The County Gin sat down with the 13th Wharton County Youth Fair (WCYF) President Rodney Jedlicka, along with key players on his journey, to reflect on the time as the head of the fair, weathering two county-wide disasters and the difficult decisions that followed, and creating fond memories that would last a lifetime.
Stock shows and memories
“I don’t know how many people became a director of the fair and say, ‘You know, I’d like to be the president one day.’ When I became a director, I did.”
Rodney Jedlicka of East Bernard graduated from Boling High School in 1997. Throughout his school years, Rodney participated in many activities, including FFA. Showing cattle and pigs, Rodney was able to build long-lasting friendships and relationships with fellow WCYF exhibitors and joked that at that time, the presidency appeared to be a life full of luxury.
“As a kid growing up out at the fair grounds, when Larry Kalina was president, Clint (Larry’s son and Rodney’s friend) had a gold card, for the circus,” Rodney told The County Gin. “Back then the president got a gold card, which was entry to the circus and carnival and the president could hand out these passes to people at the fair. I used to think that was pretty cool. You see, Clint was very popular because he had his dad’s gold card. It was just kind of a neat deal. I’m not saying that’s what really inspired me to become a fair director, but it was really cool to me as a kid.”
However, time spent with his ag teachers preparing for shows like WCYF that would serve as a seed for Rodney’s desire to lead the organization.
“I don’t know how many people became a director of the fair and say, ‘You know, I’d like to be the president one day.’ When I became a director, I did,” he said. “I guess it was from being involved at a young level. At one point in my life, I thought about becoming an ag teacher because of being inspired by my high school ag teacher, who was Dean Fuchs. He was a mentor to me and still is to many kids and adults. He is a great friend of mine and someone I continue to communicate with. Even though I didn’t go down the path in becoming an ag teacher, I felt like I could still contribute in giving back to the county and the kids by volunteering at the fair.”
First comes love, then comes future WCYF exhibitors
“It takes support from parents, dedication from the kids and a lot of work from both sides to successfully make it through. Overall, we come out as a stronger family-operating unit.”
Shortly after Rodney married the love of his life, Cassi Jedlicka, he started working to provide their future children with similar opportunities and experiences gained through his time with WCYF.
“Some people don’t realize how fairs and shows like what we have out at WCYF can help teach kids many life lessons that they wouldn’t necessarily pick up in a classroom setting,” Rodney told The Gin. “Now academic education is very important; however, the relationships, experiences and skills gained by being involved with the fair, I feel, are equally just as important and can take you very far in life.
“When you get involved and enjoy something like showing cattle, lambs, goats or whatever it is, it’s very life changing and something to be proud about. I wanted the same for my family. Showing livestock and volunteering at the fair is really a family effort. It has a way of creating special ties and lasting memories. So, I wanted my kids to experience that as well. It takes support from parents, dedication from the kids and a lot of work from both sides to successfully make it through. Overall, we come out as a stronger family-operating unit.”
Cassi and Rodney welcomed their first son, Colby, in 2001 and their second, Blake, in 2004.
Upon the arrival of the couple’s first of two sons, Rodney became more involved in the fair and would soon join the WCYF board as an associate director.
Cassi told The County Gin that once Rodney started volunteering at the fair, he devoted himself to the organization.
“Once (Rodney) starts any project or joins any organization, he puts his heart and soul in it,” she said. “I don’t think you’ll be able to find anyone that cares as much as he does. Since the beginning, he has never let up.”
The first Darrel and the lamb committee
It was board member Darrel Kutach from East Bernard that saw the dedication in Rodney and would push him to join WCYF as associate director. In 2001, Darrel told Rodney that if he could find someone to take his spot as a director, he would step down.
“He was ready to get off of the board and I was ready to jump on the board,” Rodney said. “It just worked out for me to join at that time.”
After being accepted to the associate board, Rodney was eager to help out anywhere he was needed. One of his first assignments was the lamb committee — a market show that he wasn’t too familiar with.
“Now, I have never shown lambs before, but I was young, new and eager, so when they told me to chair the lambs, I chaired the lamb committee,” he chuckled. “It was a lot of fun and I learned actually quite a lot, not only about lambs, but about the tagging, check-in and the whole lamb show process.”
