When Mike Smith enters a livestock barn in North Carolina, whether a county fair or the NC State Fair, you would think he was a local celebrity. Truth be told, to many of those who participate in NC livestock events, Mike IS a local celebrity. There’s no shortage of families that offer seating, snacks, and most importantly, hugs to a kindhearted man that has become extended family to those in the barn.
On Sunday, October 15, 2017, Mike’s celebrity status reached an all-time high, with his induction into the NC State Fair Livestock Hall of Fame. While most of the Hall of Fame inductees are lifetime breeders or financial sponsors, Mike, along with Mrs. Carol Turner, were selected for their roles in establishing a NC State Fair Competition that, for many years, was unique to our state – the NC State Fair Special Awards Livestock Show.
Mike is unlike any Hall of Fame Inductee before him; he was born with Down syndrome, a genetic disorder classified as a disability in the United States. But what some see as a disability, Mike never saw as a hurdle, and neither do those who love him. He has an amazing mind for numbers, loves children, and has always enjoyed being around livestock and fairs
In the late 1980s, Mike began traveling with his nieces as they competed in livestock events. While at those events, Mike’s job was to pick up manure from behind the cattle! When you heard Mike yell “PHONE CALL,” you knew it was code for ‘an animal left behind a pile of manure to be picked up.’ And you didn’t dare try to do it yourself – it was Mike’s job, and he was good at it!
In the mid-90s, Mike began to ask why he wasn’t able to show when he traveled with, assisted, and watched his nieces enter the ring time after time. So, several county fairs would allow Mike to walk an animal through the ring before the shows started. But the NC State Fair was different – it was big, it was busy, and it didn’t have time to let one person walk through the ring.
Enter several of the families who think of Mike as one of their own. The concept of peaceful protest is not new, and the children of those families didn’t think it was right that Mike didn’t get his shot to show. So, they approached the State Fair office and politely informed them that if Mike didn’t get to walk his animal through the ring, they would pack up their animals and go home, before they even had the opportunity to show. There would be enough animals between the families leaving the fair that it resonated with the fair office. Mike was allowed to walk through the ring before the State Fair shows officially started. There were no officiates, no announcements, and the ribbon Mike was presented by a family friend was dug out of a family tack box.
This resonated with Mrs. Carol Turner, a secretary in the State Fair Livestock Office at the time. What the youth and Mike didn’t know is they had found an ally. It wasn’t good enough for Mike to just walk through the ring with no recognition – in her mind, if he was to travel to and work at the State Fair, he deserved to participate.
The following year, in 1997, the NC State Fair Special Award Livestock Show was born, with Mike as the single participant. Only this year, Mike was presented a ribbon by the NC State Fair, along with prize money. The next year, Mike brought a friend, who also had Down Syndrome. Five years later, in 2002, the show had grown to 20 participants coming from across the state. Now, it’s grown to host close to 100 participants and has expanded to both weekends of the NC State Fair under Carol Turner’s watchful eye.
The exhibitors who participate in what is affectionately known as the Special Show must have a mental or physical disability. The Special Show exhibitor is paired with a youth exhibitor who owns a cow or sheep who acts as a helper during the show, with the Special Show exhibitor being allowed to control the animal as much or as little as they want. They can select to show a cow, sheep, or both. Each time they enter the ring, participants receive a medallion, ribbon, State Fair t-shirt, prize money, and tickets to the midway – sponsored by the NC State Fair and AgriSupply. And the State Fair livestock competitions stop for the Special Show, as it’s judged by the officials who judge the competitive events.
Mike is right in the mix of it all. Mike has been presented a belt buckle for his role in starting the event, he’s been allowed to help judge, and most of all, he exits the ring with his ribbon and medallion held high.
For the participants of the Special Show, Mike was the catalyst that created an opportunity to touch and interact with animals that most never had. Mike is the reason that youth who bring animals to the fair look forward to volunteering their time and animals to assist others participate in livestock events, when they could otherwise be napping after long, hard days at the fair. Mike is the reason that for an hour and a half, all eyes in the livestock barn stop seeing Down syndrome, spina bifida, cerebral palsy, Asperger’s, and autism, and instead focus on the pure joy of youth and adults interacting with animals.
To hear the applause of the crowd and the laughter of the exhibitors, to see the faces light up with smiles and excitement, to witness the moments where animals and people are brought together are heartwarming and humbling. And they’re all made possible because Mike wasn’t satisfied to sit on the sidelines and watch. Mike’s sweet spirit and passion for livestock are embodied in the NC State Fair Special Awards Livestock Show.