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First elected ‘by accident’

By Staff | Jan 28, 2010

Don Greiman

In 1965 Donald Greiman was already a familiar face around Iowa’s county fairs, but he didn’t know how familiar he would become until a friend asked him to run for a position on the Iowa State Fair Board; and, almost by accident, he got elected.

“I was locally known, but it turned out that I had helped and judged at enough county fairs that a lot of people knew me,” Greiman said. “That’s how I got on and like a bad smell they haven’t been able to get rid of me since.”

With a lot of hard work, and a little self-deprecating humor, that original election became the beginning of 44 years of service to the Iowa State Fair. After more than four decades working with what he calls the most “hands-on” state fair board in the country, Greiman stepped aside in December to let new leaders continue guiding the proud Iowa tradition.

“We are the envy of state fairs, because we have 400 acres of camping right there on the fairgrounds,” Greiman said. “We are the envy of the industry because we have the strongest attendance per capita from our state.

“Part of the reason we have those advantages is because we really do listen to what the needs are and we work on it all year.”

Greiman’s own contributions to that reputation have been significant.

During his earlier terms, when board members also served as event superintendents, Greiman acted as cattle superintendent and quickly began pushing for campgrounds close to the livestock facilities.

“When I was starting, camping was just coming in and we wanted campgrounds nearer to those barns so that exhibitors could better look over their animals,” Greiman said. “We knew how animals can get loose or bedding material can become a fire hazard and we also knew that no one could be better watchmen for things like that than the exhibitors themselves.”

Another challenge came in the form of dwindling sale prices at the fair’s Sale of Champions. Greiman led a special board that worked to create a program assuring exceptional exhibitors would be rewarded for their work.

“Some of the sale prices were less than a $1,000 for a grand champion steer and that was almost a disgrace,” Greiman said. “With the work that we’ve done we’ve seen sale prices as high as $30,000 and that is a much better reward for the work that these exhibitors put in.”

As part of the larger board, Greiman also helped the fair navigate difficult financial times and completely rearrange how it handles entertainment.

When state funding for fair events and maintenance began to wane in the 1980s the board created the Blue Ribbon Foundation as its fundraising arm of its operations. The organization has since collected more than $80 million for the upkeep and improvement of the fairgrounds.

“We were beginning to get concerned about the fate of some of those grand old buildings that you see there on the fairgrounds, but we really didn’t want to see them go,” Greiman said. “Because of the excellent work the foundation does we have been able to keep those grand old buildings and do projects like the new Multi-Use Exhibition Center.”

The time of Greiman’s service has also seen a massive change in how fairs use entertainment to attract visitors.

In earlier years, the fair would contract one or two headlining entertainers who would play multiple shows through the length of the fair. With the coming of more competing venues the fair now schedules a major act for almost every night, as well as hires dozens of acts for the fairground’s multiple free stages.

“Contracting with entertainment is something that starts even before the fair is over and continues all year,” Greiman said. “Bringing in more big name artists and more free shows makes things more difficult for us, but I think it is also part of why we have been so fortunate with attendance.

“You can come to the fair and see a different free show every night and that keeps people coming back.”

Greiman calls his time with the board, “A very liberal education” that has challenged him to expand his expertise and always work toward a new goal.

In recognition of that continued effort, Greiman was awarded, in December, with the International Association of Fairs & Expositions “Heritage Award” during the organization’s annual meeting in Las Vegas.

“It’s gratifying and very humbling to be awarded that way,” Greiman said. “When you think about all of the people and effort that are involved in these events it feels very prestigious to have your contributions recognized that way.”

Though he has left the board, Greiman said he will continue to be active around the fair and continue to serve on the board of the North Iowa Fair.

While his efforts have earned him some recognition for his own sake he gives great credit to the many board members, staff and volunteers who help make each year’s fair possible.

“Fair people give selflessly of their time and energy and that is what makes every year feel a lot like a big reunion,” he said. “I feel very blessed by the opportunity and wouldn’t trade it for any experience in the world.”

Contact Kevin Stillman by e-mail at stillman.kw@gmail.com.

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