MOUNT VERNON – During a rare hour off at the Knox County Fair on Wednesday, Larry Hall sat in the Junior Fair Board office and caught his breath. Well, he tried.
RAP! RAP! RAP!
Hall grinned, broke from discussion and looked toward the window. A little fist knocked hard against the glass. The boy knocking was just tall enough to see Hall over the ledge.
“Five,” Hall mouthed as he held five fingers up for the boy to see. He’d be opening up the premium pay station, where 4-H exhibitors could receive a small stipend from the county commissioners for their work, at 5 o’clock.
He’s going to miss this. For all the chaos fair week holds, it’s also a life-changing experience for hundreds of local youngsters. Hall has seen it first-hand in his 41 years with Knox County 4-H – 15 as a volunteer, then 26 as an OSU extension educator.
That’s why it’s so hard for him to walk away, even though he knows it’s time.
This year marked Hall’s final fair as an OSU extension educator. His last official day on the job will be Jan. 31, 2020. It was by no means an easy decision to make, Hall said, given his lifelong dedication to the program that impacts thousands of Knox County children each year.
“This is bittersweet,” Hall said Wednesday. He has grandchildren in the program, so he’ll stay involved to an extent, but he will no longer hold his official educator position.
Hall, 68, said he wanted to retire now so he could spend more time with his family. He hopes to travel with his wife, Gwen, and “enjoy the things that I can without having to go to work every single day.”
“It’s time. You know, OSU is changing and the technology’s changing. My health does not allow me to do the things I want to do. I still want to volunteer in some capacities, but it’s time,” Hall said. “And going out when I’m as healthy as I am and being able to do things… it’s something to look forward to.”
Hall’s absence will be felt every day, particularly when it comes time for Knolmes County 4-H Camp, a four-day outdoor camp Hall ran each June, and the countless other outreach programs he spearheaded. During fair week, he typically worked more as a “gopher,” running around and performing miscellaneous tasks while his fellow OSU extension educator, Andrea Rees, handled administrative duties.
Still, Hall had a tremendous impact on the fair experience for thousands of 4-Hers over the years. He worked behind the scenes, sure, but he did something else that allowed members to grow and reach new heights:
He stayed out of the way.
Letting the children lead
When Hall participated in 4-H as a teenager, he was a member of the Knox County 4-H Saddle Club. He started out with a pony and worked his way up to a horse. He would compete against other riders in skill contests in front of the grandstand, performing drills to music.
But as Hall got older, he began to realize that he wasn’t the most competitive rider out there. He enjoyed spending time on his horse, but when the club had speaking contests, he was eager to try his hand.
The top three placers became the horse show announcers for that year’s fair. For three years straight, Hall qualified for the job. He loved it.
“Instead of sitting on my hot, dusty horse out in the sun, I had a roof over my head and a captive audience,” Hall recalled fondly. “I had a microphone, a cold drink.”
After he graduated from Mount Vernon High School and served in the Navy, Hall felt compelled to return to Knox County 4-H and volunteer, as a way of giving back to the program. He eventually applied to become an OSU extension educator, and not long after he received the job, he found himself volunteering every year at the state fair horse show.
“While down there, we were doing office work and setting up barrels and jumps and whatever needed to be done,” Hall recalled. One day, fair officials came to Hall and asked him a question:
“Larry, can you announce a horse show?”
“Well, yeah,” he responded.
“I found myself in the crow’s nest of the coliseum at the state fairgrounds – captive audience, a couple thousand people, microphone, radio, fan, and a cold drink,” he recalled Wednesday, letting out a hearty chuckle.
For a day and a half, he called the state’s biggest horse show. It occurred to him later that without his experience in Knox County 4-H, he would not have been ready for such a moment.
“I thought about it, I never would have done it as an adult if I hadn’t had the opportunity as a teenager to do that,” Hall said. “Because then I had built up the confidence, I’d made the mistakes and stuff.”
This is the kind of real-world experience Hall tried to replicate during his time as an extension educator. During fair week, for example, he let the teenagers – typically Junior Fair Board, 4-H or FFA members – run the shows. They planned and executed the shows, then assessed their performance afterwards.
