Ohio State Fair stunt show goes back nine generations

Angelina Nock sized up the 70-foot pole planted in the Ohio State fairgrounds before shimmying her way to the top with monkey-like expertise.

She tempted the pole’s flexibility, intentionally waving it side to side as she dangled by one foot and whirled in a circle upside-down. State Fair patrons released a collective gasp when she plummeted face first down the pole, safely catching herself just before the ground.

The 26-year-old is far from a novice in stunt entertainment, and she is especially no stranger to the sway pole — it’s her family’s signature stunt from centuries ago.

The “Nerveless Nocks,” the Sarasota, Florida-based stunt family — who claim nine generations in the circus business — are descendants of Swiss Circus Family Nock, Switzerland’s first official circus, established in 1840.

“When I was growing up, I thought everyone’s family did this,” Angelina said. “Once I started school, I realized we were different.

“Their playground was in the schoolyard. My playground was this,” she said, motioning to the metal contraptions behind her.

The Nock family brought their act to the United States in 1954 when Eugene Nock Sr., Angelina’s grandfather, emigrated from Switzerland to join the Greatest Show on Earth alongside then-owners John and Henry Ringling North. Eugene and his wife, Aurelia, performed for years alongside one another, eventually bringing their son, Michelangelo, into the family business.

Now, the tale has come full circle for Michelangelo, 51, who is performing with his daughter at the Ohio State Fair through Aug. 5. Performances of The Nerveless Nocks All-American Stunt and Thrill Show are at 2, 4:30 and 7:30 p.m. on weekdays and Sundays, and at 12:30, 4:30 and 7:30 p.m. on Saturdays.

“It’s in our blood,” Michelangelo said. “I am blessed that my kids want to do it. I love performing with my daughter.”

The troupe also includes four additional stuntmen who are not family members. Despite the brutal July heat baking the metal bleachers, the performance draws an audience that fills three sets of bleachers.

“Those people are real daredevils,” said 11-year-old Andrea Lab from Dover after getting her photo taken with the Nocks. “I was scared they were going to fall. It was really cool.”

Stunts include performers doing motorcycle tricks in a metal globe, handstands on top of 10 stacked chairs, daring balancing acts in spinning wheels, and of course, the signature sway pole act.

“That act is always appealing,” Michelangelo said. “There are no safety nets. There are no crash pads. It is death defying. People want to see that risk.”

Among the awe-struck crowd is Aurelia Nock, 81, who despite her age, joined her family on the road to see her son and granddaughter perform every day at the State Fair.

There are currently four Nerveless Nock acts touring the country, each featuring about one to two family members.

“What we do might be unique, but we’re just like any other family,” Angelina said.

Originally published by The Columbus Dispatch on July 27, 2018.

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Pickaway County Fairgrounds getting long-overdue makeover

CIRCLEVILLE — Just a month ago, the Pickaway County Fairgrounds were bustling with people slurping fresh-squeezed lemonade, munching on funnel cakes and watching 4-H kids lead their prized pigs across livestock barns.

Now, the fairgrounds look like a tornado tore through it. Half-demolished buildings and piles of scrap metal and cinderblock litter the grounds.

In order to make way for seven new buildings and facilities, Pickaway County is making an unusual effort to scrap almost everything for a completely new fairground. Demolition began this month and is slated to be completed at the end of July.

The 60-acre site, owned by the county and located in southeastern Circleville, has been long overdue for new buildings. Renovations aren’t sufficient, said Commissioner Harold “Champ” Henson. The existing buildings were old and poorly maintained with defects, including unsafe electrical wiring and water leaks.

The $13 million project has been in the works for about three years. The initial proposal was met with a “lukewarm” reaction, Henson said, because the county had been promising new fairgrounds for going on 10 years.

But now that the county is following through, there’s a lot of excitement and anticipation, Commissioner Jay Wippel said. Shovels hit the dirt at a groundbreaking ceremony the last day of the fair June 23.

Tensions were high last year between commissioners, the fair board and a nonprofit group called Pickaway Sportsman Inc. — which had been raising money for a decade with the intent to build a new indoor show arena and multipurpose building. The county and sportsman organization butted heads on issues such as control of the design, specific location on the grounds of certain buildings and naming rights. The group, which was largely made up of fair board members, said they would not help pay for the arenas and barns the commissioners approved. The county decided to pursue their plans regardless.

A shakeup in recent fair board elections brought in a new president — Von Cremeans — and several new members.

“A great deal of our success has been working with the new fair board,” Henson said. “They’ve been more than easy to work with and very cooperative.

County residents seem pleased by the upgrades, Henson said, since they understand the importance of the agriculture industry in a county that boasts a booming 4-H program and four FFA chapters. In addition to new features such as an amphitheater, there will be new livestock barns and an agricultural hall of fame.

