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Shari Black lives for the Waukesha County Fair

She has been in charge of event since she was 23 years old

Shari Black, executive director of the Waukesha County Fair, has passed down her love of farm animals and the Waukesha County Fair to her children (from left) Gavin, 10, Mason, 5, and Lauren, 8.

Shari Black, executive director of the Waukesha County Fair, has passed down her love of farm animals and the Waukesha County Fair to her children (from left) Gavin, 10, Mason, 5, and Lauren, 8. Photo By Submitted

July 9, 2013

There's no better time for Shari Black than when the Waukesha County Fair begins.

After all, she's in her element here.

It's where she's had some of her proudest moments, where she discovered her career and where her dedication for 360 days of the year is on full display and is ultimately judged over five days.

"It's definitely my favorite time of the year," said Black (formerly Stigler), the fair's executive director. "It's where you hope all your hard work pays off. In our eyes a good fair consists of no one getting hurt, everyone having fun and we are able to pay our bills. A great fair would consist of all of those factors as well as being able to put some money away for a rainy or hot fair (when attendance is lower)."

The fun part, specifically, is the reason Black first fell in love with the fair. So when she sees a child receive a ribbon for the first time after showing animals or when the new Fairest of the Fair gets crowned it brings extra joy to her.

That's because those experiences happened for Black.

She's lived in the Town of Waukesha her entire life having attended Heyer Elementary School, Horning Middle School, Waukesha West High School and eventually Carroll University.

"I'm a Waukesha girl," Black said. "I guess it's kind of boring."

But it's not.

Not when a then 23-year-old gets chosen to run the county's biggest event of the year and one of the largest fairs in the state.

Growing up in a rural area of Waukesha, Black and her family (which included four brothers) were active in 4-H and showed everything from heifers, to pigs, to cats at the fair. The family, including their mom, Marilyn, continued the tradition their dad and grandma created with 4-H.

"It was something we could all do together as a family so my parents were all for it," Black said.

Rising to the top

Shari used her 4-H experiences to become the 1997 Waukesha County Fairest of the Fair and later became the first runner-up at the state level.

In the meantime, she worked as an intern and then as an employee on the administration team for a few years at the fair. It was at this time she knew what she wanted.

"I can remember when I did my internship here and was asked what do you want to do with your degree (communications, public relations and a minor in business) and I said I want her job," Black recalled.

The job was being the fair's executive director.

Despite having another semester in college, Black got the job in 2001 after the former director resigned.

"I definitely always enjoyed being here," Black, 35, said. "I guess I've kind of grown up at the fair."

She's also grown into her position from a young 20-something to a fair veteran and mother of three, who is about to lead her 13th fair, which begins on Wednesday and runs through July 21 at the Waukesha County Expo Center grounds.

"She did a fantastic job," said Bob Stigler, Shari's dad, a recent addition to the Waukesha County Fair Hall of Fame, who served as a vice president and president of the Fair Board Association from 1992 to 2008. "She's enthusiastic and knew how to handle it after being involved with the fair after all those years."

Her mom added: "It's not a surprise she's still with the fair. She's always loved it and wanted to be the director when she was younger."

However, Black admitted she was a little "naive" when she first started and didn't realize all the work that went into running a fair.

"It took about five years to fully understand the job," Black said. "It's definitely a job that takes experience."

Staying on schedule

For Black, planning this year's fair began the Tuesday after last year's fair ended.

"The board meets to discuss what went well and what didn't," Black said.

In August and September she and the board wrap up that year's financial ends and start preparing a budget for its annual meeting in October.

During this time, the new board begins planning the entertainment for the following year and does this through the winter and lines up sponsors. Once spring hits, Black said, she is focused on that year's ad campaign before the hiring process is done during the early part of the summer.

"In the form of musical acts, everything is done by February or March," Black said. "But it all depends how smooth that goes."

Prep work underway

Black was at the Expo grounds this week for preliminary work before moving her offices from 2417 Silvernail Road in Pewaukee to her new home at 1000 Northview Road for the next week and a half.

And while the fair officially kicks off on Wednesday, Black said she "feels like the fair starts on Monday" as judging for animals already begins and all the vendors and entertainment stages will be set up.

"For us, there's so much already going on," Black said.

Sunup to sundown

And when the gates do open, Black is ready for another fair.

She'll arrive at 6 a.m. (gates open at 3 p.m. Wednesday and at 10 a.m. Thursday-Sunday). And each morning, Waukesha County Fair Board members and staff have a meeting at 9 a.m. to go over everything for the day.

Black, the only full-time paid employee on the Waukesha County Fair staff, knows she couldn't pull this off without a team of volunteers.

"It's in the hundreds," Black said. "Fortunately, I have a great team and we become like family."

Each board member is in charge of a certain section at the fair (main stage, vendors, livestock, grounds), but they all report back to Black until the final light is turned off.

Black will typically be there until 1 a.m. each day. And Friday night she won't punch out until closer to 2 a.m. with Saturday morning's Fair Fun Run/Walk on the schedule.

"I don't leave until everything is shut down," Black said. "So you get home, take a shower, sleep for a few hours and then do it all over again."

Black, however, said she wouldn't have it any other way.

"But I'm a bit of a control freak," Black said. "It's like my fourth baby."

Black has now passed on her love of the fair to her children, who are all involved in 4-H. Her oldest son, Gavin, 10, began showing pigs last year and it won't be long before younger siblings, Lauren, 8, and Mason, 5, follow suit.

She's even tried to pass this love for the fair onto her husband, Tim, who Shari said didn't grow up with this same passion for fairs as she did.

Marilyn said while her children are older and have their own families, everyone still looks forward to each year's fair.

"It's just great seeing the next generation now, especially with Shari's kids being involved," Marilyn said. "We all get together there, but for Shari this is the busiest time for her, so we stay more in the background. She works extremely hard."

Keeping interest high

Black's passion has helped keep the Waukesha County Fair as one of the top-attending fairs in the state each year. It's in the top five in yearly attendance with an average of 135,000 over the five days.

"If we're around that we're doing well," Black said.

Last year, the fair totaled 125,000.

She's hoping this year's music and entertainment stages help top that number. New this year is the Team X Motorcycle Trials, brought in to attract a younger crowd.

And Black is really looking forward to the Main Stage acts, which she said should attract all different crowds and age groups.

Another year of planning is wrapping up for Black and she's ready to unveil the 171st edition of the Waukesha County Fair.

"It's fun," Black said. "You get to plan a five-day party for the entire county."

At a glance

What: Waukesha County Fair

When: Day 1 — 3 to 10 p.m. Wednesday; Day 2 — 10 a.m. to midnight July 18; Day 3 — 10 a.m. to midnight July 19; Day 4 — 10 a.m. to midnight July 20; Day 5 — 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. July 21

Where: Waukesha County Expo Grounds, 1000 Northview Road, Waukesha

Prices: Adults — $9; Youth (6 to 12 years old) — $3; Children 5 and under — free; Daily Parking — $5 (vehicle entry is subject to availability)

Main Stage headliners: Hinder 8 p.m. July 18; Cheap Trick 8 p.m. July 19; Slaughter and Great White 7 p.m. July 20; The Spinners 6 p.m. July 21

Contact: info@waukeshacountyfair.com, (262) 544-5922

Online: www.waukeshacountyfair.com

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