Wally Parks Inducted into the
Los Angeles County Fair Association’s
Hall of Fame
Story by Richard Parks, photographic consultant Roger Rohrdanz
The Los Angeles County Fair Association invited the families of Sarah Ludwick, Millard Sheets and Wally Parks to the Los Angeles County Fair Association's annual meeting and Hall of Fame induction to honor these three individuals for their past service to the fairgrounds. The banquet, Hall of Fame and business meeting took place on April 23, 2008, at the Sheraton Hotel, on Fairplex property. Fairplex was established in 1922 on 543 acres, bordering Arrow Highway, White, McKinley and Fairplex Avenues. Nearly a square mile in size, Fairplex is one of the most modern, efficient and biggest drawing fair in the world. “We are the largest county fair in the nation (county fair is the operative), and rank fourth among all Fairs and Festivals in North America based on attendance,” said Sharon Autry, communications and public relations coordinator. “It's confusing, but the name of the organization that runs Fairplex (umbrella for L.A. County Fair, hotel and exposition complex) is the Los Angeles County Fair Association. It is a 501 (c) (5) mutual benefit corporation. All officers, management and staff are employed by the Los Angeles County Fair Association (LACFA). Fairplex is the name of the facility, operated by the Los Angeles County Fair Association, hosting more than 500 year-round events including the L.A. County Fair, our signature event. Fair dates are September 5-28, 2008, but we are closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. We'll be celebrating our 86th anniversary. We were closed from 1942-1947 because of WWII,” added Autry. Richard Crean was the emcee for the evening. Kathy Yeram, Christy Enderle and Heather Batcheller welcomed the guests and made sure that all of the details were attended to. Yeram and Batcheller are executive assistants to the Executive staff and Enderle works in the entertainment department. I asked Christy to tell me what they do in the entertainment division. “We’re in charge of the exhibits, mascots, staffing and everything that you see at the fair and at other events that we sponsor,” she told me. The County of Los Angeles owns the land and contracts with a non-profit corporation called the Los Angeles Fair Association to run the facility. The only requirement that the County of Los Angeles asks the Association to do is to operate a County Fair once a year, in September. The Association goes much further than that. There are multiple activities there every week. The Fairplex is heavily used and is a unique venue in the middle of a very populated area. It is nearly impossible to find a place large enough, well situated or with more friendly and amenable people to deal with than Fairplex in Pomona, California.
Jim Henwood is the President and CEO for the Association and he has eleven board members elected by the group to assist him. His Vice-Presidents include Mike Seder (Finance), Dwight Richards (Operations), Dale Coleman (Marketing) and Jeff Tucci (Hospitality). This year the Fair will run from September 5-28, 2008, though “we will be closed on Monday’s and Tuesday’s,” said Coleman. “Last year over 1.4 million people came to the fair, more than any other fair that we know of, anywhere in the world,” added Coleman. I’ve met Dale on many occasions, especially when we needed to book space for a show or event, and he has never disappointed us. A trim, young and athletically built man, his enthusiasm for Fairplex is evident from the first moment that you meet him. Tom Compton, the President of the NHRA (National Hot Rod Association) and Graham Light, the Operations Manager and Vice-President of the largest drag racing organization in the world, were also on hand for the Hall of Fame presentations. Compton is one of the voting members of the Los Angeles County Fair Association. There are sixty members in the Association and invitations to join are extended only by the membership itself. The members are dedicated to furthering the goal of making Fairplex the best place to hold a fair, or other events, anywhere in the world. The facility is run by the professional staff that book the events and maintains the place. But Fairplex would not be the success that it is without the volunteers who promote the facility and help in so many ways. They hold fundraisers and support the charities of the nearby communities. The members of the Fair Association act as a sounding board and give valuable advice. The members promote the events that are put on at Fairplex. The members are literally the heart and soul of this institution.
All this time I thought Fairplex was run by the County of Los Angeles, with unfeeling bureaucrats who simply do as they please. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Here was a non-profit business, run by professionals, with input and assistance from members of the communities Fairplex served. Not just any members, but those outgoing and friendly people who believe that Fairplex belongs to us all and for all of us to use. Use is the proper word, for Fairplex is in constant use, with car, boat, computer, dog, electronics, floral shows and hundred of other events scheduled on a year around basis. I met smiling faces at the Puerto Rican Day and the Scottish Highland Games. John Buck has his prestigious and outstanding Grand National Roadster Show at Fairplex every January. The Los Angeles Roadster Club has their Father’s Day Roadster Show at the fairgrounds every June. The SCMA (Southern California Marine Association) has their Boat Show there in June as well. The list of events and the variety of one, two, three and four day shows seems endless and intriguing. I would say that there is a “little of everything,” except that to be truthful the correct phrase should be, “there is a LOT of everything,” at Fairplex, each and every weekend. I was seated next to Bill Shacklett, the facilities manager for the organization. Bill is a robust man with an enthusiasm for this entrancing place that can’t be suppressed. He kept telling fascinating stories of the area and the evening went by quickly. He grew up in the surrounding communities and so knows the place very well. Bill has worked for Fairplex for the past eighteen years. “When Ralph Hinds passed away, Jim Henwood took over as our CEO, and we just recently renegotiated a new 99 year lease on the property. The rules state that we must hold a Fair here once a year, but other than that we can run the facility pretty much as we want to, with a little oversight from the county of Los Angeles,” said Shacklett.
