When Abe Rojas was a kid, he and his friends had free entry into the fair; they would lay a plank over the canal behind the grounds, trot across and scale the fence.
Now, at a spry 82, the Korean War veteran still looks as if he can make that leap, though presently he can gain entrance anytime as hospitality host at the fair’s board room, a meeting place sponsored by Oak Valley Community Bank and utilized for guests of the board of directors.
Today he flicks through his legal pad scribbled with notes on supplies he must pick up: cups, plates, mixes, juices and anything else to make sure the guests enjoy their time here. The cool cozy area, complete with plush couches and a loveseat that can swallow you whole, is a welcome break from the heat and dirt and swaying limbs of excited fairgoers.
As Rojas runs through the litany of organizations and volunteer work he has been involved in over the past half century, it’s hard to imagine someone more committed to public service.
That strain of altruism seems just a part of his DNA, as is his love for sports. You name it, he’s probably done it; officiating and umpiring girls high school fast pitch softball, announcing football games for Turlock High and Pitman, volunteer coach for Turlock High and American Legion baseball and even summer stints as an umpire for the National Softball Association.
Early on in his career he garnered a lot of positive buzz for his work, which led to more offers to help in various capacities.
“I’ve been involved in so many things,” he says. “And my involvement as a volunteer led me to all the other things.”
That includes a seat on the committee for the Stanislaus County Board of Education and a trustee position on the Yosemite Community College District Board of Directors.
But before all of this, he was a high school student organizing activities for himself and his peers. Since there was nothing to do after school, he started setting up events, such as volleyball games, to keep students busy.
From there it progressed, and he found that he loved to mingle with people and get involved with all types of programs.
One day he got a call from a friend, the Stanislaus County fair manager, to come be a diplomat for a quinceañera that had gotten a bit out of hand. Rojas calmly talked down the rowdy few and put the situation under control. Since then, he kept in touch with the manager and returned to help where he could. He’s been a part of the fair ever since.
He then became the Parks and Recreation director for the city, and it is with this position that he amassed a multitude of contacts and connections.
His greatest achievement, and the one that puts a humble smile on his face to this day, is the development of Pedretti Park. The park and surrounding area, once slated to be home to an airport, was met with disdain from the citizens, so the city manager and mayor approached Rojas for suggestions.
What are we gonna do with that property? They asked.
Why don’t you let me build a sports complex out there? he replied, half-joking.
Two weeks later, they asked him if he was serious. He said not only was he serious, but he could get the job done with a little help from his friends.
The City spent only $30,000 for an architect, who laid out the blueprints from plans Rojas had designed himself. Throw in some state recreation grants, money from generous donors, buckets of sweat and Rojas’ ballooning web of volunteers, and in 1982 the dream became a reality. The Tegner Sports Complex opened after five years of toil, and not much longer after that, it was renamed after Rojas’ good friend who had recently died.
As he recalls those days, he is proud that he pulled off such a herculean task, but now he is content spending time working at the fair with handfuls of family members.
It started with his son, Craig, who passed away in 2014 from a sudden heart attack. Three years ago, his daughter, Kristi, became more involved. Apart from her ownership of Backstage Academy of Dance, she took on a permanent role in the beer booths (VFW, cantina, and margarita stands behind the main stage) serving thirsty patrons. Her husband, Ray Garcia, also helps lighten the load.
Added to the roster is Rojas’ two nieces Rosie and Sandra, Kristi and Ray’s three children Keaton, Siera and Branson, a UC Merced student and Bobcats basketball player. He likes helping because he enjoys working with his family, plus it’s nice to make a few extra bucks during the summer parking and unloading trucks, setting up stages and doing other assorted duties.
“We roped them into working too, and they love it,” Kristi says of the kids’ involvement. As for herself, she “loves the people. It’s a fun job.”
Rojas echoes that sentiment, saying that the fair has now become “a family affair.”
His wife of 57 years, Sharon, is his best friend and a woman who clearly doesn’t mind her husband’s love for helping others. She isn’t as involved as him, though she does volunteer occasionally.
“I’d never get anything done if I went everywhere he did.” Besides, she says, laughing, “I kind of consider that my away time.”
The fair management and board of directors have been like an extended family for Rojas.
“The board takes a big interest in the people that work here, and everybody gets along great. I think that’s what makes the fair successful,” he says.
What’s next? Keeping up with his daily two-mile run and training for Dancing with the Turlock Stars with his trainer and choreographer, Kristi.
He also can’t wait for the destruction derby, where motorhomes destroy themselves by ramming into each other.
“I love to watch that one,” he says.