4-H Memories: Young family still finds way to enjoy ‘Daddy’s Fair’

Chloe Leighty knows there’s a county fair each year just a few miles from her Warsaw home. But there is nothing quite like, “Daddy’s fair.”

For many of his 15 years as an Elkhart Truth reporter and for the last four summers as a volunteer freelance writer, Chloe’s dad, Justin Leighty, was a fixture at the Elkhart County 4-H Fair. Roaming the fairgrounds each year, Justin framed important information on the Fair’s blog site and used his skillful wordsmith talents to craft interesting 4-H profiles.

He became a natural part of the scenery.

“He kind of fell love with the people when he came and covered it and he’s has always been a little bit country,” said his wife, Crystal. “He’s always enjoyed going to the farm and working. So he likes the people here … they just clicked with him.”

Four weeks before the Elkhart County 4-H Fair opened, Justin died tragically in a truck accident near his family’s home in Kansas. He was 41. His annual trip to help bring in a wheat crop served as the perfect appetizer to the frenetic nine-day Fair menu waiting for him in Goshen. Like many at the Fair, he’d been working for months promoting the 2017 edition.

It’s been a heart-wrenching month for Justin’s family, but when Crystal brought their three daughters – Sydney, 14; Macy, 12; and Chloe, 6 — to the Fair on Friday, July 28, she was hoping the venture would be therapeutic for all. They needed, and deserved, a break.

“I wondered if it would be hard to come here, but it hasn’t been so far… we’ll see if the rodeo is an emotional thing,” Crystal said. “The girls are excited. The big girls brought friends.”

And Justin reveled in a wealth of friends at the 4-H Fair, colleagues who welcomed the Leighty family with open arms this week.

“(Justin) was generally a quiet soul, but he loved people, and this is a people business,” said Kristy Ambrosen, marketing coordinator for the fair. He blended easily … he was easily part of us.

“Justin was the centerpiece of the marketing team because he would write the words, and the rest of us would just peel around him … he had a way of saying things to the Fair public in conversation, not just with the information.”

Justin Leighty’s children (from left) Sydney, Chloe and Macy watch the rodeo in 2012.

“We had a fair in Kosciusko County and we’d go to that too, but this was Daddy’s fair,” Crystal said. “He knew all the people and we’d always get a little special treatment with the rodeo, tickets to get in. The girls really enjoyed it when they were little.”

“The fair is about family, Justin was all about his family, so it fit right in with the values he held dear,” said Monica Gould, a 4-H media assistant and marketing committee member. “We operate as family … as board, there’s a lot work with family … his family loved the fair.”

Feelings, of course, are still very, very raw, but Crystal, while watching young Chloe cruise in circles on the merry-go-round, carved a positive take on her family challenge. Later, the group attended the pro rodeo at the Grandstand, an annual treat for the Leightys.

The twists and turns of the midway rides pale in comparison to the rollercoaster of emotions for the Leightys.

“We didn’t talk about it coming up here,” Crystal said. “I think it’s good for all of them to do fun things. (Justin) loved it when we came. He loved watching Chloe ride the rides.

“I keep saying, we keep putting our grief in the sunshine. I don’t want it to hide in a back closet. I want it to be out where the sun can shine on it. We may be sad, but we can still go out and do fun things as a family, even fun things that Justin liked to do.”