“I try not to get on the microphone at any of the shows,” Hall said. “That’s the responsibility of the Junior Fair Board members, to be the recorders and the people working the ring and the announcers.”
By letting teenagers run livestock and showmanship shows themselves, Hall allowed those involved to mature and gain confidence in themselves. He made the fair about the kids, 100 percent.
Those who have passed through Hall’s program over the past three decades have reaped the benefits. Just ask Andrea Smith, an incoming sophomore at Fredericktown High School who just finished her ninth fair as a 4-H member.
“It has helped me, but I don’t really see the growth until two weeks, three weeks after fair week,” said Smith, who was a reporter and historian for the Junior Fair Board this year. “I’m like, ‘I can’t believe I just did that. I should’ve been more proud of myself at that fair than I was.’”
Hall’s hands-off leadership carried over to his other 4-H ventures as well. At his Knolmes County summer camp, Hall encouraged the more experienced 4-H members take part in a leadership program, where they would learn how to become camp counselors. These teenagers would eventually mentor the younger campers and, in a way, make the camp their own.
This opportunity changed Emma Laymon’s life. Laymon, the 2019 Junior Fair Queen, was homeschooled growing up. Her mother, Jade, recalled her being “very shy” and lacking self-confidence. But after Hall convinced Laymon to enter the leadership program, she quickly found her footing as a mentor to those around her.
“We just watched her blossom,” Jade Laymon said. “She gained confidence, leadership skills. We couldn’t have done anything without Larry Hall because he really pushed her out of her comfort zone, to go to the leadership program.”
Laymon soon fell in love with the art of leadership and caring for others. She served as a counselor for the remainder of her 4-H days, and her confidence grew. She ran for – and was named – Fair Queen this week, due in part to her ability to deliver a strong, heartfelt speech in front of the judges.
“I never thought I could be the girl that had the queen tiara,” Emma Laymon said after being crowned. “I’m the country little tom-boy and I was like, ‘I don’t want a tiara,’ but I really looked up to all those girls. Actually having that as my own now, I want the next little girl to look up to me.”
Hall’s leadership tactics proved to be beneficial in educational outreach settings as well. He helped conduct a 4-H program called CARTEENS, where teens work with other teens who have had their first driving violation, so that they can learn from their mistakes and stay safe on the road.
He also teaches self-dependency through the program “Real Money, Real World,” which teaches teenagers key financial literacy skills, such as how to set a budget and manage their money efficiently.
“I try to make those opportunities available to the teens in the 4-H program now,” Hall said. “Some of them go on to do great things with early childhood education or become teachers, professors, or make something of themselves out in the adult world, and they tie back some of that to their 4-H experience.”
A time of transition, growth
Aside from his hands-off leadership approach, those closest to Hall in Knox County 4-H say it will be his positive energy they’ll miss the most.
“[We’ll miss] his camp passion and just his spirit in general,” said Rees, who became an extension educator in 2017 after spending 16 years as a volunteer and program coordinator. “He’s always very happy-go-lucky, and that radiates out to others.”
Hall established close relationships with many of the young men and women who came through Knox County’s program each year. To some, he became a parent-like mentor.
“Larry has made such an impact, I don’t think he really knows about it. But he’s always there, he’s always passionate about 4-H and the youth. He’s pretty much watched me grow up alongside his grandkids,” Smith said. “He’s always there for somebody. Like, if you’re down, you go to talk to Larry. He’s always gonna be in the same spot every single day.”
Fortunately for Smith and the 1,000-plus Knox County youngsters who participate in 4-H each year, Hall is leaving the program in good hands.
Rees has nearly two decades of experience in the program, and her role will likely increase when Hall leaves. Rees, a 1995 Mount Vernon High School graduate, said 4-H has only risen in popularity in Knox County in recent years. The program now offers more than 200 projects that members can get involved in, as technological advances have prompted the creation of new clubs, such as robotics and space rocket teams. Knox County 4-H also offers a variety of STEM-related projects each year.
