The Strawberry Festival has been a big part of Paul Davis’ life since he was very young, and you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who loves their job more than the festival’s jolly general manager. And, what’s in store for 2014? More music, more festivities and, of course, more fun.
It’s been a long time since Paul Davis has last worked.
No, he’s not unemployed — he’s doing just fine, actually. Just as fine as anyone with the job of their dreams could be.
“My dad would say to me, ‘Go out and find a job you love, and you’ll never go to work,’” Davis said.
After 35-and-one-half years spent serving in the U.S. Navy and working for the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, Davis took in 2008, the general manager job for the Florida Strawberry Festival. With five successful festivals under his belt, he’s as happy as could be.
And, it shows. It’s tough to catch him in the office without a smile on his face and easy to get him to tell stories of festivals past. Having attended the festival regularly from a young age, he has plenty to talk about.
Although Davis was born in Tampa, his family moved to Plant City when he was in the third grade. He attended Cork Elementary, Tomlin Middle, Plant City High and Hillsborough Community College, before transferring to and graduating from St. Leo University.
Davis always loved going to the festival, where he made a lot of memories even before he got to work behind the scenes.
“Some of my earliest childhood memories go back to the festival,” Davis said. “My first date was here. I was 14 years old, and my brother and I asked two girls to go with us. We went out and rode all the rides and, at 6 p.m., we were waiting at the gate for my mother to pick us up. I spent a lot of money trying to win the girl a big teddy bear but didn’t do so well — maybe that’s why the relationship didn’t last.”
Right after high school, however, Davis’ commitment to the U.S. Navy kept him away from the festival for three-and-one-half years. Far away, indeed: The 18-year-old Plant City boy was stationed in Morocco from the get-go, a trip Davis said he was “scared to death” to make. But, it ended up being a good experience, and he did get to leave Africa for a little while.
“I got to see Spain, and the Sahara Desert,” Davis said. “I went out to the Sahara with a Kodak and took pictures like a crazy man. I got the photos developed and, well, they all looked the same. Sand everywhere.”
He came back to America to be a radio man on a ship in Norfolk, Va., and got a promotion to petty officer, second class, before he decided to move on. He missed Plant City and came home to start a new career.
MAN OF THE LAW
The homecoming led to a long career with the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, in which Davis mostly worked undercover. He ran a number of special investigations in the areas of narcotics and organized crime, and also had stints as a homicide and a burglary detective.
Davis also made it a point to work security for the festival whenever he could. He worked his way up in this role from the time he was a deputy, to the point where he spent his last five years on the job as the festival’s head of security.
“I was here for all 11 days, almost every year,” Davis said. “I’ve watched a lot of kids grow up here, by way of seeing them at the festival.”
Davis said all his memories of the festival over that period of time are good ones. Some were a little on the strange side. For example: How many people have a good story about being punched in the face?
“Conway Twitty was playing one year, and this 80-year-old woman kept pushing her way to the front of the crowd,” Davis said. “People kept asking me to move her, so I walked up to her and asked her to move. She pushed me and said, ‘Leave me alone!’ Then, she punched me in the face.”
He dragged her away from the stage, solving one problem, but a new one arose: How could he punish a small, elderly woman, in spite of what just happened?
“I didn’t arrest her,” Davis said. “I was thinking, ‘I can’t arrest her!’ How would I go before a judge and say, ‘This 80-year-old woman punched me in the face?’”
He’s also seen his share of celebrities in attendance, here to have fun. He once spotted legendary pitcher Nolan Ryan, but a flasher jumped in the way before he could approach the ballplayer. George Steinbrenner, who had family in Winter Haven and attended the festival many times, personally told Davis how much he enjoyed coming here.
Davis’ long career of service and understanding of the festival caught up with him at the end of his law enforcement career, right as the festival had an opening for a new leader.
COG IN THE WHEEL
“It was a natural transition from the Sheriff’s Office to the Strawberry Festival,” Davis said. “I got to know everyone over the years, and I grew up with some of the people. A couple of people called me when the opening came up and told me to apply, so I said, ‘Why not?’”
His two biggest qualifications were simple. First, he had 32 years of experience working with all kinds of people. Given his long career working undercover, this one went well beyond his annual encounters with flashers, elderly punchers and other characters at the festival. Second, his understanding of the significance of the event probably ran deeper than that of most potential candidates. After all, he had lived in the area and attended the festival regularly for more than four decades.
“It’s not just a fair,” Davis said. “It’s really a celebration of the community. Strawberries are a vital part of this community. It shows just how much agriculture means to Florida.”
The other 29 members of the board are also Plant City natives, a big factor of the festival’s continued success.
“That’s what separates us from other venues — the continuity and the volunteers,” Davis said. “Our board members are all volunteers. We’re fortunate to have a lot of the same people working here every year.”
The goal is for the festival to get bigger and better every year, while keeping things as family-friendly as possible and helping to maintain the event’s status as one of Plant City’s most important economic assets. It is, after all, the city’s biggest tourism draw.
“Plant City is probably America’s best-kept secret,” Davis said. “We’re becoming a big-time city but keeping that small-town feel. We want the right people to come here, and they are.”
Since Davis started the job, complaints have dropped “drastically.” The only one that’s still persistent is the traffic problem, but leaders are working on a fix for that. The GM is hoping these problems can be smoothed out in time for the upcoming festival, which he hopes is one of the best yet.
“This year, we’ve got diversity,” Davis said. “I’m really excited. … I think we appeal to a lot of people.”
That’s reflected in the concert lineup, which includes Boyz II Men, Dustin Lynch and Third Day.
Davis is also quick to direct any praise toward the rest of the board and the staff.
“My friend, Cal Henderson, once told me, ‘Always remember: Graveyards all over this country are full of indispensable people,’” Davis said. “I think of myself as just a cog in the wheel.”
He’s also helped bring a few new promotions to the festival over the past five years. Davis and the board created Farmworkers Appreciation Day, offering a discount at the gate for farmers. They also created American Heroes Day, offering free admission for those who are serving or have served in America’s military.
Davis wants to hold his position for as long as he’s healthy — and as long as the rest of the board wants him to continue.
“As trite as it may sound, it is a slice of Americana,” Davis said. “And, when you see it, you get it.”
Contact Justin Kline at firstname.lastname@example.org.