Florida State Fair offers free admission to America's heroes
There's never been a shortage of patriotism at the Florida State Fair. But this year, fair organizers decided to roll out the red carpet for America's heroes. On Thursday, the first day of the fair, all active, reserve or retired military veterans, law enforcement, firefighters and first responders will get in free. The promotion, called Heroes Day, is a way to honor all that America's heroes do for the Tampa Bay community and the state, said Terri Parnell, spokeswoman for the Florida State Fair."We felt like we wanted to be more inclusive off our community heroes," Parnell said. "We wanted to open that up to all those who put their life on the line for us in our community and state." Gov. Rick Scott, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and Attorney General Pam Bondi will recognize local heroes when they "flip the switch" to start the fair and later during the governor's luncheon, Parnell said. The fair will also have a Veterans Affairs presence, where vets can go to learn about benefits. And fair organizers will recognize heroes throughout the day on the PA system. "We really want it to be not just a welcome but a salute," Parnell said. Some veterans who volunteer for the Florida State Fair would like to return that salute. Olin Mott Army veteran Olin Mott, now 92, who served as a board member for the Florida State Fair from late 1980s, until a few weeks ago, knows about patriotism. He was a 20-year-old private first class out of Coffee County, Ga. on Dec. 7, 1941 when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. And he was there – had been since he enlisted in 1940. Mott was walking across the parade ground at Fort Kemahameha between Hickam Field and Pearl Harbor, headed to the chow hall when he saw the explosions and felt the ground shaking. He looked up and saw the Japanese planes attacking. He worked with three others, firing a .50-caliber machine gun at the planes until a 500-round box of ammunition flew from an exploding ammunition truck and hit him in the back. With the number of active and retired military in this area, he said, he thinks it's grand that the Florida State Fair is honoring them with Heroes Day. "I think it's a wonderful idea that they are doing this," the 92-year-old said from his office on Hillsborough Avenue. "It is saying thank you to people who have gone out and served their country and gone out and done things for their community. "All those people that are on that (fair) board are patriots, every one of them," he said, noting that it was no surprise they came up with the idea for Heroes Day. "Although, you don't have to have served in the military to be a patriot. Some of the (board members) served in the military and some didn't, but all have made a significant contribution to our country. Each and every one of them is doing their share to keep this country moving forward." Mott, who resigned as a fair board member several weeks ago after suffering a heart attack last year, still goes to work nearly every day. He built his company, Olin Mott Tire Stores, beginning in 1955, expanding to Plant City, Brandon, Temple Terrace and several locations in Tampa. And he says he thinks he's doing pretty well for a 92-year-old. "I worked for my heart attack. I earned it," Mott said with a chuckle. Now, he passes the fair volunteer torch to a new generation. -- Yvette Hammett Ken Balsley Ken Balsley is a longtime Florida State Fair volunteer who knows something about commitment. Fresh out of Palm Beach High School in the summer of 1948, the Indiana transplant enlisted in the U.S. Air Force. He spent nearly three decades in service to his nation. "Twenty-eight years; almost made a career out of it," Balsley said. He spent that military career in aircraft maintenance and the educational field. That service included one year as an advisor in Vietnam, stationed at a large airbase 120 miles south of Saigon. That was during the 1970s, when Air Force personnel were familiarizing the Vietnamese with Huey helicopters. "I was a training man, teaching them how to maintain the aircraft," Balsley said. His commitment to the state fair began 13 years ago. "I'm a model railroader, and I maintain the railroad in the depot," he said of the 500-square-foot model train display in the Okahumpka Train Depot, part of Cracker Country, a fairgrounds museum dedicated to rural Florida's past. "That's what got me started in it." "I just enjoy meeting the kids and being around them," said the 83-year-old Port Tampa resident. "It's just a very pleasant situation out there." Balsley applauds the fair for saluting current and former members of the military on opening day, honoring them as heroes. "I think it's a good idea, I really do," he said. "They can't do enough for the veterans -- not just because I am one. Not so much for what I did, but some of the others. The sacrifices some guys have made." -- George Wilkins William Vickers Jr. William Vickers Jr. of South Tampa is patriotic to the core. The Air Force veteran is a faithful member of the Bayshore Patriots, a band of flag-waving residents who show up for duty at Bayshore and Bay-to-Bay boulevards on Fridays rain or shine. Vickers also is a fixture at the Florida State Fairgrounds' Cracker Country. He serves as a docent there, entertaining children and informing adults. It's a volunteer role he has perfected over the past 16 years. There is no slow down in Vickers, who turns 83 on Saturday. "I love my country," Vickers said. "I never want to retire. I want to keep going as long as I can." Vickers served in the Air Force, mainly as a communications specialist, from 1950 to 1971. After his military service, he worked as a technician and as head of security at the former Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, which is now the Straz Center. Vickers, who has been married to his wife Doris for 57 years, said he enjoys volunteering at the fairgrounds' Cracker Country because he likes spending time with children. A cancer survivor, Vickers considers himself only "semi-retired." -- Kenneth Knight The Tribune is the presenting sponsor of Heroes Day at the Florida State Fair.