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Big Tex’s pardner to retire

Errol McKoy wasn’t exactly a stranger, but Dallas Morning News readers really didn’t meet him until October 1988 on the opening day of his first State Fair of Texas as its president.

Actually, it was the first morning of his first day, which he spent policing the grounds, picking up gum wrappers and cigarette butts. “Cleanup starts with me,” he told a reporter. “If I don’t believe in it, they don’t believe in it.”

That was the Errol McKoy who started as a sky ride operator at Six Flags Over Texas and worked his way into the executive suites. After 21 years with that company, he took on an even greater challenge, running the State Fair.

He announced recently that he will retire. At 71, he looks forward to the travel, recreation and serenity that retirement brings, even as he returns to his personal passion for water-based amusement rides. He’ll be remembered as an innovator who took the reins of a great Texas tradition and, through some strokes of brilliance and remarkable attention to detail, elevated it.

In an era when state fairs nationwide are in something of a decline, the Texas fair — McKoy’s baby for a quarter-century — defies the trend with ever-expanding interest and attendance. By the fair’s standard measuring stick — coupon sales — receipts have quadrupled to about $40 million annually during McKoy’s tenure.

He also made a lasting mark through new rides, bigger events and, of course, the annual fried food competition. Just as important, he leaves a legacy of a cleaner, safer fair that attracts new and, especially, repeat customers from Texas and beyond. The little things — the details — have proved every bit as important as the big ones, which is precisely the way Errol McKoy lives his life.

What he has done in an increasingly short-attention-span America is preserve and build on the traditions that appeal to so many while drawing new generations with cutting-edge stuff. If that sounds easy, point to another big event still thriving after nearly 13 decades.

McKoy even found a way to turn the bad luck of Big Tex’s fiery demise last year into a marketing opportunity that only ramped up enthusiasm for this year’s fair.

Texas carries an exceptionally strong sense of identity across the nation, exemplified by its people, its politicians, its institutions and, yes, its state fair. Asked how that identity is best expressed, McKoy said: “Two words. Big Tex.”

Vice President Mitchell Glieber will take over when McKoy formally steps down in April, and never has the big-shoes cliche been more appropriate. In fact, one could argue that the last 25 years have shown us that Errol McKoy stands every bit as tall as the 55-foot cowboy statue.

Bigger and more familiar

“I’ve tried to give it an aura of bigness, without sacrificing things like the agricultural shows that made it so popular. It has to seem like both a world’s fair and a state fair, ” McKoy said.

The Dallas Morning News