The first call as president
“Seeing his expression and how sincere he was, I was no longer worried about the mess. His cattle are his life and our grounds allowed his cattle to survive the flood waters. Still, Bubba did make sure the parking lot was cleaned, just like I knew he would.”
Inducted at the age of 38 (and a half), Rodney became the youngest president to serve the youth fair and the first president to have two county-wide declarations of disaster during his term.
Only months after he took the reins, Wharton County suffered major flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey. This led Rodney to make his first executive decision as president and offer the use of the fair’s livestock facilities to whomever was in need.
“Initially, Wharton County Electrical Cooperative setup a large generator that was going to be used to power (the grounds) for the National Guard and FEMA if needed. Thankfully, they were able to utilize the fire stations in town as bases, which left the fairgrounds for housing animals,” Rodney told The County Gin. “I think every horse stall and pen-of-three pen had a horse in it. There were cattle in the rodeo arena and even one herd in the carnival parking lot. I’m not sure on the number of dogs, but there were a bunch housed in pig pens.”
At first Rodney couldn’t see beyond the mess made by the livestock. After speaking to one cattle owner, he quickly realized that the future clean-up of the grounds paled in comparison to what so many lost during flood.
“I remember driving out to the grounds and seeing the cattle on the carnival parking lot and thinking, ‘Oh wow, how are we going to clean up this mess?’ When I pulled up, the cattle owner, Bubba Blair, looked at me and said, ‘Thank you so much Rodney, this saved me,’” he said. “Seeing his expression and how sincere he was, I was no longer worried about the mess. His cattle are his life and our grounds allowed his cattle to survive the flood waters. Still, Bubba did make sure the parking lot was cleaned, just like I knew he would.”
No gold card and the second Darrel Kutach
“Rodney is true jack-of-all-trades and during my time as president, one of the most dependable directors out there.”
Once in the president’s role, Rodney quickly realized that the job wasn’t quite as luxurious as he remembered seeing in his youth; however, the job was equally rewarding as predicted.
“It was an eye-opening experience. It wasn’t easy. There were phone calls from the ladies at the office during the week and decisions that you can’t wait for the board to make. It was just always something. It was more time-consuming than what I was thinking, but I was prepared for it,” he said. “I had the support from my family and the executive board to really get me going and built my confidence in making decisions. I was dedicated to every phone call and message, attending every meeting, all while also spending time with my two sons who were involved in school activities and out at the fair.”
Darrel Kutach (this one from Boling) was a friend and executive board member that Rodney said he would often call for advice and assistance when it came to the maintenance of the fairgrounds.
“Rodney is true jack-of-all-trades and during my time as president, one of the most dependable directors out there,” Darrel said. “He didn’t come in hot-headed and try to change up everything. He was very open and worked well with the executive board. I remember when I was out late at the fair grounds when I was president. I was walking around picking up trash that was on the ground and Rodney came up to me and said, ‘You shouldn’t be do that. Here, let me do that.’ That’s just the type of guy he is, you know.
“One thing Rodney was really good at was coming across a good deal that would save the fair money and calling to collect funds in order for the fair to continue on. He might not have built new buildings, but he sure has maintained and improved the current facilities. Being president, you don’t really have many privileges. You step down from committees in order to really take over the administration and day-to-day operations of the fair.”
Even though the gold card was no longer accepted as payment, Rodney was allowed to give away free rides at the carnival.
“No, I didn’t get a gold card,” Rodney joked. “We receive wristbands now. The fair pays for them, but I was able to make some kids happy. It’s funny when the kids that are normally shy come up to me and ask, ‘Mr. Jedlicka, um, do you have a wristband that I could please have?’ It’s like they don’t really want to ask, but really want that wristband. So, I guess being the being the president still has that cool factor, even if it’s just getting to hand out a wristband and make someone’s day.”
Another opportunity directors and president have is the ability to join a fellowship and share ideas with other county fair leaders in the state of Texas.
“One event I really look forward to is the Texas Association of Fairs and Events convention. I enjoy seeing what other fairs are doing and planning and talk about what we are planning,” Rodney said. “It is almost like a mini-vacation because it is a really fun convention to attend.”
Unfortunately, no conference would be able to prepare Rodney for what the heartbreaking decision he would face in his final year as the WCYF president.