“Agriculture is the number one industry in Pickaway County,” Cremeans said. “The community is really excited, and they’re getting more excited now that things are actually happening.”

So far, local businesses have pitched in about $2 million. The county hopes fundraising efforts will cover $5 million of the total $13 million cost. Demolition is being completed at no cost to the county. Darby Creek Excavating Inc., of Circleville, donated labor to demolish six structures. Those should be done within the next couple of weeks. The coliseum will be demolished in January.

Commissioners said the new fairgrounds facilities also will be a boost to the local economy because of the potential to rent out space for events, such as rodeos, boat shows and wedding receptions.

Construction of new buildings is expected to begin in October and will be completed in time for the next county fair, which is scheduled June 15-22, 2019.

Originally published in The Columbus Dispatch on July 27, 2018.

Bob the big boar shares fairgoers’ taste for treats

Bob the big boar is just like everyone else at the Ohio State Fair — he loves sweets.

Marsha Steel, Bob’s owner, used Oreo cookies to coax the 1,180-pound hog to his feet. When he rose with a labored grunt, Steel was dwarfed by the half-ton boar.

To celebrate the opening day of the 165th State Fair Wednesday, the boar was given his favorite treat: an intricately decorated, premium cake from a local bakery. The cake was adorned with pink and white flowers and sprinkles that resembled pearls, topped off with “165” in bright red icing.

Immediately, his tail started wagging, indicating his approval for the top-of-the-line cake. Bob won’t be cheated by generic baked goods, and he knows the difference between those and premium cakes, Steel said.

“Bob was born on the happiest side of the moon,” Steel, 53, said of the hog. “He’s a full-time job and he’s totally pampered, but he’s always so happy.”

Bob demolished the sheet cake within 10 minutes as about a dozen onlookers watched in amazement.

Raising champions is a family business: Steel and her husband have dominated the coveted big boar award at the fair for the past five years. Bob’s massive stature earned him the title of Ohio State Fair Buckeye Champion Big Boar in 2013. From 2014 until 2017, Steel’s husband, Kenneth Glander, showed another award-winning hog until 8-year-old Bob came out of retirement this year.

The couple from Germantown, near Dayton, maintains that while Bob might look like he’s fat, he’s quite fit and eats a balanced diet of corn and soybeans — when he’s not indulging on his cheat days. Steel said Bob will get a cake a day during the fair.

“It’s just one of those weird things you happen to run into at the fair,” said fair visitor Tom Muchmore, 66, of the Northwest Side. “You never know what you’re going to find. Today, it’s a giant pig eating a birthday cake.”

Bob was one of the many creatures — human and livestock alike — celebrating the first day of the State Fair. The balmy forecast provided a perfect backdrop to the opening day.

First-timers and seasoned veterans were all smiles as they milled through the midway, slurping fresh-squeezed lemonade and munching on turkey legs and other treats.

“I’ve been coming to the fair for 60 years,” said Craig Zimmerman, 68, who drove nearly two hours from Celina in western Ohio. “I grew up on a farm, so I really appreciate seeing the livestock and shows, and it’s fun to have the grandkids here now.”

The fair runs through Aug. 5, offering a multitude of attractions from rides to stunt shows to concert headliners.

“It’s really cool,” first-time fairgoer Boedy Greuey, an 11-year-old from Malta in Morgan County, said as he sat in shade near the midway with his family. “It’s really big, and I love all the animals and food.”

Originally published by The Columbus Dispatch on July 25, 2018.

Butter ‘Christmas Story’ sculptures to greet visitors as Ohio State Fair opens

Ohioans can expect to enjoy deep-fried food, thrills and live music as the Ohio State Fair kicks off Wednesday. The festivities, which run through Aug. 5 at 717 E. 17th Ave., include all the classic fan favorites, as well as new additions.

To honor Ohio’s 2,200 dairy farms, the butter cow has been an Ohio State Fair tradition since the early 1900s. This year, artists — including lead sculptors Paul Brooke and Alex Balz — spent more than 400 hours in the 46-degree cooler on the state fairgrounds re-creating scenes from the classic film “A Christmas Story” — using 2,200 pounds of butter. The American Dairy Association Mideast group decided to highlight the film, filmed in Cleveland in 1983, to celebrate its 35-year anniversary. The sculptures were unveiled Tuesday in the Dairy Products Building at the Ohio Expo Center.

“Watching ‘A Christmas Story’ is a holiday tradition for people across the country, and we’re proud that it’s one that started right here in Ohio,” Jenny Hubble, senior vice president of communications for the dairy association, said.

