He said it was the job he always wanted, and now, as Tyler Norvell ends his first decade at the reins of the Oklahoma Youth Expo, he’s proud of the work he, the OYE Board of Directors, and staff have accomplished.
Practically every man, woman, student, or child involved in agriculture in the state of Oklahoma knows about OYE. The annual livestock show, held in March at the Oklahoma State Fairgrounds in Oklahoma City, annually draws participants from every single one of the state’s 77 counties.
Despite a tumultuous 2020, which resulted in a devastating shutdown half-way through the event, the future looks bright for 2020. With a pandemic still terrorizing the country, Norvell and team are ready to produce the Greatest Show.
Norvell grew up in Amber, Okla., as the son of a dairyman, putting in long hours on the dairy farm. “To this day I joke that the best day of my life was when I was 13 years old and he sold it,” he shared. “But it taught me how to work.”
While out of the dairy business, Norvel kept busy, as both his grandfathers farmed everything from cotton to alfalfa, and also raised cattle. He worked every summer and through the winters, farming and ranching his whole life. It’s not surprising that he was involved in showing livestock from the moment he was old enough until the day he graduated. “I wouldn’t be where I am today without showing, FFA, and my ag teacher, Billy Scott, who I think the world of,” he recalled.
After graduation, Norvell attended Butler County Community College in Kansas on a livestock judging scholarship for a couple years before transferring to Oklahoma State University. It was there, in 2005, that he and his livestock judging team won a National Championship.
Just after that win he got a call that would shape the course of his career. Norvell’s girlfriend, and now wife, Beth, worked with the late Justin Whitefield, who was the OYE Executive Director. Whitefield had ties to Oklahoma Farm Bureau, and knew they were looking for a lobbyist; specifically, someone that had actual hands-on agriculture experience.
“I was just a 21-year-old kid at the time, and this unexpectedly came up. I interviewed with them, and they hired me. I was working full time lobbying for Oklahoma Farm Bureau and going to college for my last semester,” he shared.
From 2005 through 2012, Norvell worked through the ranks at Oklahoma Farm Bureau, rising to the rank of the Vice President of Government Affairs.
Then opportunity arose. “I always said the only job I’d ever leave Oklahoma Farm Bureau for was OYE,” he shared. “I had looked up to Justin and seen what he had done to get the organization moving in the right direction, and how much he had improved the event from the time I had shown in it.
“The actual livestock show has been going on for 106 years, but OYE, the non-profit, wasn’t formed until 2002. That first year, there was one $1,000 scholarship awarded and the premium sale grossed $300,000. Justin passed away in 2006, but he had started it on the path to be very successful. In 2019 (because there was no premium sale in 2020), the premium sale grossed $1.3 million and we presented more than $350,000 in scholarships.”
He added, “I wanted to go out and get it right. I believe in the program, and what Justin was doing for kids in both urban and rural Oklahoma, and I thought it would be a neat opportunity to give back. I love doing what I get to do.”
When Norvell started at OYE, his responsibilities were broad. A smaller staff meant that he could be found daily handling several parts of the organization, from directing people coming in with livestock at the event to fundraising. “Whatever had to be done, I would do. Now we have a few more staff members, and my main job is to oversee operations and all the fundraising,” he explained.
Funds are an integral part of any non-profit, and with an eye to the future, Norvell made one of his first priorities ensuring the legacy of Oklahoma Youth Expo.
“When I interviewed for the job, I met with Mr. Bob Funk, our Chairman, and Mr. Jimmy Harrel, our Vice Chairman. I told them I was on board, as long as they stayed involved. About a year later, I went to Mr. Funk and said, ‘You know, when you and Mr. Harrel are gone, I want to make sure this thing lives on forever. If we can make sure we have our operating expenses covered and the facility to put it on, we can ensure that.’ And Mr. Funk said he thought it was a great idea,” Norvell recalled.
A year later, Funk announced his legacy gift, a $5 million testamentary challenge match for all gifts to OYE Onward. Every campaign gift, regardless of size or type, is matched dollar-to-dollar by Mr. Funk, up to $5 million.
“To date we have raised $2.5 million to match his $5 million, and matching his gift completely has been our goal from the start. This program is extremely important to me. I grew up showing every year that I could, my girls are involved with it. I haven’t missed an Oklahoma Youth Expo since I was eight years old, and it means the world to me and my family and friends.” He added, “We had to make sure that his program will live forever to give every Oklahoma youth the same opportunity the youth of the last 106 years have had.”
Contributing to the Onward Campaign is simple, and more information can be found at https://okyouthexpo.com/onward-campaign/
“If we had known in 2020 what we know now, I believe we could have finished our show. We just had no idea what would happen,” Norvell says, reflecting on the March Sunday when he had to announce that the event, not even half-way completed, would be immediately shut down.
The 10 day event was predicted to have more than 22,000 animals as well as 7,000 exhibitors and family members on the fairgrounds during the event. Norvell and his staff were in constant contact with the department of health, monitoring the situation. Just days before the start of the event, the first COVID-19 case was diagnosed in Oklahoma.
The event felt like a time-bomb. “I tell people it felt like those first five days of the event took five years. It felt like they took forever. Halfway through we called an audible, and decided to shorten the event to get people home quicker,” Norvell recalled.
With that decision made on Saturday, March 14, shoulders relaxed and tensions lessoned. “We got that done and then felt confident we would be able to finish the show,” he said.
Just 24 hours later, all that changed. A health emergency was declared in Oklahoma County, and the event was shut down. Youth exhibitors and their parents were devastated, tears flowing, as the facility and event shut down.
“It was horrible. We were watching the kids and parents mourn. I had a good friend tell me, ‘Tyler, it’s like they were mourning an unexpected death because there was no closure.’ Of course we know that it’s not anywhere the same as death, but they did not have the closure of more than a year’s work of worth. They didn’t get a chance to see their hard work through,” he said.
Norvell was dealt a double-dose of grief. In addition to dealing with the aftermath as the event’s producer, the cancelation hit much closer to home. “My daughter didn’t get to show her pigs, and so it was tough to wear both hats, but it helped me understand just how hard it was on the families and to experience it first-hand,” he said.
Norvell, the OYE Board of Directors, and staff went to work. Immediately they announced that any 2020 senior who had a market animal (breeding animals had already been shown when the event shut down) would be eligible to show again in 2021.
Next was a goal to raise $100,000 for hardship scholarships for 2020 seniors. “We said anyone who was a 2020 senior that did not get an academic scholarship should apply to get $1,000. We had 116 kids apply for those, so we raised another $16,000 so that every applicant got a scholarship,” Norvell said.
Lastly, OYE refunded anyone that had a market animal entered that didn’t get to show it.