Mary Mays helps direct traffic at Gate 6 at the State Fair of Texas on Thursday, October 8, 2015. She has worked at the Fair for 26 years as a Gate Supervisor. She has 19 employees who work for her during the Fair.

Mary Mays helps direct traffic at Gate 6 at the State Fair of Texas on Thursday, October 8, 2015. She has worked at the Fair for 26 years as a Gate Supervisor. She has 19 employees who work for her during the Fair.

David Woo/Staff Writer

When she appears in the early morning darkness of Fair Park, the Midway is lifeless and the crickets are buzzing and the only things tweeting are the birds.

Mary Mays, Gate 6 day supervisor for the The State Fair of Texas, is reporting for duty.

Hours before the gates open to the public, Mays and her staff are already in gear -- putting up signs, positioning barriers and sweeping away standing water from pedestrian areas at the Fair Park entrance just off Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert B. Cullum boulevards.

"I tell our workers, 'The State Fair doesn't pay your paycheck,' " she says. " 'It's the average man who goes through that turnstile and purchases a ticket.' "

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It's Day 14 of the fair's 24-day run. By 6:30 a.m., Mays' uniformed team of parking directors and ticket takers is already in position along 2nd Avenue, the old main drag that carries traffic along Fair Park's periphery.

The team's main charge is to direct incoming vehicles to their proper destination and help pedestrians through the traffic and into the park. Today, a Thursday, is especially crucial, since it's the Fair's Senior Day, when those 60 and over get in free.

"Her gate is one of the busiest," says Steve Ledbetter, who oversees the State Fair of Texas' gate and parking operations. "It's a lot of responsibility and she handles it quite well. If I had 'em all like Mary, it would be a perfect world."

Mays, 62, is motherly and warm, with reddish hair and rosy cheeks and an arsenal of positive sayings at the ready: A cup of kindness goes a long way. If you don't have a smile on your face, you can have mine.

Mary Mays helps one of her employees at the entrance to Gate 6.

Mary Mays helps one of her employees at the entrance to Gate 6.

David Woo/Staff Photographer

One of 40-plus State Fair gate supervisors, she volleys cheerful good-mornings to anyone within earshot. "Hey!" she calls to a police officer heading to his nearby station. "Where's my hug?"

Around 1988, a friend who worked at the Fair urged Mays to apply. She started as a ticket taker, then became a parking director and then a supervisor, a seasonal job she's held for the last 25 years, putting her wedding-planning business temporarily on hold when fair time rolls around.

"This is where I want to stay," she says. "You see the people's faces - their joy, their smiles."

Her most longstanding worker is J.H. Franklin, an 83-year-old retired warehouse employee who's never missed a State Fair shift in more than 10 years.

"She's a great supervisor," says Franklin, who oversees the 75-spot parking lot at Fair Park's Discovery Garden, just off the Gate 6 entrance. 

"If you do your job, she leaves you alone. We call her Momma. Momma Mays."

Darkness gives way to light and rush-hour traffic grows thick on the boulevard, spilling repair trucks and cargo-delivering 18-wheelers into the park. A pair of fat pickups hauling large trailers rumble toward the gate, drawing her attention and a brief exchange.

Eventually, she's on her radio.

"I got a couple of trailers coming to the antique car show," she says.

"Yes, they're here waiting for them," the radio cackles.

"10-4," she says. "They're on their way."

She calls to her parking directors, with a first-down wave: "Send 'em through!"

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An hour later, a growing number of State Fair employees are trickling onto the grounds. One of them is Wanda Lewis, Mays' evening counterpart and closest cohort, who's arrived early in anticipation of big Senior Day crowds.

"We're on the same page on how we treat employees," says Lewis, a six-year supervisor who Mays trained. "They're our friends. But we're also their supervisors. And they understand that."

Every morning, Mays buys breakfast for her workers, many who work the Fair as a second job, or even an only job. Some days it's donuts, other days McDonald's, with the occasional shipment of Fletcher's Corny Dogs for lunch.

"They're my family," Mays says. "I take care of them, and they take care of me."

She also helps out when necessary, taking tickets or directing traffic when flow starts to back up.

"No, no, no!" she suddenly yells, her attention drawn to the entrance where a giant bus is barreling in, clearly in the wrong place. She rushes over to talk with the driver, and before long, workers are pulling traffic cones aside to let the big vehicle turn around.

By 9:30 a.m., senior-facility vans are arriving to unload their elderly cargo; a half-hour later, the traffic is at a steady clip. It's clear they're going to need more staff, and she asks Lewis to call for backup.

Mary Mays talks to Odis Loudermill one of her employees at the entrance to Gate 6 at the State Fair of Texas on Thursday, October 8, 2015.

Mary Mays talks to Odis Loudermill one of her employees at the entrance to Gate 6 at the State Fair of Texas on Thursday, October 8, 2015.

David Woo/Staff Photographer

The heat of the day has started to set in, and Mays is working up a sweat. This year, Fort Worth-based Dickies, the manufacturer behind Big Tex's giant cowboy attire, designed lighter, gender-specific outfits for 2015 State Fair employees that make conditions a little more bearable.

"They're great," Mays says. "When you work out here in the sun, you want something that'll breathe."

Parking directors get blue shirts to go with brown khakis and red caps; ticket takers get white shirts. Supervisors get white shirts, blue jeans and a cowboy hat.

Gate 6 has developed a reputation as among the happiest of State Fair gates, as Mays and Lewis foster a joyful vibe that keeps workers coming back year after year.

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"Some of these ladies, they can barely move," says parking director Samuel Ferguson. "But when this Fair comes around, they're right here."

On some days, ticket taker Jearlean Coleman puts in her State Fair hours before her shift at Walmart.

"As long as my health lets me come out and make extra money, I'm gonna keep on doing it," she says.

That would seem to go for Mays, too, whose tireless energy is infectious.

"This is what I do, every year," she says. "For 24 days a year, I tell the State Fair of Texas, 'I'm yours.' "

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