Virgil Strickler still remembers the first time he visited the Ohio State Fair, in 1969. He was in eighth grade. He and his family were being recognized at the state fair by then-Gov. James Rhodes as the Farm Family of the Year.
“It was quite a day,” he says.
More than 50 years later, Strickler, the general manager for the Ohio Expo Center and State Fair, is hard at work July 6, getting ready for the 2023 Ohio State Fair. He’s in his 20th year as the general manager, and his 30th year as the agriculture director. But this year is a little different. It’s his last as the general manager before he retires.
Strickler’s 30 years with the fair have been “a blessing” — he loves the fair industry and has enjoyed helping to celebrate the state he was born and raised in through the fair.
“I thank the Lord every day, and I get choked up quite a bit when I think about everything,” Strickler says. “Don’t blink. It all flies right by.”
Strickler’s connection to agriculture is deep. He grew up on the family farm, which was founded by his grandfather, Ross Strickler, in Amanda, Ohio. His dad and uncle, Elvin and Elbert Strickler, farmed it when he was young, and now his cousins, Neil and Gary Strickler, are continuing to farm.
“We had a great farm when I was growing up, and they made it even greater,” he said.
He’s always aimed to keep agriculture at the center of the state fair, from when he started as the agriculture director for the fair in 1993, to when he was hired as the general manager in 2004, to the present day.
“You can really see that that’s where his roots are, and it’s perfect,” said Alicia Shoults, assistant general manager and marketing and PR director for the Ohio Expo Center and State Fair. “The fair’s roots are also in agriculture, so it’s really a perfect match.”
Strickler’s passion for his work is evident in the way he cares for the expo center grounds.
“He always felt that  acres … was his farm that he nourished and managed, and made it better for those coming even after him,” said Tom Price, who served as an Ohio State Fair commissioner for more than a decade.
Strickler did a lot of work on landscaping and improving the expo center’s facilities. He got the expo center started by growing its own flowers to decorate the grounds.
“Things look so much better when you put planters out and you put flowers out,” Strickler said. “Everybody works hard at making their homes and their farms look good, and I wanted to do the same with this place.”
A lot goes into maintaining and running the expo center. It hosts more than 200 events year-round, in addition to being the home of the state fair.
There have been plenty of tough times over the years, too, from the regular challenges of managing a multitude of events to a global pandemic. Support from the state fair commissioners, Gov. Mike DeWine’s office and more during the pandemic helped keep the fair going, he said.
Other than that, Strickler said, “I pray a lot.”
“I’ve just asked the Lord to help us at all times,” he said. “And I’ve been in the right place at the right time my whole life … It’s just all these people that were there for me.”
Strickler’s ability to work with a wide range of people stands out to those who know him.
“I believe his ability to navigate politics within state government was a very, very positive factor, because he was able to give his vision of the expo grounds and the state fair to those on both sides of the aisle,” Price said.
Working with so many different people across state politics, agriculture, the fair and more means someone is always calling. When Price talks to Strickler, it’s often before 6 a.m., “before he gets busy.”
“Not many people understand the pressures that this job has, day after day, hour after hour,” Price said. “I would guess it’s thousands of people that have his personal cell phone. If you call, he’ll answer, but that’s Virgil — it’s just who he is.”
Strickler is quick to recognize the team effort of putting on the state fair and other events at the expo center, and the many people he’s worked with through the years.
“Whoever I’ve shook hands or fist bumped with over the years, I’d love to see all those people, and I wonder if I could get them into one building,” Strickler said. “The Lord has brought a lot of people into my life to help me accomplish what we’ve accomplished.”
A big part of Strickler’s legacy is the Youth Reserve Program he helped create in 1995. The program caps the amount an exhibitor can make from the fair’s Sale of Champions. Funds from the winning bids that exceed the cap are used to reward junior fair exhibitors through scholarships, the Outstanding Market Exhibitor program, the Outstanding Breeding Exhibitor program, showmanship, skillathons and more.
“Virgil recognizes that it is fantastic to be a champion and be in that sale ring, and there are many other champions in other ways,” Shoults said. The program allows the state fair to award youth who excel in other areas, like skillathon and showmanship.
“Those skillathons and everything else that we put into place have really helped develop our youth,” Strickler said. Making sure youth are educated about their projects is also important to him, and has been a team effort with the state fair staff, Ohio State University and Extension, 4-H, FFA and more.
The program has awarded $4.6 million in scholarships to more than 44,500 youth exhibitors since it was established. In a June 1 release, DeWine announced the program had been renamed the Virgil L. Strickler Youth Reserve Program in Strickler’s honor.
Ohio is now looking for the next expo center and state fair general manager. Applications for the position are open until Sept. 1, and the plan is to have the next general manager in place by the start of 2024.
“It’s always difficult stepping into someone’s shoes who’s been there as long as Virgil has,” Price said. “You’ve got to be in there for the love of the bigger picture of what the expo center and the Ohio State Fair stands for.”
One of the keys for whoever takes on the role next will be building relationships.
“You need to build that network of people and build consensus on direction,” he said.
As for Strickler, he is planning to retire near the end of the year. For now, he’s looking forward to his last state fair as the general manager.
“I’m very thankful. I’ve had a great run,” Strickler said.
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