Ronald Wetherington has been in the steer ring for more than four decades watching as generations learned to master the art of showing an animal.
Nearly every child that has ever stepped foot in the ring at the Florida Strawberry Festival for a steer or swine sale has had their bids racked up by Ronald Wetherington.
He’s been a staple in the lives of more than four generations of agriculture-focused youth and has been along for the ride as the sales have evolved into the booming successes they are today. Since the early 1970s Wetherington has helped local youth learn that hard work can pay off. Now he’s officially hanging up his hat.
“It’s been rewarding over the years,” Wetherington said. “So many of our leaders have got their start right here. It’s very rewarding to be a part of this. And I’m gonna miss it, but it’s time for some of the younger people to do it now. But I’ll be there for every one of the future sales, every one of them, until I get to where I can’t.”
The festival began offering steer sales in the early 70s and Wetherington was asked immediately to be a part of the process. Right before the first sale he had to leave town and head to Tennessee for a funeral. However, the next year he stepped in the ring and hasn’t missed a sale since.
He was honored for his decades of service with the festival last week during the steer sale with a special plaque. It was the first time he wasn’t standing with the students scanning the stands for bids. Instead he settled among the crowd ready to take in the high-energy event. When the festival called his name and announced they had something in his honor it caught him entirely by surprise.
“I received a plaque at the festival at the steer show Saturday night and I’m very appreciative of that,” Wetherington said. “The Strawberry Festival presented it for four decades of working the sale ring and helping the youth in there and I certainly appreciated that. It was a surprise, I had no idea it was coming, but I’m so appreciative.”
Showing an animal teaches youth lessons they’ll carry with them for the rest of their lives and Wetherington said he could always tell the second they stepped in the ring if they’d done their homework and truly worked with their animals. Those who were willing to put in the time always walked away with the best bids. It’s a lesson he was willing to impart on any student who sought his expertise.
“This is the cream of the crop, these are the kind of kids we want to have as leaders, as our congressmen and state representatives, as our city leaders and the leaders in our community,” Wetherington said. “A lot of the kids that come up through FFA or 4-H that have shown the animals have learned so many skills that they can use for the rest of their life. It teaches them what to do to make money. They’re entrepreneurs with one animal. That’s basically what they’re doing. And you see so many of them use that to go to college and there have been many that may not have been able to afford to go if they hadn’t been a part of the sale.”
Over the decades he’s seen new grand champions break records and the community come together to pour its support into the local youth. His one piece of advice for any newcomers is to always make sure they’re working hard to establish relationships with potential buyers throughout town.
Personal contact is key to a successful sale. Never copy a letter and send it out to a bunch of different business owners. If you do send a letter, make it personal to the recipient. Tell them what you want to use the money for, explain why you’re asking them specifically to support you. Better yet, make an appointment with them to talk to them about the project. When the time comes to step in the ring, those who took the time to network always come out on top.
Working with the festival to make youths’ dreams a reality is a passion Wetherington said will probably never fade. Lately his eyesight has begun to slightly weaken and he said he worried there would one day come a time when he wouldn’t catch the quick flash of a hand all the way in the back of the room. He wants the youth in the ring to earn the highest bid possible for their animal so he said he decided to pass the torch to the next generation of energetic volunteers.
“The best memory I have is probably when my daughter got grand champion in ‘88 or ‘89,” Wetherington said. “I was just thrilled beyond measure. I told her, I said ‘girl you got to go out and work and get the buyers to come’ and she did. I suppose that was probably the highlight. If one of your kids gets in there and wins Grand Champion you can’t help but have that at the top of your list. But I just enjoy watching all the kids and the smiles they get on their face. And the kids that did a good job and got good money, seeing what they did afterwards.”
In the decades Wetherington has helped spot bids from the ring the festival has brought in millions of dollars for its local youth. He’s established relationships with both the students and the buyers and has carved his place in the hearts of the thousands of participants and attendees that have flocked to the annual event.
“I have worked the sale ring with some of the grandkids of some of the first kids that were in the program back in the early 70s,” Wetherington said. “So that makes you kind of feel old. Well I am old, I’m 81 years old now. All of my grandkids have followed through with the program. They’ve shown steers and pigs and I tried to help them best I could. It’s been a good ride. I’ve enjoyed it.”