BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – He started hocking food in 1975 at the Rodeo as a way to get his face out in the public after he and his wife purchased an eye care business in Fort Madison.
Forty-three years later, Larry Smith, one of the most renowned and relied upon names in Fort Madison, is ending his “rodeo career” with Tri-State Rodeo.
Smith announced at the board’s meeting in January, that he was stepping off the Tri-State Rodeo Board of Directors in 2019.
Growing up in southwest Iowa near Creston, Smith considers himself an Iowa “farmboy”. He graduated high school near Creston, at what is now the CAM Community School District. He studied at Iowa State University in a pre-optometry program before finishing his degree at the University of Indiana.
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In 1975 he moved to Fort Madison with his wife Carolyn, whom he had met while they were both pursuing optometry doctorals in Bloomington, Ind., to start a business they acquired here.
Smith started working in the Rodeo food tents as part of the Fort Madison Jaycees, who used to handle the vending at the Rodeo prior to the Fort Madison Aquinas and Holy Trinity Catholic taking over food and beverage services.
He continued to work with the Jaycees for several years and then began to take on more community roles including being a part of the Fort Madison Chamber of Commerce. As the Chamber President in 1983, Smith had a seat on the Rodeo Operating Committee and in 1984, Larry Roberts, the operating committee chairman, asked Smith to help bring back Pre-Rodeo Days.
“One of the first things we did was book Sawyer Brown, who had just won Ed McMahon’s Star Search and we had them in on a Wednesday at the arena to kick things off that year,” Smith said.
Another event that set up was Kids & Clowns Day at Victory Park. Smith said the committee underestimated the attendance and things got out of hand as legendary Rodeo clowns including Leon Coffey were on hand to sign autographs for the kids.
“There were way more people there than we planned and we had to keep sending volunteers to the stores for hot dogs and stuff. Then the winds were like 30 mph that day and we were chasing hot dog wrappers all over the park. That could have been my last year with the Rodeo,” he laughed.
Other events brought back included the Chili Supper, which was originally held in the Elks Parking lot.
Over the next decade Smith worked his way through the Operating Committee overseeing programs such as buttons and sales, program sales, advertising, entertainment, and working his way up to General Chairman in 1992 and 1993.
In 1989, during Carl Saunders’ term as General Chairman, the operating committee was restructured and Smith didn’t have a seat on the committee that year.
Now the board has two members from the Fort Madison Chamber of Commerce, but they don’t share board members.
“Before then, the two boards had so many things in common it made sense to have a Chamber board member on the rodeo operating committee,” he said.
As general chairman, Smith helped lead the transition from a Friday thru Sunday rodeo, to a Thursday-Saturday rodeo.
From 1994-95 he served in the transitional role of Past Chairman and then until about 2002 he served in several capacities in the Past Chairman’s group. In 2003 he started on the Tri-State Board, which is a traditional transition from the operating committee.
As part of the board, Smith said he got one of the most fun gigs available and that is the assistant to Rodeo MC Boyd Polhamus.
“I got to work with him on the non-PRCA stuff. Providing him with all the local information with queens’ names, local sponsors, and helping him with that side of the rodeo,” Smith said. “He’s just a great guy and has been the voice of the rodeo, and he just loves to talk.”
He said his time with the Rodeo has afforded him a chance to give back to Fort Madison. But Smith hasn’t just spent his volunteer time with the Tri-State Rodeo organization. He’s served with the Fort Madison Chamber, Jaycees, Fort Madison’s Southeast Iowa Regional Riverboat Commission board, the Fort Madison Economic Development Group, the Baxter Sports Complex board, and the Fort Madison Promoting Outdoor Recreational Trails (P.O.R.T.) operating committee.
“I just enjoy being involved in the community that’s given a lot to us” he said. I feel really good when I can give back in some small way.”
He said the rodeo operating committee and board have always had the same goal of providing a great event and great entertainment at a price people can afford.
“We always focus on making sure we have a really good value in that ticket price. We want to make sure everyone has a chance to come out and enjoy the rodeo. Sure we’ve put in VIP seating and have put money into infrastructure improvements, but we always have that base ticket where everyone can come in and see a really great show.”
Entertainment is one area that Smith said is always a challenge, yet the Rodeo continues to bring in national acts.
“When I was in charge of entertainment, we had a budget of about $20,000 to $25,000 and that’s not even close to what they have to spend now. Entertainment is tough, yet this group continues to find ways to bring in some of the best acts in the country.”
He said board investments have kept the rodeo contemporary and garnering attention from the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association.
“Only the top 60 prize money rodeos in the country qualify for the National Finals Rodeo and we’re still in that group. It’s important to stay there so we can continue to attract the top cowboys in the country. There are lots of places they can be and they still choose to come here.”
The CINCH Shootout has helped bring additional talent and attention to the Rodeo. Smith that addition on Wednesday night, which is still a separate rodeo event from the regular three-day Tri-State Rodeo, in the very near future could vault the TSR into the top half of purse money in the country and position the Rodeo for even greater things.
Smith said he’s always stuck with volunteer work and never entered the political arena, although he’s been asked on numerous occasions.
“There was talk about me running for Lee County Supervisors or city council or even state office back when Rich Taylor won, but I think politics is a dirty word. I don’t want to please some, I try and please everyone,” he said.
He said he’s trying to pull back from some of the volunteer efforts he’s engaged in, but it still having a hard time not serving.
“I just don’t know how to say “no”, yet,” he laughed. “But I’m learning.