All 50 state fairs
Jim Kopel sings the paries of the Iowa State Fair during a talk Sunday at the Humility of Mary Shelter in Davenport. Steve Trainor

Jim Kopel of Moline has traveled from Maine to Hawaii, from Alaska to Florida and all states in between.

He's done it to visit all 50 state fairs. "It's a great way to see the country," he said.

Sunday he was regaling retired nuns, including his sister, with his stories at the Humility of Mary Shelter in Davenport.

The sisters offered typical "fair food" for the lunch talk, including corn dogs, corn on the cob, French fries, onion rings, lemonade, beer and all sorts of sweets.

Kopel has attended all 50 state fairs in the past 14 years, traveling about 80,000 miles and spending about $40,000. He's seen some incredible sights - such as a 98-pound cabbage in Alaska.

"They have the largest vegetables in the world because, during their growing season, they can grow 24 hours a day," he said.

He and his wife, Harlene, attended 13 fairs before she became too ill to travel. After her death in 2004, he decided to see the other states as both a memorial to her and a challenge to himself. His second wife, Betty, now accompanies him on trips.

He got so involved he created a checklist to judge each fair. The checklist and organization come naturally to Kopel. He's a retired accounting professor from Black Hawk College, Moline. He now works as a price-cost analyst for TACOM, Rock Island Arsenal.

He says some people put Minnesota and Texas at the top of their lists, but his personal choice is the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines.

"State fairs are in the summer, and not only does Iowa offer plenty of tree shade, but (it also has) benches every few feet," he said.

"There's also lots of water, restrooms and places to sit in air- conditioned buildings. They have great flower displays and the most entries of food in the entire country."

The worst state fair was an easy call: Vermont. "It's a beautiful setting, but I thought I'd arrived the wrong week there's so little going on," he said. There were so few animals and exhibits that he covered the whole shebang in three hours.

"The grandstand was dead, and there weren't any places to eat."

He averaged about five fairs a year, sometimes arriving home with just enough time to do laundry and sleep before taking off for the next fair. He wrapped up his visits in 2007 with nine fairs.

His advice to fairgoers is to take at least two days to see it.

"You'll walk yourself out within five or six hours" so pace yourself; sit in the grandstand to see a show and rest.

The biggest thing he's learned is to be appreciative of farmers and their hard work feeding the world.

"We go into Hy-Vee and there's 60,000 items; it doesn't happen by chance."

AVAILABLE FOR GROUPS

Jim Kopel is available to speak to groups about his state fair travels. He can be reached at (309) 781-0187 or munny@mchsi.com.

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