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Former CEO takes in the Great Minnesota Get Together as a regular visitor for first time since 1969

Never one for job-hopping, Jerry Hammer worked at every State Fair since he was 15, starting with a position in the greenhouse and working his way up to the top job.

Jerry Hammer having a celebratory beer at the Minnesota State Fair’s Ball Park Café on Thursday.
Jerry Hammer having a celebratory beer at the Minnesota State Fair’s Ball Park Café on Thursday.
MinnPost photo by Joe Kimball

After 27 years working as the CEO of the Minnesota State Fair, Jerry Hammer is now retired. Never one for job-hopping, he’d worked at every State Fair since 1970, when he was 15, starting with a position in the greenhouse and working his way up to the top job.

So, what was it like Thursday – opening day of the 2023 State Fair – when he walked onto the fairgrounds for the first time in 53 years as a “civilian?”

“It was bizarre,” said Hammer, who is 68. “A little odd, but actually really nice.”

He started the day wandering the grounds with his wife, Debbie, their two grown children and their families. His whole gang, 11 of them in total, have always been avid fairgoers. Last year, they all qualified for the “12-Day Club” by attending each of the fair’s 12 days.

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But it was different this year because Dad/Grandpa stayed with them for an extended morning stroll. 

“I’d always get to see them on fair days, but usually just for 15 or 20 minutes at a time before I’d have to get back to my rounds. So this was good; this was special,” he said.

Later on opening day there was another special moment: He had a beer at the fair for the first time in 40 years.

Back in the ‘80s when he was the fair’s PR guy who dealt with the media, he had a couple beers with friends one evening after work, went to bed and was awakened with a 1 a.m. call about a fair emergency. The details, he said, are fuzzy. 

“I wasn’t in real bad shape, so I dealt with it, but I decided then and there: no more beer during the fair,” he said.

His friend, Jake Nyberg, knows that story so Thursday afternoon he invited Hammer to the Ball Park Cafe, near the Food Building, where, by coincidence, the Lift Bridge Brewery was celebrating the 10-year anniversary of its popular fair-themed brew Mini-Donut Beer. Hammer and Nyberg toasted the occasion, along with Dave Theissen, the cafe’s owner. No worries about a press call after that one, Hammer said: “I don’t work here anymore.” 

Fair roots

Hammer grew up in St. Paul, just blocks from the fairgrounds. “A long drive and a six-iron away,” said Hammer, who now has more time to golf with his boyhood chums. He still lives nearby, not far from Como Park. 

At 15, he began working the summer greenhouse job at the fair. His friends were jealous because he made $1.75 an hour and worked 8 to 4:30, Monday through Friday. “Everybody else was working maybe 20 hours a week, sometimes Friday nights and Saturdays. And they made less.”

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He kept the job through high school at Cretin and then college at St. Thomas, where he majored in journalism. Still working at the fair the summer after graduation, he appeared in a newspaper photo showing fairground preparations, and the next day got a call from the Rev. James Whalen, the head of St. Thomas’ journalism program, who had seen the photo and wondered why his newly-minted graduate wasn’t working in his chosen field. 

Whalen told him the Owatonna newspaper was looking for a sports editor. Students tended to listen to Whalen’s suggestions, so by fall Hammer was working on a sports desk in south-central Minnesota.

But the fair always beckoned and by the next summer, Hammer was back in Falcon Heights working in the fair’s space rental department. Soon after, he moved to Public Relations and when the top fair job opened up in 1996, Hammer was named CEO.

Making changes

At that time, the fair was running well, but many of the buildings were aging, with many dating back to the 1920s and ‘30s. Fair officials had been told in 1955 that the horse barn roof needed immediate repair, but it hadn’t happened yet.

Under Hammer’s guidance, the fair got approval to sell its own revenue bonds, so it could take on big projects like the barn roofs, remodeling the grandstand, building the West End and the Bazaar and a transit station. Not to mention the bathrooms. 

Clean, modern bathrooms are crucial, he said. “I tell the staff that we’re only as good as our bathrooms, and they laugh. But people can tell how much you care by how much you take care of them.”

Hammer also started the Minnesota State Fair Foundation, a hugely successful, nationally renowned non-profit that raises money for fair programs and helps preserve buildings.

But his tenure wasn’t filled with just good news.

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In March 2020, when preparations for the August event were well underway, fair officials realized that COVID would derail the fair. It was canceled. The next year, despite ongoing COVID concerns, the fair returned, although attendance was off; 1.3 million attended versus the record 2.1 million in 2019.

There was a divide that year, he said, with some saying it was too soon to reopen. “It was actually more difficult than having no fair, but we’d learned more about COVID transmission and decided that, as a state, we needed that fair,” he said.

There have been safety concerns in recent years, including a shooting near the Midway last year. The fair takes no budget short-cuts with public safety, he said. “Whatever they need,” he said. “Anytime you get two million people together, there is a potential for problems,” he said. Teams of federal, state and local law enforcement officials work with the fair police department to monitor the grounds, he said.

Meet the new boss

Renee Alexander, a veteran fair official who has been booking grandstand entertainment acts since 2006, is the new fair CEO. She leads a year-around staff of 80, which grows to a few hundred in the summer and about 3,000 during the fair.

“She’s great with people, very special, and I feel great about how things are going,” he said.

Hammer, known around the fair for his congenial and humble leadership style, gives credit for any success to the teams he’s led over the years.

“I felt my job was to provide a good work environment and set a good tone. I tried to convey that we have a responsibility for an incredible state treasure, and that they should also have fun: and then let ‘em go do their jobs,” he said.

“People will live up to your expectations if you trust them; they’ll be creative and innovative. And I think they understood how lucky we are to do this. How many people have jobs where the fundamental purpose is to bring joy?”

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Now, with more time to actually enjoy the fair, Hammer will enjoy more Midway excursions with the family, and, for the first time in decades, take in a grandstand show: Brandi Carlile on Tuesday night. 

“Last one was Neil Diamond in the mid-70s,” he said. “I’d sometimes see parts of shows, cutting through the grandstand on my patrols, but never stayed or met the performers.”

He’ll likely try more fair foods; in his working days lunch and dinner were usually a quick bite he could eat while walking around. His favorites were Peters Wieners or hamburger baskets or El Sol tacos.

He said he thought about retiring earlier, and was close to announcing it in 2020, But two weeks later COVID hit and he decided not to leave during a crisis. “I needed to stay until the fair was back on track.”

“But if I’d retired five years from now, or five years ago, it would be the same. As a newly-minted retired guy, I’m so proud of what the staff does and I’m so grateful for the opportunity to have been here.”