Westmont Magazine It's a Big Job, Even in Texas
Like most things in Texas, the State Fair is big. Its 52-foot mascot, Big Tex, grins under a 75-gallon hat. He points toward the Texas Star, the biggest Ferris wheel in North America. Behind him is the Cotton Bowl, where Texas plays Oklahoma during the fair; it’s one of the biggest rivalries in college football. In fact, the State Fair of Texas is the biggest annual exposition in the nation, drawing three million people, running 24 days, covering 277 acres, offering 200 places to eat and featuring hundreds of rides, shows, exhibits and special events. It’s impossible to see it in one day, and it gets bigger every year.
Promoting the fair is a big job, and it has occupied a big part of Nancy Newell Wiley’s life. In January 2005 she retired as senior vice president of public relations and marketing for the fair, ending a 33-year career.
How did a California native end up in the heart of Texas? Nancy enrolled at Westmont with the class of 1959, but left after two years to marry Max Wiley ’56. He took her to Dallas, where he went to Dallas Seminary and she finished college at Southern Methodist University. After raising support, the couple spent three years in Germany with Baptist Mid-Missions.
Then Max died, leaving Nancy with three young children, ages 9 months to 6 years. She returned to the United States; eventually friends in Dallas drew her back to the area. She found work as a freelance writer and published a novel, “Campus Conflicts,” about the first year at a small Christian college in California. “It has a lot of echoes of Westmont,” she says.
“I was a single mom at a time when there weren’t very many,” she says. “I had to start over. It was hard at times, but I had a lot of help and support.”
Writing for the fair’s newsletter in 1972 led to her big career. “It has been unlike any other job I can imagine,” she says. “I always start fresh. Every year is a new fair. It’s the Dallas version of Mardi Gras.”
Working with the media was a favorite part of her job, but it wasn’t always easy. She has faced inquiries about accidents on rides, animal rights and violent crime. She also gave tours to visiting celebrities. When Mikhail Gorbachev asked to see the fair, Nancy put together a 10-golf-cart caravan. He enjoyed the auto show and even ate a corny dog, invented at the fair in 1942.
To celebrate the fair’s 100th anniversary in 1986, she wrote “The Great State Fair of Texas.” The illustrated history is now in its third edition. Year by year it chronicles the fair, putting each one in its contemporary context. She shares whimsical information (such as the model of the Washington monument made from false teeth) as well as controversies and recurring financial struggles.
“The world has changed tremendously, but the thing that struck me was how much about the fair has remained the same — the animals, cooking contests, parades, concerts and fireworks,” Nancy says. “What people wanted to do with their families in 1886 and in 2005 is surprisingly similar.”
The simplicity of the early days — no liability insurance and no government regulations — holds some appeal, she admits. But she takes pride in the many modern additions, such as staging a major Broadway show on the fairgrounds.
While Nancy will no longer show celebrities around, she may take her five grandchildren to the fair. They’re the important people in her life now. She also hopes to travel. But come fall, she may well be back on the midway in time for the opening parade, dodging crowds and smelling corny dogs.