Highlights include Ralphie in his bunny costume, Randy in his snowsuit, a Christmas tree with working lights and — of course — the iconic leg lamp. The butter cow, which is sculpted annually, stands nearby, overlooking her calf, whose tongue is stuck to a pole alongside Flick, Ralphie’s friend who was triple-dog-dared to lick a frozen flagpole.

“It’s a pleasure to be a part of something so many people enjoy,” said Balz, who has sculpted the fair’s butter sculptures for 19 years. “It’s always a fun thing for artists and dairy farmers and the people who come to the fair.”

Fairgoers also can enjoy new live entertainment options. With the price of admission, guests will hear live music while milling through the fairgrounds, but they also will be treated to concerts and new stunt shows with acrobats.

“It’s that very Americana, old-school vintage thrill entertainment you would expect to see at fairs, but don’t always do,” said Alicia Shoults, the fair’s marketing and public relations director.

The fair is also launching an 11-episode podcast series, with an episode released per day. Each episode will focus on a different aspect of the fair, such as history or livestock.

Thrill-seekers can head over to the midway and enjoy about 70 rides, four of which are new. Amusements of America is the ride vendor once again, but the Fire Ball — a ride that broke apart on opening day of the fair in 2017, killing one and injuring several others, some seriously — will not be returning. The company said increased safety measures are in place this year.

Fairs also mean a plethora of fried food. There are 195 food vendors at this year’s fair, offering everything from classic powdered-sugar funnel cakes to burgers wrapped in a doughnut bun. There are 27 categories of food that are deep-fried.

“It’s a great tradition,” Shoults said. “We have a lot of things everyone loves, and some new and different things we’re excited about.”

Originally published by The Columbus Dispatch July 24, 2018.

Lancaster reaches out to military through letter-box campaign

LANCASTER — Carla Schorr holds the key to the “mailbox” in Lancaster’s Veterans Square.

Every week, she kneels on the sidewalk and empties the box, gathering an overflowing, colorful bundle of letters. In her arms, she holds various shades of construction paper scribbled with crayon drawings, neat cursive phrases decorated with glitter and formally typed sentences on white computer paper from people who have dropped them off at the non-Postal Service box. Tucked inside each letter are expressions of gratitude to active-duty military members.

Schorr, 47, was born and raised in Lancaster, the birthplace of Civil War general William Tecumseh Sherman and a town that takes pride in patriotism. Passers-by strolling down Main Street can spot local military members’ faces displayed on “Hometown Heroes” banners hanging from streetlamps. Families and downtown workers flock to Veterans Square on a sunny day to eat lunch beside the black marble memorial and historic World War II cannon.

But Schorr wanted to do something to make an impact outside the town. Coming from a military family, she knows the hardships troops face when they are deployed overseas: loneliness, sadness, hopelessness.

She hoped to curb those negative feelings with “Operation: Letters to Soldiers.”

When the letter box debuted in April, she wasn’t expecting much. A couple hundred letters over a few months, if anything. But after a social media post, the community sprang to action. A local artist donated his time and talents to paint the box, decorated in a camouflage and American-flag design with two service members on the side. The owner of a local furniture company donated a protective coating.

Instead of leaving the letter box in just one place, Schorr decided it should travel during the academic year. She took it to local schools so students could correspond with military members.

In just four months, the box collected more than 1,600 letters.

“It means a lot to them knowing they’re being thought about and missed by total strangers,” Schorr said of service members.

The initiative costs nothing except time, Schorr said. All materials and labor were donated, and community members don’t even need a stamp.

Schorr, Rise Reality Co. and a nonprofit called Key to Giving teamed up with the United Service Organizations of Central and Southern Ohio, which places stamps on the letters and disperses them to U.S. military personnel around the globe.

“Just a simple message from a 7-year-old saying, ‘You’re my hero,’ means so much,” said Sue Ann Carroll, the community-relationships coordinator for USO of Central and Southern Ohio. “And the whole story of the ‘traveling mailbox’ really adds to that.”

Schorr has been contacted by communities across the country wanting a military mailbox. She said she plans to begin filling orders in the winter, charging about $500 for materials and shipping, with all proceeds going to veteran services.

She hopes people will leave return addresses on the letters so that kids can become “pen pals” with military members, with hopes they can meet someday.

The “mailbox” will hit the road again in August, visiting schools and other places in the community. By October, the box will need cosmetic work after seasonal sun damage to the paint, so Schorr is engaging Lancaster High School students by running a contest for the next design.

Lancaster Mayor David Scheffler, who is a Vietnam veteran, said he was not surprised by the patriotic city’s response to Operation: Letters to Soldiers.

“To see our community react in such a positive way is so heartwarming.”

Originally published for The Columbus Dispatch on July 23, 2018.

Columbus group awarded nearly $6.1 million grant to tackle youth homelessness

Skye Vanek of Columbus was five months pregnant when she became homeless.