Soon, Rees said 4-H members will begin working with Knox County’s older population through a joint initiative between Microsoft and the National 4-H Council. 4-H members will teach older residents how to use advanced technological devices, in an effort to bridge the age gap in technological literacy.
“I think I see our program is growing a little bit year by year, so that is a positive,” Rees said. “I think, for the program as a whole, that reflects back on the great things that 4-H has to offer to our kids… Because so many times it’s a stereotype – you know, it’s farm kids, it’s cooking and sewing – and it is way more than that, because we have over 200 projects that those kids can get involved in.”
Knox County boys and girls will also soon benefit from the Ramser 4-H Activity Center, a 4,600-square-foot facility resting atop the fairgrounds’ highest hill. The sterling new facility, expected to be built by this fall, will provide unprecedented space for 4-H clubs to hold meetings and work on projects.
“This opens up grand new vistas for 4-H,” Hall said at the center’s groundbreaking in April. “We’ll be able to do a lot of indoor and outdoor activities that’ll benefit not just 4-H clubs, but the community in general. So it’s exciting.”
Both Hall and Rees said Ohio State will look to fill Hall’s spot after he retires. Knox County is one of just nine counties statewide to have two extension educators, and the plan is to keep it that way.
Hall hopes the university hires his replacement soon, so that he can have time to show them the ropes. At the same time, he also wants to give them space to create.
“Any new person is going to make the program their own,” Hall said. “I realized that when I came on board, my predecessor had set some things up. He moved on and I tweaked the program. Andrea came on, she was also from Knox County, and she’s brought some great changes and organization to the program. I know that it will be in great hands with her.”
Rees views the transition as an opportunity. The program will lose Hall, but it will also have the ability to reorganize and make itself stronger in the long run.
“I think it’s an opportunity to look and see where we can continue to grow the program and if we can do some role-changing,” Rees said. “I think there may be a little bit [of change], I don’t know that there will be a whole lot.”
‘The rest is history’
When he reflects on his 26 years as an OSU extension educator, Hall talks less about himself and more about the boys and girls who have come through the program.
He’s immensely proud of the impact that 4-H has had on their lives. Some have become teachers and administrators, and some have become involved in the military. Some have stayed in Knox County and sent their children through the program as well.
This is the reason he stayed nearly three decades, and the reason he will continue to stay involved in 4-H long after he retires.
It’s the same reason he came aboard in the first place.
“I enjoy being around young people when they discover, this is something that they have a passion for,” Hall said. “I also appreciate, through workforce preparation, if they take a project and find, ‘I don’t like this at all. I’m not ever going to do this again.’ That’s great because they’re not going to spend any more time and effort and tuition to go down a career path that they don’t like.
“I want them to have a fire in their belly for whatever they’re passionate about and learn from each other and make that their career.”
During Hall’s last fair week as an official 4-H employee, he did what he usually does. He chauffeured the king and queen around the fairgrounds, ran the premium pay station and performed miscellaneous tasks. When sawdust needed to be moved from one building to another, he gathered rakes, shovels and brooms so that 4-Hers could get the job done.
These are sacred grounds for Hall and his family. Larry and Gwen met at the Knox County Fair in high school, when they were showing horses together for 4-H (she graduated from Danville in 1969). They shared their first kiss underneath the trees above the rabbit barn. In the years since, the fairgrounds have become home to the couple’s three children and seven grandchildren. Most have been, or are currently involved in 4-H as well.
Next year, the fair experience will be different for Hall. He’ll certainly still be involved in some way or another, but the week won’t be nearly as strenuous. He’ll get to spend a little more time soaking it all in – the sights and sounds of the place that changed his life, and every year changes thousands of others.
He can reflect, as he did Wednesday, on the day in 1993 when his professional legacy began. The day Ohio State offered Hall, who at that point had volunteered with 4-H for 15 years, the opportunity to become an advisor. The day that changed not only Hall’s life path, but also the life paths of Smith, Laymon and thousands of other Knox County youngsters who would learn from him in the future.
“They decided to hire me and see what we could do,” Hall said humbly, his smile widening as he leaned back in his chair. “The rest is history.”