Helen Houts is the 2019 grand marshal of the Jefferson County Fair and Rodeo. A former Jefferson County Fairgrounds office secretary, fair volunteer and 4-H leader, Houts brings her trademark positive attitude to the job.
"I feel very honored. I had no idea that I'd be chosen for that. Having just retired from the chamber and then to have that happen not too long after that, I was like 'Wow, this is really great!'" she said.
Houts was selected by the fair board at the end of 2018 and began her grand marshal duties in February at the coronation of the Jefferson County Fair Court. She will be present at the opening ceremony of the 2019 fair and will be featured in the fair parade riding in a Model-T.
According to fairgrounds coordinator Brian Crow, the fair board tries to choose as grand marshal "somebody that has contributed substantially to the fair and rodeo and who has a great reputation in the community."
He went on to say, "I'm thrilled that Helen accepted our nomination as grand marshal. She is an outstanding member of our community, she has a long history with the fairgrounds, and she is an outstanding supporter of what we do."
Houts' history with the fair began in 1970, when she and Jodi Eagan organized a 4-H modeling club for girls from about 9 years old through high school age. Their own daughters participated in the club and the girls learned to make their own clothes, how to groom themselves, and how to model for photographs.
A few years later, Houts began volunteering during the fair as a superintendent of the vendors. She was responsible for helping food and commercial vendors sign up and check in and made sure they had what they needed.
Houts enjoyed her experience with the fair so much that when she learned in 1982 that the position of fairgrounds office secretary was open, she decided to apply. She got the job and kept it until 1997.
"I loved it," Houts said. "It was interesting, always something to do, always booking things in. We went out and weeded the flower beds sometimes, Floyd and I did, because our budget was pretty tight, and the county didn't do the work out there then."
Houts worked with six different boards during her tenure, though some members stayed on for more than one term. "They were all very nice and easy to work with. And I had to take minutes by hand at the board meetings, so that really made you feel more a part of things."
In those days, the fairgrounds office was upstairs in the arena building. "We had it fixed up really nice up there and we had a big window that looked over into the arena, so we got to watch all of the horse activities whenever we wanted to," Houts said. "After I left, they brought the trailer in where the office is now."
"It was very enjoyable, and I've always thought the fair was one of the most important events in our county because its purpose is to show off the county, not only to citizens here, but to anyone else that is in surrounding counties or tourists that come through. At that time, we had a huge attendance to our fairs," Houts said.
Houts came to Madras in 1960 after marrying Bill Houts, who was from Madras but was attending college in Redding, California, at the time. She had dropped out of college to help support her mother and younger sister after her father died and was working at a radio station.
She started out as a "Girl Friday" at the station, but soon found herself on the air. At about age 18, Houts had a morning women's show where she talked about recipes and "stuff like that, things gals do," she said.
After they married, they moved to Madras to work on the Houts and Sons family farm. "He really didn't want to," she said of her husband. "He wanted to move somewhere where he could be like a city boy."
But Houts had grown up on a farm herself and she talked him into joining the family farm. "I loved the farm. I was an outdoor tomboy," she said.
The Houts were 20 years old when they got married, and then had their three children in quick succession. "I was pregnant the first three years we were married," Houts said.
Despite having three young children, Houts worked on the farm when needed, often bringing the kids along with her. The couple worked on the Houts and Sons family farm for 20 years before moving on to different opportunities.
In 1980, Houts and her husband started a retail nursery on their property. They sold flowers, plants and trees for about 12 years.
"We had a really good business. People in the community were very supportive. I had some really loyal customers and I had lots of people I hardly even knew," Houts said.
For most of her working life, Houts worked at least two and sometimes three jobs at a time. It was while Houts and her husband were running the nursery that she took the job working under Floyd Bauer at the fairgrounds. From 1982-1992, she worked mornings at the fairgrounds and afternoons at the nursery.
In 1992, the Houts closed up the nursery, so Houts began working as a prep cook at Grandma Hoffy's to supplement her work at the fairgrounds.
She continued in both positions until 1997, when she quit in order to help Rick Allen start up Mail, Copies and More. She worked there until 2002.
Houts' husband, Bill, and their daughter, Tamara, had reestablished the Meet Market pub, in 1993. Helen helped out by doing the books and occasionally working in the kitchen when needed. The Houts sold the restaurant at the end of 2004.
In 2002-2003, Houts found herself battling stage 4 breast cancer. "I was very fortunate in having good doctors who knew what they were doing," Houts said. Her oncologist told her it would be hard to beat, but that they would do it.
Houts' oncologist stressed the importance of keeping a positive attitude — a tendency that came naturally to Houts and that was reinforced by her success in surviving cancer. She has tried to pass it along to others. "Any time I have a friend that gets cancer and they are afraid, I just really preach that to them," she said.
Sadly, the Houts' son Bradley was not so fortunate. He succumbed to cancer in 2005. Houts took care of him at his home in Louisville, Kentucky, for the last three months of his life.
After returning home from Louisville, Houts was unemployed for a time before another opportunity presented itself. In 2006, Chamber of Commerce Director Parrish Van Wert asked Houts to work part time to fill in for Kayla DuPont as executive assistant while she was on maternity leave. When DuPont decided not to come back to work after the baby was born, Houts had the job full time.
"I went through three different directors and a lot of changes of board members," she said. "My favorite thing was meeting all the people that came in, because they came in from all over the country, the world. It was very educational, very interesting."
Houts also enjoyed working on graphics, such as the chamber's flyers and posters. "I guess there wasn't anything I didn't like," she said.
Houts stayed in that position for 12 years. She retired at the end of 2018, at the age of 79.
Now that she's retired, Houts plans to spend some time working outside. "I'm trying to get the yard whipped in shape. I've been planting flowers and getting back into that swing of things."
When the weather is too nasty to be outside, Houts keeps busy inside on her computer. She uses it to keep in touch with family and she also makes her own greeting cards.
Houts is currently on the Relay For Life committee and hopes to expand her volunteer work as she settles into retirement. In the meantime, look for her at the fair wearing her sash and her smile.
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