After her house burned down, the 21-year-old bounced between hotels, even living in her boyfriend’s car for a time. But she knew she needed a plan. She was told if she didn’t find permanent housing soon, her daughter could be taken away from her.

That’s when she discovered Huckleberry House, a Columbus shelter that provided Vanek and her daughter with a place to live and helped put her through school.

“If it wasn’t for those centers, my daughter wouldn’t be here with me,” Vanek said, choking back tears and clutching her baby to her chest at a news conference at the Columbus Foundation on Monday.

Columbus is now getting a helping hand to deal with the youth homelessness crisis for people like Vanek.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded the Community Shelter Board of Columbus a total of nearly $6.1 million Monday through its Youth Homelessness Demonstration Program. Out of the 11 communities nationwide also given grants, Columbus was awarded the second highest amount of money, behind San Diego, which received $7.94 million. A total of $43 million was disbursed.

“Young people who are victims of abuse, family conflict or aging out of foster care are especially vulnerable to homelessness,” HUD Secretary Ben Carson said in a written statement. “We’re working with our local partners to support innovative new approaches to help young people find stable housing, break the cycle of homelessness and lead them on a path to self-sufficiency.”

The Community Shelter Board will develop a comprehensive plan in the next four to six months to address the youth homelessness crisis in Columbus. A youth advisory board, composed of people who have been affected by poverty or homelessness, will assist in formulating the plan. Programs are anticipated to begin in 2019, according to a Community Shelter Board press release.

“We are going to create a new reality for the most vulnerable members of the community,” said Michelle Heritage, executive director of the Community Shelter Board.

In 2017, more than 1,300 people ages 24 or younger were served at Columbus and Franklin County shelters — a figure Columbus Mayor Andrew J. Ginther called “unacceptable.” More than 900 unaccompanied young people also visited Star House, a youth drop-in center in Columbus, last year.

Those numbers aren’t necessarily indicative of the entire youth homeless population, said Sara Loken, community relations director for the Community Shelter Board, since not all youths go to traditional shelters. A point-in-time count on Jan. 31 found 174 young people in that age range homeless in Columbus.

The two-year federal grant will be blended with private sector resources, including investments from the Columbus Foundation and United Way of Central Ohio. The HUD money is specifically designated for tackling youth homelessness, allowing Columbus to expand its efforts for that population in the coming months and years.

“As a great city, we have an obligation to make sure every citizen is sharing in that success story,” Ginther said. “This is our collective call to action.”

Last year, Columbus and four other cities participated in a 100-day challenge to speed up efforts to end youth homelessness. That effort helped with the realization that Columbus needed to do more with prevention and programming, Loken said. She also said it helped strengthen the group’s HUD application.

Originally published for The Columbus Dispatch on July 16, 2018.

Diver inspects 3 Franklin County bridges

A diver from Stantec, an engineering services company, descends into the Scioto River to inspect Fishinger bridge.

It’s not typical to spot a diver, in flippers and full helmet, plunging into the Scioto River.

But on Thursday, some amused kayakers and joggers on a nearby bike trail caught sight of a commercially licensed diver swimming below the surface to inspect the Fishinger Road bridge on the Northwest Side.

Federal law requires bridges to be inspected every two years, but Ohio requires inspections annually. Underwater inspection is required every five years. Franklin County paid $21,000 to Stantec, an engineering company based in Lexington, Kentucky, to bring in a diving crew.

Of the 357 bridges the county owns, only three require a diver for underwater inspection, said Ed Herrick, the county’s bridge design engineer. Most others can be done by wading into shallow water.

Steve Reuschle, a Stantec diving service manager and engineer, and his team was searching for any cause for alarm: a crack, logjams and general soundness of the concrete pillars supporting bridges on Hayden Run, Fishinger and Smothers roads.

“You can’t see this stuff above the water,” he said. “That’s why we have to send someone down there to physically touch and move things and pound on the concrete to see how sound it is.”

Although the diver is not an engineer, he has a camera attached to his helmet, providing Reuschle with real-time communication and a video feed from the boat.

Generally, Reuschle said, routine inspections do not find a lot of problems in areas such as Columbus where the water current isn’t strong. Because the team is inspecting only the three bridges, it plans to finish Friday after two days, spending one to four hours at each bridge.

Bridges are rated on a scale of zero to nine, Herrick said: Nine is pristine condition and built within a year, and zero meaning failed condition. Franklin County bridges average a seven. The lowest bridge rating in the county is a four, with upgrades planned in the next year.

Franklin County has 10 major bridge-repair projects — which will include replacement or rehabilitation — planned for 2018-2019.

Originally published by The Columbus Dispatch on July 12, 2018.