“Our grandstands for the horse race track seats 9000 people and we’re in the process of expanding our 5/8ths mile horse track to a mile in length, which will then become a year around horse training site in Southern California,” added Shacklett. He told me that Santa Anita and Los Alamitos are only slightly larger in size and that the horse track is heavily used in the area. The paddock and barns for the race horses spread out across much of the acreage of Fairplex, but active thoroughbred racing only occurs for the 16 days during the fair in September. “We have 543 acres in all; 47 acres of parking, 7 more acres for the KOA Kampgrounds, 7 acres for my facility management use, 7 acres for a mobile trailer park and the rest are buildings, horse track, displays and other uses. There is room for 250 trailers and the rental of $520 per month includes utilities,” he told me. I asked Shacklett who would want to live in a trailer in the middle of the fairgrounds. “You would be surprised. Some are working on the grounds, some are horse trainers living near the horses and some are retired people who just love it here. They can’t really get into Fairplex shows without buying a ticket, but they can see everything if they want to and access in and out of the grounds is easy. There are stores and restaurants nearby. We also can accommodate motor homes across White Avenue or anywhere on our grounds when there are big events like the NHRA drag races. We just recently built a CORR (Champion Off Road Racing) race course,” he added. I asked him about Paradise Park, the huge shopping mall that was once planned for Fairplex. “It didn’t go through. We thought that it would bring huge crowds to restaurants, shows and concerts on our grounds, but other malls built up around us and drained away a lot of the customers that we needed to depend on,” Shacklett said.
I asked him if there were any financial incentives to sell off any of the huge Fairplex grounds. “No, we need every foot that we have just to continue to do what we are doing. We aren’t subsidized in any way by the County of Los Angeles. All of our revenue comes from our own business transactions and we are completely self-sufficient and operating in the black each year,” he said. I asked him about some of the permanent displays. “The train depot and trains were set up as a display on the northeast end of the Fairplex just after World War II, around 1948. The trains belong to a private organization and they were recently used as a backdrop in the movie ‘Sea Biscuit.’ When we moved them to their present location we had to lay down railroad tracks, push the locomotives and cars along, pull up the tracks and place them in the front. We finally moved them over to their present location. The Floral building sits over near the train depot and is the building where florists arrange their flowers for the fair. This year’s theme for the floral exhibit is on the flowers of Hawaii. Next to that is the Wine Pavilion building where we have wine tasting exhibits. Wines are sent to us from all over the world to judge in our shows and judges come from everywhere to participate. The hill behind the Pavilion is called Floral Hill and the National Geographic Society recently filmed there. It’s a beautiful place and we need to utilize it more. Many of the buildings were built in the 1930’s during the Great Depression by the WPA (Works Project Administration) and the style is Art Deco. During World War II the Fairplex was used as an Army Depot and Supply Center and during the earliest part of the war, Japanese/Americans were interned here before being sent to desert internment camps. Towards the end of the war, Italian prisoners of war had a camp here and they would go out and work in the orchards, picking fruit. During that time about two thirds of the Fairplex was orchards, mostly oranges and lemons. The miniature trains were built in the 1930’s as well and Sherry Autry in the communications and public relations department has kept many of the early records and history of Fairplex,” Shacklett added.
