
Through the years, Wyatt has tried to juggle the new with the old at the fair, which pulls in hundreds of thousands of people. Fair-goers like to sample new things, Wyatt said, but they also return each year for the traditional – whether it’s that ham biscuit, a peek at the agriculture exhibits or a ride that leaves them queasy and exhilarated at the same time.
Wyatt remembered the ostrich racing that was all the rage one year, but only one year.
“The ostriches were hard to control,” he said.
Some entertainers bring bigger crowds and better reviews than others, so he tries to keep note of that.
Wyatt is a fan of Minnesota’s state fair and often looks to what they are doing to see whether it might fit in North Carolina, too.
The problems don’t escape him either, such as a ride that malfunctioned in 2013 or the E. coli that caused public health concerns and changes to how the animal exhibits were staged and viewed.
“It affects you,” Wyatt said. “You don’t want people to have a crisis in confidence.”
Wyatt and the fair workers he considers to be family hope that most of the lasting memories will be positive.
“I like it all,” Wyatt said as the Rocket the Robot attraction lumbered past the office window, mingling with the midway crowd.
Saturday at the fair
Hours: Gates, 8 a.m.-midnight. Midway, 10 a.m.-midnight. Exhibit halls, 9 a.m. to 9:45 p.m.
Tickets: Adults (13-64), $10; children (6-12), $5; military with ID, $6; children 5 and younger and adults 65 and older, free.
Dorton Arena concert: The Ultimate Johnny Cash Tribute featuring Johnny Folsom 4 and Friends, 7:30 p.m.
Forecast: Sunny, 60s.
Saturday’s attendance last year: 140,886