04-R-14.07.25-LH-LNCH-Helen-Fred-Waitrowski-DFulgencio-0033web

Fairgoers use State Fair coupons to access midway rides, shows, food and beverages. Each day, vendors receive a check based on the weight of collected coupons. But with thousands upon thousands of coupons pouring in each day, how do operators prevent superfluous materials from adding weight to the day’s take? That’s where Lake Highlands residents Helen and Fred Wiatrowski and their team of coupon cleaners come in.

Explain to us just what you do.
HW: Since 2007, we have worked in the coupon-weighing department. Every vendor that takes coupons at the fair, they get a little galvanized bucket with their vendor number on it to put their coupons in, and at night they bring them to the room where we work — there are 12 of us, I think — and they empty those buckets into plastic containers, and we go through all of these. We go at 5 a.m. and stay about eight hours, 10 on busy days. Our job is to make sure that nothing is in there except the coupons. I have a special job that no one else wants to do.

What is it?
HW: I go through the sugar and candy-coated coupons. From the candy cane or cotton candy vendors. The sugar sticking to the coupons makes the coupons weigh more, so I have to make sure the coupons are clean before they get weighed. Everyone knows me as Ms. Candy Cane.

How do you clean the sugar-coated coupons?
HW: With my hands. Everybody kids me about bringing home all the sugar stuck to my hands, so I can use it to bake something to eat for the next day.

What do Fred and the others do?
FW: We pull the coupons all out and make sure nothing else is in there.

What sorts of things might you find in there?
HW: You’d be surprised what we find in there — knife, can opener, keys, people’s pens, money.
FW: We get to keep the money if we find it.
HW: No we do not, Fred. We turn it in [laughter all around].
FW: I turn it in, because it’s a plant.

A plant?
HW: Fred thinks they put the money in there to see if we are honest and will return it. I don’t think that. My thinking was it would be a guy standing in line and he accidentally hands over money with the coupon. But anything we find, we fill out a report on a slip of paper where we list the vendor number and what we found, and then we give it to the supervisor.
FW: I found dollar bills, and we turned them in. On Texas-OU game day, our busiest day, a guy found a bunch of $20 bills. Turned them in. It was probably a set-up (Fred, an unlit cigar between his teeth, grins.)

So, what happens after the cleaning?
HW: After we go through all of this, it goes to another room and they will weigh it. All the vendors get checks every night. Some of them need the money right away, to buy supplies for the upcoming days.
What are the other members of the coupon cleaning crew like?
HW: They are just like me. Like Fred. If I don’t get to go this year, they are going to be wondering.

You might not go back this year?
HW: I had a fall months ago. I hit my head. If my brain doctor says I can’t go, I won’t be able to go … You know, it sounds like a silly little thing to do, but when you’ve been working with people eight or nine years, when we get back together that first day, it’s hugging and “What have you been doing?” and that sort of thing. We are friends.

What stands out most about your time in the coupon-cleaning room?
HW: You make friends. You are a part of the State Fair. But the worst day, that was when Big Tex burned. I was there. Someone came in and said, “Big Tex is on fire,” and I thought they were kidding, and I walked out and saw him burning; I couldn’t help but shed a tear.
FW: She was on the news.
HW: Yes. The reporter walked up to me and said, “You seem upset.” I was. I was upset. As many years as we have been there — we had so many friends that came to the fair, and that was always where we met. In front of Big Tex. He almost seemed like a person to me. The old Big Tex can never be replaced. The new guy — he doesn’t even look like Big Tex. I had heard that a lot of people memorialized him with flowers at the spot where he stood, so the next day I went over to see it — you should have seen the one Fletcher’s did. It was a flower arrangement made of hot dogs. It was so unique.

So you two have always liked the fair?
HW: Yes. Our favorite part is the Fletcher’s corny dogs. Fred liked to try his luck at throwing darts. We did not have children, but we took our niece and nephew one year. Fred won a giant giraffe, and our niece kept it in her room until she was a teenager. She always remembered Uncle Fred won that at the State Fair.

Questions and answers have been edited for brevity.