The history of this storied Fair continued to flow effortlessly from this friendly man, “We have wine, olive oil, beer and Tequila tasting competitions,” he told me. “The Derby Brewfest is part of the activities surrounding the Kentucky Derby. We have satellite wagering at Fairplex Park, which is the name of our horse racing facility. We have to follow the rules of the City of Pomona in putting on our events, but we also pay close attention to the needs of La Verne and other cities, because we want to be good neighbors. We must keep all the other cities happy. We form committees with them and we work well with their citizens. We are one of the largest tax producers for the city of Pomona,” Shacklett concluded. Rich Crean called the Association membership to order and announced the agenda for the meeting and the Hall of Fame. Crean, a gentle and friendly man, announced the nominating committee for the Hall of Fame; Linda Keagle, Art Ludwick, Fred Freehling and Jim Kostoff. The first honoree was Sarah Ludwick and a short video of her volunteer service to the Association and to the surrounding communities was shown. Sarah has lived her entire life in the area and is a member of the University of Cal Poly Pomona Board of Directors. She has dedicated sixteen years in promoting the CDC or Child Development Center on the grounds of Fairplex. Originally operated by La Verne University, this state of the art and progressive child care center is a leader in the field and many organizations come to observe the new techniques that are developed here in teaching young children. Her husband, Art Ludwick, is the chairman of the Association’s Finance committee and their volunteerism was evident by the loud clapping of the members in the audience. Sarah spoke of the enjoyment that she has received from her association with Fairplex as she received her bronze award.
The next person to be honored, posthumously, was Millard Sheets. A video was shown to the audience and then Millard’s son and daughter received the bronze award that Millard himself had sculpted and his son had completed and had cast. Millard brought the world’s attention to Fairplex in his long service. He was an artist of the highest caliber during the Great Depression of the 1930’s and his watercolors are avidly sought after. He was a teacher who encouraged others in the arts and crafts of the time. Many artists owe their success to the backing and support that Millard extended to those struggling to succeed. He designed the Fine Arts building that now bear his name. The outdoor Atrium is absolutely beautiful. He brought in art and artists from all over the world and introduced Southern California to new forms of expression and talent. Millard created a major art exhibition and gallery at the Fairplex. He was an architect, war correspondent, teacher, artist and businessman. Many in the audience later told me how Millard marketed his work. They were just as proud of his business skills as they were with his service to others and his artistic talent. The bronze award given to the honorees shows a family and it is fitting that the award should represent people, which is what the Fairplex is all about, serving people in the community.
The last person to be honored was Wally Parks, founder of the NHRA and supporter of Fairplex and their goals. Parks was honored posthumously, but his family was there to receive the award and thank the Fairplex for their kindness. A short video was shown to the members detailing the many contributions that Wally Parks gave to the world. He was a founding member of the SCTA (Southern California Timing Association) in 1937 and in 1951 he founded the NHRA, with the goal of promoting safety. Too many young people were getting hurt and dying on the roads of America in illegal street racing and Parks set out to do something about it. In 1953, Parks got the support of Fairplex, the Pomona Valley Timing Association, Chief Parker and a young police sergeant by the name of Bud Coons. Together they created a first class drag racing facility that was supervised and drag racing became a true sport. Twice a year the world turns its attention to the drag races at Pomona on the grounds of Fairplex and sees this beautiful facility framed by the snow-capped San Gabriel Mountains. Wally Parks and Fairplex worked together to curtail illegal street racing in the area for over 54 years, until his passing on September 28, 2007. The Fairplex and Wally Parks formed an inseparable team and they are still together, in spirit and respect. Wally’s sons, Richard and David Parks accepted the bronze award from Richard Crean, and then Richard addressed the audience and thanked them for their honor. In the crowd were Richard’s and David’s families, including Mary M. Parks, Wally’s first wife and our mother. Wally’s grandchildren, Scott, Michael and Tamara Parks were present. His daughter-in-laws, Epi and Barbara Parks were on hand as well as his granddaughter-in-laws, Stacy and Tara Parks. Those members who couldn’t be in attendance were; David, Michelle, Allison and Jennifer Parks and Matt and Mary Bell.
Jim Henwood, the President and CEO of the Los Angeles County Fair Association, spoke to the crowd.
“It is our privilege to do what we do. We are focused on the community and what we can do for the community and the people in Los Angeles County and n Southern California. This year we have done very well financially and much of that success can be attributed to the volunteers of the Association, whose passion for our business is the key. We have an extraordinary group of people who help us achieve success. Our staff at Fairplex is exceptional and our volunteers have a consistent level of talent and enthusiasm for what we want to accomplish. We have a dynamic type of organization that so well defines who we are and what we want to do. Just look at our Hall of Fame of photographs on the walls of our office. That will tell you that we meet our mission,” Henwood told us. Rich Crean, emcee and Board Chairman, took the podium and ended the festivities. “Our board is very supportive of the organization. We are going to have the best ever Fair in Los Angeles County this year in 2008. You are the ambassadors for our organization. We are among the top five of all the fairs in the country. We play a high level in the entertainment throughout Southern California and the success for that goes to the employees and volunteers of the Fair administration,” said Crean. With that he ended the Hall of Fame and we left, feeling at ease and comfortable with these wonderful men and women of the Los Angeles County Fair Association