In his 21 years working at the Missouri State Fair, Sgt. Brent Bernhardt has seen a lot of smiling faces, both young and older.
Bernhardt, a public information and education officer for the Missouri State Highway Patrol’s Troop B, based in Macon, is one of the primary handlers for Otto the Talking Car at the Highway Gardens on the fairgrounds, a duty he has happily handled for the past 19 years.
“I can assure you that each and every day we have a lot of adults who come and they will say they came here as a kid and they are bringing their grandkids,” Bernhardt said. “So, it is kind of a tradition with many. We see a lot of repeat people who come back to the fair each year and kids come up and ask Otto, ‘Do you remember me? I was here last year.’”
Otto, a 1931 Ford Roadster, has been a fixture at the fair since 1969. Bernhardt and his fellow PIOs enjoy engaging with youth, having some fun and sharing safety messages on everything from seat belts and life jackets to bicycle helmets and stranger danger.
“It’s a big effort, not only with Otto but with the highway patrol contingency that is here,” he said. “A lot of people say we’re down here for security, but our job actually is showcasing the Missouri State Highway Patrol – in my opinion one of the finest law enforcement agencies in the nation.”
Bernhardt’s first year at the fair was 1991, working livestock gates and patrolling the grounds. All troops statewide provide personnel – about 70 in total – each year to work the fair. Not all are troopers, as the roster includes radio operators, a mechanic, recruiters and others. A tradition Bernhardt likes is that when troopers get their motel room assignments, they are paired with someone from outside their own troop, giving them a chance to develop friendships across the state.
“What has happened with me over the years is that I was one of the younger guys and worked with older guys, and now I’m one of the older guys working with younger guys,” Bernhardt said. “It is fun to get a chance to work with other (troopers).”
While there are issues on the fairgrounds from time to time, “For the most part, problems are minor,” he said. Bernhardt noted the difference in crowds, with more families during the day and adults and concertgoers at night, but even at night there isn’t much trouble.
“Certainly, if anyone needs help or there is a crime that is committed we are going to take care of that,” he said. “Our troopers are really eager to be down here.”
This will be Bernhardt’s final fair working for the highway patrol; he is planning to retire in February. Over the years the moments that stand out most for him have happy endings: reuniting missing children with their families and a young man who proposed to his girlfriend in front of Otto. There also is the tale of a girl and a treat for the talking car.
“Otto will joke with the kids, ‘Did you bring me a motor oil milkshake?’ Well, bless the little girl’s heart, one day she came in and she had a quart of motor oil to give to Otto,” Bernhardt said.
More than two decades at the fair has made Bernhardt a familiar face in Sedalia this time of year.
“You know you have been to the Missouri State Fair too many times when the manager of the motel you stay at calls you by your first name, the vendors at the fairgrounds call you by your first name,” he said. “You see a lot of really good people here. It’s fun, it’s hot, certainly you are working hard and a lot of really long hours but you realize that people who are coming to the fair are here for vacation or just a trip and you do everything you can to make sure their stay is a fun stay.”
Bob Satnan is the communications director for Sedalia School District 200.