AUBURN — Tom Smith of Auburn can barely remember a time when he wasn’t around the DeKalb County Free Fall Fair.
“My dad was always involved in the fair. I just always enjoyed the fair. I’ve been to the fair 66 years. … it’s always been part of my life,” he said.
Since 1979, Smith has served on the board of the DeKalb County Fair Association that oversees the annual fair in Auburn.
On Jan. 5, his lifetime of dedication was rewarded when Smith was inducted into the Indiana Association of Fairs Hall of Fame. The honor came at the association’s 100th annual convention in Indianapolis.
Only four people can be selected for the Hall of Fame each year — one from each quadrant of the state.
“If you ever have the chance to see the resumes of those people who are nominated for the Hall of Fame, it’s remarkable,” said Auburn Mayor Mike Ley, an officer of the DeKalb fair board. “Some of them, I joke, they must have been conceived on the fairgrounds to have that many years involved in their fair associations.”
Smith, 76, grew up on a farm at the east edge of Auburn and participated in 4-H as a boy.
When he was a student at Auburn High School, Smith and his fellow agriculture students would walk two blocks east to the fairgrounds to help set up pens and assemble gates for the fair’s livestock exhibits.
His steer won the grand championship at the 1958 fair, when he was 15 years old.
Smith enrolled at Michigan State University, where he excelled in livestock judging and traveled to competitions throughout the nation. He earned a bachelor’s degree, then returned home to the family farm and began volunteering as a 4-H leader.
Smith recalls nailing boards on gates for the fair’s hog barn, before steel pens came along.
“Every year we had to go in and fix the gates the week before the fair, because some of the pigs would chew them in two or get to fighting and break boards in between,” he said with a chuckle.
He served on the 4-H auction committee for 40 years, including 30 years as treasurer, writing a check to each 4-H’er who sold an animal. He worked as a superintendent of the cattle barn and the swine carcass show.
Smith joined the fair’s governing board in 1979. His service includes 10 years on the executive board and three years as vice president.
He considers a recent project, serving on a committee to build a new horse barn at the fairgrounds in 2014, as one of his top accomplishments. Building the barn required raising $700,000 in contributions.
A list of Smith’s involvement in the community takes up a couple of typed pages in his nomination for the Hall of Fame.
In agriculture, he has served on the Purdue Extension Board, DeKalb County Soil and Water Conservation District board, Northeast Indiana Angus Association, Northeast Indiana Swine Association and DeKalb Agra cooperative board,
He also plays key roles on the DeKalb Outdoor Theater board, the Auburn Plan Commission and Auburn Board of Zoning Appeals, and he has been involved with the Auburn Presbyterian Church and Boy Scouts.
For Smith’s Hall of Fame induction ceremony, his wife of 51 years, Cathy, and their three sons showed up in Indianapolis as a surprise.
Smith became the fourth DeKalb County fair volunteer to enter the Hall of Fame — an impressive representation among fewer than 150 members in the hall.
“I think that speaks highly for DeKalb County — the dedication of our volunteers,” Ley said.
The others honored from DeKalb County are the late Dale Lockwood and Phyllis Schuller and Larry Dove, who officially retired as the local fair board’s president Thursday night.
“Tom has meant a lot to a lot of kids,” Dove said Thursday. “He put his whole heart into being involved in the 4-H end of things for many, many years.”
“We really appreciate his help and look forward to him continuing to help,” Ley said.
Smith was re-elected to the fair board last year for another three-year term.
“I’m going to be on the board for two more years,” Smith said. “My wife thinks that’s going to be long enough.”