It’s been only a decade since Collins took over as the fourth director of the State Fair of West Virginia, but some of those years have been marked by circumstances that could qualify her for a juggling act on the main stage.
On top of being pregnant during two Augusts —one with twins — she’s also been forced to make decisions about how to keep the fair afloat during two years of a global pandemic. Of the lifetime of experiences that prepared her to lead one of the state’s largest and longest events, plus a property that hosts multiple events throughout the year, Collins credits her West Virginia University Sports Communications internship as the one that trained her to meet the day-to-day hiccups and outright emergencies that come with the territory.
Kelly Tuckwiller Collins (’09, ’11, Reed College of Media. Director of the State Fair of West Virginia.
“I can honestly say that the men and women in that office truly helped my career,” Collins said. “I’m somebody who learns by doing and just getting that real-world experience was important.” WVU Sports Communications gave her plenty of that. She covered volleyball, track and field and tennis while also helping with women’s basketball games and home games for basketball and football. But even as she was required to be at football camp, the State Fair of West Virginia was always in the back of her mind.
The longtime 4-H Club member was still active at the fair and being there meant missing an important few days of messaging for the WVU football team. The communications team extracted a price for her absence — Ben and Ellen’s Donuts, a State Fair favorite. She happily packed those paper bags filled with cinnamon-sugar-coated deliciousness back to Morgantown and into the hands of the team.
Collins had been attending the State Fair since she was a babe in arms, and at 12 predicted her future career to her dad outside the sheep barn. He offered her fatherly support for her dream, but Collins said she’s not sure he really thought it was a possibility.
“I know my parents always said I was a really determined kid and now that I have children, I can see exactly what they’re talking about,” Collins said. Determination can be bred from disappointment, and Collins didn’t get the first job she applied for in Fairlea. She headed to Oak Hill to work for a high-adventure marketing firm for a year; then when the same job opened up she felt more ready. Collins took another go at it and had her foot on the fairgrounds. Three fairs later, her boss announced that she was leaving and wanted Collins to apply for the leadership position. Collins was 27 — as the youngest person to hold the job she knew she had big shoes to fill.
Every big event has its hurdles. In 2019, for instance, one of the large concerts for the main stage pulled out, leaving Collins and crew to deal with upset ticket-holders and finding a replacement act late in the game. She thought that would be the worst thing that could happen for the State Fair.
2020 said “Hold my cinnamon roll.”
It’s safe to say that by March, most of the State Fair is planned and getting finishing touches before execution. In 2020, the State Fair of West Virginia was a victim of the global pandemic that shut down most of the world. Collins knew there would be no event that year, but still had expenses and employees to pay.
If anyone doubted that she was the right person for the job, 2020 answered that question. She started with Fair Food weekends. Food vendors from all over the country showed up to participate and families showed up to sit on blankets on the grass, separated from everyone else, but still together as they hadn’t been in months.
“It was really cool to see that because I think everybody was a little bit lonely during that time,” she recalled.
It was good for the community, and it was good for those vendors, some of whom had to buy more food after the first day because they had underestimated the crowd size. One thing led to another for Collins and her staff, and as the Christmas holidays approached, they built on an old idea.
A light display show had been successful before, but Collins felt the pandemic called for a larger, but more individualized celebration. Using the paved one-lane roads through the fairgrounds, she and her colleagues designed a drive-through holiday light display with music via an FM station. The admission was by donation, and on the first night almost 2,000 cars made their way through the show. By the end of the season, there had been 11,000 cars that raised $60,000. Even people with active COVID who didn’t feel sick could drive through the fair to enjoy the lights and music.
Needless to say, that started something. The next year the event grew and businesses donated lights, displays and dollars so the still-popular show is brighter and fancier than ever.
Last year’s State Fair was one of the largest in its long history, with record weekday and general attendance, sold-out concerts and fairgoers leaving comments about the wonderful time they had with their families and friends.
“That’s really the best measure of success — how people viewed the fair,” she said. “I am lucky to get to do what I do because it is a fun job. My job is to make people smile and provide an atmosphere [where] they can make memories with their friends and family. It's a lot of smiling faces.”