The son of a Russian immigrant who settled in Visalia, Calif., in the early 1900s, Paul Simon, 77, has logged 21 years as an orange-jacketed volunteer at World Ag Expo.

The Tulare County native, whose “second career” after retirement has been as a volunteer at the show, will be on duty again this year, serving as chairman of the Feb. 10–12 event at the International Agri-Center at Tulare. The show attracts an estimated 100,000 visitors annually to the heart of the San Joaquin Valley.

Growing up in the county, he was obviously aware of World Ag Expo, but never attended until he ended his 31-year career with Southern California Edison in 1986.

Neighbors and friends encouraged him to get involved in World Ag Expo and his leadership and hard work over the years caught the eye of the five immediate past show chairmen, who select the new show chairman each year.

“When I retired from Edison, I had planned to become a volunteer because I had friends and neighbors who worked at the show and encouraged me to get involved,” says Simon.

He was quickly given a forklift to assist exhibitors in setting up and tearing down, and was told to report to the show’s west gate to go to work. He later moved to the main, north entrance.

World Ag Expo has been run by volunteers for more than four decades, and there now are 1,200 who proudly wear the bright orange jackets, which are so special and coveted that only show volunteers are allowed to have them.

A long list of show VIPs have wanted an orange jacket as a souvenir. They are politely told no — only volunteers get to wear them.

Even though more than 1,600 exhibitors and 100,000 visitors attend the 2.6 million square foot show grounds for three days in February, the show runs like clockwork.

“I like to think of my role as chairman as that of a cheerleader,” Simon says. “Most all of the volunteers know what to do, so it’s important for me to encourage everyone to keep doing the great job they’ve always done.”

Serving as chair of the world’s largest agriculture exhibition can be time-consuming, with meetings and other ceremonial and promotional duties — but most volunteers would love to carry the title for a year.

“I never really thought about becoming chairman,” he says, “but when I was approached to serve, I wanted to do it. I wanted to learn more about the whole operation so I could get a broader perspective on what it takes to run something like this.

“It’s truly an honor, especially when you look at the wall of past chairmen in the Heritage Complex antique farm machinery museum. To be chairman is a great compliment.”

Work begins in earnest for volunteers in January, and by the time the show is over and the exhibitors have cleared out, “You’re glad it’s over,” Simon says. “It’s a lot of work — but we all enjoy it, and it’s a great event for the community.”

Simon represents a second generation of his German family in the county. His father emigrated from Russia in about 1907, celebrating his 14th birthday on the train ride from Ellis Island to the central San Joaquin Valley where he had relatives. The rest of the family stayed behind because a daughter was ill, but the family was eventually reunited in California.

Simon’s father hadn’t been a farmer in Russia, but he bought a dairy in Visalia, and Simon grew up working on the farm, where the family also grew prunes, peaches and grain.

“My father sold the dairy when I was in high school,” Simon says. “He, and all of the families who came over to America, worked hard, with the idea they wanted to earn freedom from the tyranny of their former lives in Russia. He never talked much about what happened in his homeland — he was just glad to be in America.

“I can remember farming with horses early on, and remember my dad buying our first small tractor. When I started volunteering at World Ag Expo and began seeing all this equipment, I was amazed at how far agriculture has come: You just push a button and off you go.”

The show is filling up fast, and that pleases Simon. He is also pleased that there is a new official show truck, Toyota.

“We are excited about Toyota’s commitment to World Ag Expo. Toyota was an aggressive exhibitor last year, with its newly-introduced Tundra pickup, and they’ve made an even greater commitment this year as the official truck of the Expo.”

Another change, Simon points out, is that there will more live animals in the dairy section of the show, including a pen of calves to demonstrate feeding equipment.

World Ag Expo was the first show of its kindto offer advance and walk-in electronic registration. “It’s becoming critical that exhibitors have information about show attendees,” says Simon, adding that the first year of electronic registration went smoothly. The WAE staff has worked to improve the process for 2009.

While the hours are long and the work tiring for the volunteers who don the World Ag Expo orange jackets each year, Simon says, “We want to have fun, too. We always meet a lot of great people — new and old — each year.”

And it will be fun even if it rains, a common occurrence in the past.

“During my early years at the show, they used to say they wanted it to rain to bring farmers in. Now everyone wants good weather,” says Simon. “A little rain doesn’t hurt; we’ve had wet grounds before and we know how to handle the water. But,” he laughs, “I‘ll do my best to keep the rain away this year.”

Rain or shine, Show Chairman Paul Simon will be cheering on the volunteers at World Ag Expo ’09.

email: hcline@farmpress.com