After 50 years, Rock Hill man to work last event

Pete Stathopoulos has been part of the York County Fair for a half-century, and the fair's Thursday morning activities are his favorite part.

That's when disabled kids have the fair to themselves. The same family stands at the gate each year to hand the kids a cup of orange juice and a bag of popcorn. Members of the American Legion, its auxiliary and an infantry of volunteers serve up 1,300 hot dogs and 60 pounds of french fries for lunch. Coca-Cola provides the drinks.

"All these years, it only rained one Thursday morning," Stath- opoulos remembers. "At 9, it stopped and the sun came out. At 2, it started raining again. Those children had their day."

Stathopoulos will be 80 in a few weeks. Many of the volunteers who help with the fair each year aren't far behind.

"I'm hangin' it up," he said last week. "I'm tired."

The Legion sold 15 acres of fairgrounds to Winthrop University last year for $2.3 million. Legion officials plan to use the money to build another legion hall on five acres they still own along Constitution Boulevard.

"I made a lot of friends, and I lost a lot of friends," Stathopoulos said of his fair years.

One was the death of the patriarch of Reithoffer Shows, which has operated the fair carnival for 44 years.

"That was a tragedy for me," Stathopoulos said of Reithoffer. "He was a showman. I learned a lot. His two sons run it now, but it's not the same."

He looks forward to fishing and traveling this time next year. But he admitted that when the fair closes next weekend, "it will be like losing another friend."

The city of Rock Hill has declared Monday Peter Stathopoulos Day. The state Senate also adopted a proclamation on a motion by Sen. Wes Hayes, R-Rock Hill, in "deep appreciation" for Stathopoulos' many years of service to the fair.

Fair association president Edgar "Bo" Sligh, who's been working with Stathopoulos since the '50s, called him "one swell fella."

"Pete's irreplaceable," he said. "He's the best man I ever worked for. For most of us, he's the reason we're here. Everyone wants to help him out because he does so much for everybody."

When Stathopoulos's American Legion buddies talked him into helping them with the fair in the 1950s, there was a horse stable and cattle, pig and chicken shows.

"Big Charlie would cook barbecue in a pit on the fairgrounds," recalled the big, barrel-chested Greek-American, born and raised in Rock Hill.

Although the circus was not affiliated with the American Legion fair, it entertained people on the fairgrounds during his youth. The circus would arrive via railroad car, and the elephants would help unload the cars and set up the tents. The parade down Main Street would draw most of the town.

Stathopoulos's Greek-born parents ran three different Rock Hill restaurants where he worked. When he graduated from Win- throp Training School, Stathopoulos joined the Navy in World War II's Pacific campaign.

When he returned to Rock Hill in 1947, he became involved with the American Legion. Most of his professional career was with Bowater, but his avocation became the Legion, and eventually the fair.

Paul Knight and Herbert Black became his fair, and life, mentors. Stathopoulos was named vice president of the York County Fair Association in 1961 and fair president 10 years later. In 1979, he became fair manager and treasurer and has been doing it ever since.

The fair became a family affair. His wife Myrtle helped, as did his daughter Sylvia. His daughter still runs the fair office, but his wife died on Oct. 8, 1989. It was during the peak of fair activity.

"The day of her funeral, I went to it," he remembered as he sat in his fair office last week. "Then I just didn't know what to do, so I came here. She was always here with me."

When he was named fair president, he instituted the Thursday morning tradition.

About 10 years ago, he began inviting people from nursing homes to the fair on Thursday mornings, too.

"There was this lady in a wheelchair," he said. "She was 90. She said before she died she wanted to ride the merry-go-round."

So Legion members and some of the fair workers moved the seats off and put the wheelchairs on it so the seniors could ride.

Legion members had built the livestock barn for 4-H, but when it became a danger for both people and livestock several years ago, the Legion tore it down.

"I got chewed on and stomped on for that," he said, shaking his head. The 4-H started its own livestock show at area farms.

"I still give them some money for their show every year," he said.

Stathopoulos almost quit the fair last year, but some of his volunteers said they would quit, too. The agreement with Winthrop allowed the Legion to run the fair through 2007.

"We all done got too old," said Sligh, who's 77. "I would have done it again for Pete, but most of us are old and wore out."

Sligh said he's sad to see the fair go, yet relieved.

"I got some good people work for me," Stathopoulos said of fair volunteers.

"I'm gonna miss it," he admitted reluctantly.