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June 28, 2022

Father-son duo quietly lead Fairgrounds

The Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds are more than the annual one-week autumnal event, which itself undoubtedly takes a Herculean amount of work. There are also numerous events throughout the year including horse shows, conventions and celebrations such as quinceañeras and the Evening of Wine and Roses.

Working quietly in the background—along with a team of staff and volunteers—are the dynamic father-son duo John and Dave Kegebein, 87 and 64 respectively, who seemingly can do it all: maintain the buildings and equipment that keep the place running, lead construction projects, manage the staff and lead the board that governs the grounds.

Both quiet, understated men, they describe the Fairgrounds they helped shape—and the work it took to make it—as “a lot of fun.”

John Kegebein, who now serves as volunteer CEO at the Agricultural History Project, came as a maintenance man in April 1963. Soon, he was bringing his son.

“You have to remember, at that time I was the only maintenance man out here,” he said. “In order for us to be together, he had to come with me.”

Dave, who serves as Fairgrounds CEO, says he remembers at an early age coming to the Fairgrounds with his father, where he learned the intensive hands-on work required at the facilities, from mucking out horse stalls to engine repair to tractor driving.

“I learned how to work,” Dave Kegebein said. “He would foolishly drag me back to work with him at night, after he came home for dinner. And I got to come here and play, learn how to operate equipment, drive tractors, shovel manure, and all those fun things.”

Dave Kegebein left for a time at 16, when he got a job at an equipment rental company on Freedom Boulevard called Rent Power.

“As we were leaving, I told him, get me a job here,” he says. “I want to work for him, not for you.”

He says he enjoyed the work, and stayed for a few years, learning customer service and equipment maintenance.

“Getting all greasy every day was a whole lot more fun than shoveling manure over here,” he says.

John Kegebein became a 4-H leader and among other things taught electricity, a topic in which he had little knowledge.

“I learned how to wire a plug, and then I taught it,” he said. 

But thanks to that tutelage, Dave went on to win an award in Chicago for an electrical project. He also learned other life skills such as cooking, woodworking, welding, fabrication and mechanical skills.

“That set him up for life, almost,” John Kegebein says, with the modest boastfulness of a proud father.

“I still remember the day he came out of the hospital when he was a baby,” he said. “I’m proud of the fact that he’s been able to develop the skills he needs to survive in this world. There’s a lot of people that can’t say that.”

Dave Kegebein also led crews of teens that worked during the Fair, a time his father looks back on fondly.

“I think back on those days and I wish sometimes they were still around,” John Kegebein says.

The younger Kegebein says that working with his dad has had its ups and downs. 

“Like all fathers and sons we want to kill each other,” he says, a quip that makes both of them laugh, something they seem to do often when together. 

Dave says that, despite the hardship that came with the Covid-19 pandemic, the Fairgrounds has fared well.

“We’re in the best financial position we’ve ever been in in the history of the Fairgrounds,” he says. “It’s been a lot of fun. It’s all about community service.”

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