“My heart broke for him. He was heartbroken when they decided to cancel. He felt like he was letting every kid out there down.”
When he learned of the global pandemic, the first call was to Darrel Kutach, who, as president, had to overcome a tragic accident — the death of a Columbus woman during the 2009 WCYF tractor pull event, Rodney said. “It was a horrible time and I have admired how much of a leader he was in handling the fair that year.”
Darrel wanted to continue on with the livestock shows and thought the fair would still be held.
He said, “Of course, there were differing opinions within the executive board. It wasn’t a decision that any one of us were taking lightly, especially Rodney.”
Rodney’s wife Cassi agreed, saying, “It was all he could think about during that time. He was trying everything in his power to continue with the fair.”
On April 2, 2020, after weeks of meetings held by the executive board of directors, Rodney announced that the 2020 WCYF livestock show would be canceled:
“I truly feel bad for all of the exhibitors. To our first year exhibitors, who looked forward to experiencing the fair for the first time, we can only apologize and say please dream big and come back next year. To all of our senior exhibitors, there are no words that will make this easier. You’ve had to experience things this year that many never imagined you’d see. Life is full of lessons: some lessons of learning; some lessons of failure; lessons of hardship; lessons of success; and lessons of faith. As we face this lesson of life, I ask you seniors to do one thing — that is to keep the faith. All we can do at this time, again, is say we are sorry.”
“My heart broke for him,” Cassi said. “He was heartbroken when they decided to cancel. He felt like he was letting every kid out there down.”
The last days
“I will always cherish that moment as probably the last thing I did as the WCYF President.”
In lieu of the market shows and live sales, the fair held an online recovery sale.
“We were very lucky to have had the support from those who contributed to the online recovery sale,” Rodney said. “It doesn’t make up for not having the fair for those kids, but at least it allowed for others to contribute to those kid’s efforts and costs. Life lessons are learned through the fair. This was just a lesson of hardship and resilience of the organization. I was sad that this was happening my last year, but just like I tell those kids at the fair, life isn’t always fair. It’s what we learn from those hard times that determines how you will end up.”
Darrel expressed empathy for Rodney’s feelings toward his last year, saying, “I do feel like he was short-changed. I know he feels that way, too, but I wish he wouldn’t let that be the only thing he remembers about his presidency. He’s done so much for so long. He has the biggest heart for this community and I just want him to know that.”
“If I could go back in time, knowing what I know now, I would tell the first year Rodney to take it day-by-day. Don’t worry with things you can’t change.”
Cassi told The Gin, “I just want him to know that we are so proud of him. He has dedicated 18 years. One thing I really loved is our two boys getting to experience their dad as the fair president while they served on the junior fair board. Those times are really special.”
On May 22, WCYF announced the passing of WCYF past president Donald “Duck” Nohavitza, a mentor to the 13th president. With Donald’s passing came the greatest honor of his time, Rodney said.
“One of the biggest honors that I had while president was being asked to speak at the funeral of Mr. Donald ‘Duck’ Nohavitza. Jeff Nohavitza, Duck’s son, asked me to say a few words about his dad at the funeral reception,” he said. “It was such an honor. Mr. Nohavitza was president when I was a freshman in high school. I remember him being the president, but I really got to know him while serving with him on the board. Duck was always one of those guys that would make you laugh. He would bring the fun in volunteering at the fair. Even while working, he would always be the one to make you laugh. I will always cherish that moment as probably the last thing I did as the WCYF President.”
Rodney handed over the reins of the fair to Ed Weinheimer on Tuesday, July 21.
“I know Ed will do great. All I can say is, ‘Don’t aim for perfection. There are things that will happen that will be a reminder that we are human and we aren’t in control.’ He did asked me to serve on the executive board and I will be there to help him in any way possible.”
Looking back on his tenure, Rodney said, “If I could go back in time, knowing what I know now, I would tell the first year Rodney to take it day-by-day. Don’t worry with things you can’t change. Just enjoy every moment as they happen. To my executive board, the ladies at the office and staff, the volunteers and contributors, thank you for all you have done and continue to do. We are all in it for the youth of Wharton County. We hope to see everyone again next year.”
Natalie Frels-Busby also contributed to the article.