HURON — Anyone who has attended an event at the grandstands during the South Dakota State Fair in the past half century may have noticed that one thing has gone unchanged throughout that duration. One individual has been there to greet them as they enter the facility year after year after year.
The 2022 South Dakota State Fair marks 39th year that Gene Chapman of Huron has served as a ticket taker at the grandstands during the South Dakota State Fair.
“He’s the face you look for when you walk up to the grandstands,” said South Dakota State Fair manager Peggy Besch. “He’s always here setting up in ample time, making sure things are ready to go and everything is in order and clean. He’s always there to greet the guests with a smile on his face.”
Chapman got his start at the state fair in 1974 as a superintendent at the grandstands and spent the next 21 years in that position. Joining him for the ticket-taking duties during that time was his wife, Sheron, who in 2022 has 20 years in the position as well.
In 1995, Chapman stepped away from his duties at the fair, but returned in 2005 after a 9-year hiatus and has been there ever since.
“If the good Lord is willing, maybe I can pass my 21 years during this second stint,” Chapman said. “They (the fair commission) had me come up to the board meeting and they gave me a plaque. They recognized me for my 21 years and I thought that was kind of neat.”
When asked to return the position, Chapman didn’t hesitate on taking the opportunity and current state fair commissioner Faron Wahl was glad he did.
“He indicated that he was retired from the position for nine years, 1995-2004. Then accepted the call to come back and so when you put those year’s together he has worked at the grandstands doing this job for 39 years,” Wahl said. “Which is absolutely incredible when you consider the hundreds of thousands of guests he has welcomed.”
Just like everything else, things change over the course of time and Chapman noted the same was true with taking tickets at the grandstands.
“Now with the scanners, it’s a whole different world,” he said. “Back when I came on as superintendent in 1974 it was just a matter of tearing tickets. All you had to learn was who got in and made sure they had a ticket.”
With thousands of people attending events each year, Chapman has had the opportunity to get to know many of the patrons who have come back year after year. Meeting those individuals is something he enjoys the most about his duties.
“With a lot of them, that’s the one time a year I see them. There are people I graduated with who make a special effort to come through my line,” he said. “Then there’s this one where we’ve had this thing for the last 10 years that the only time I see her is at funerals, now I told her ‘How about that, we got to see each other and it wasn’t at a funeral.’”
In the early years, the couple used to walk to their home, which is two blocks from the fairgrounds, following their shift at the grandstands. Such isn’t the case anymore, but they have come to learn that the traffic around their residence is a good indications as to what kind of day the fair is having.
“We know it’s a good day at the fair if the cars are parked out in front of our house by 10 a.m.,” he said.
Throughout the years the couple has been able to see all the various performers who have entertained the crowds at the grandstands. They pointed to a few select ones as being their favorites.
“We’ve had some good ones over the years,” Sheron said. “When Charley Pride was here, his was a really good concert. So was Johnny Cash.
“You look back at the years Bob Glanzer was in charge of the entertainment out there. He was always easy to work with,” she said.
Since Besch took over as the manager of the state fair eight years ago, she has always had the Chapmans to handle the ticket-taking duties at the grandstands and that is something she for which she is extremely grateful.
“That’s worth its weight in gold, to have those folks handling that year after year,” Besch said. “Gene knows better what is needed up there more than I do. He knows that position way better than any of us because he’s been there so long.
“You don’t have to worry or second guess or train or any of those things, she said. “That stability is extremely helpful and quite frankly our guests, our patrons, recognize that face.”
While many of those passing through the gates each year don’t realize it, they also celebrate Chapman’s birthday with him each year. He turned 80 years young on Thursday.
“He has worked virtually every birthday, because Sept. 1 always lands a State Fair date,” Wahl said. “We can be into August or September, but the 1st is always during the State Fair and once again on his 80th birthday, here he is working at the South Dakota State Fair, with a smile on greeting people in a friendly warm way. You just can’t beat it.”