TURLOCK — Fifteen-year-old Tony Leo, taking a break from cleaning milking buckets in the barn, looked out at the people and the carnival at the Stanislaus County Fair and thought, "This would be a nice place to work."
Forty-six years later, Leo announced his retirement as chief executive officer of the fair, effective Dec. 30.
Leo informed the fair board of directors of his decision in a closed session Monday night.
"There were a lot of reasons," Leo, 61, said Tuesday. "Some of it was health concerns, some of it was spending more time with my grandchildren."
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Also, Leo thought it might be nice to live with his wife. For 11 years, she's been in Sacramento while he spends his workweeks in Turlock. "She's put up with enough," he said.
After his teenage gig at the fair, Leo worked at some local jobs before being hired to run the Merced County Spring Fair in Los Banos in 1980.
Three years later, he was hired as CEO of the Merced County Fair, where he stayed for 14½ years before coming to Stanislaus County.
In the past 12 years, he turned around a fair that was operating in the red and expanded its family-oriented offerings. And he did it without a computer on his desk. He was budgeted to get one several years ago, but he sent it to the fair's media center instead.
Leo, whose fair this year used text messaging, Twitter and Facebook to communicate with its fans, said he finally will learn some computer skills in his retirement. "I don't know if I'll ever tweet, though," he said.
Board President Dale Butler said Leo will be "sorely missed."
"He's an exceptional, results-oriented CEO, well-respected by our board, our staff and his peers in the fair industry," Butler said.
The board hasn't decided how it will go about replacing Leo. Butler said the executive committee will meet to determine its next step.
"We have a big job ahead of us," Butler said.
Leo said he plans to stay around to help the new fair director get settled, but then will find his way to a golf course.
"I think you need to let the new person do their own thing, and I don't think it's helpful to have the old face around all the time," he said.
But the old face likely will pop up at least briefly in July.
"My 5-year-old granddaughter called me while I was at lunch today," Leo said. "She asked, 'Papa, are you still going to take me to your fair next year?' I told her yes."
Bee staff writer Patty Guerra can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2343.