Growing up raising cattle with his dad on a farm in the small town of Chillicothe, near the Oklahoma border, Heath Cheek always looked forward to the annual journey to the livestock auction at the State Fair of Texas. “I showed animals at the fair and any money I won from that went into my college savings,” he says. “I grew up very poor, and I’m a first-generation college student. I would not have been able to go to college if it hadn’t been for the generosity of scholarship donors and people who supported me.”
Today, Cheek is among those who lead the event’s fundraising efforts. The Bell Nunnally attorney initially made a nine-year commitment to the program, agreeing to serve as incoming chair for three years, chairman for three, and immediate past chair until 2024. “I’ve always had this mindset of ‘I’m going to treat all that scholarship money I earned as a loan that I need to pay forward to the kids who come behind me,’” Cheek says.
Nearly 3,500 youth show their animals at the fair each year, and roughly 470 make it to the auction. It all culminates in the grand champion steer, which typically sells for roughly $100,000. Winners receive their awards in the form of scholarship funds. In 2020, when the State Fair shifted to a drive-through model, Cheek helped ensure the livestock auction still took place.
“We raised $1 million to put on the auction and buy their animals for them, so none of those kids were stuck with a losing project,” he says. Last year, when Cheek was supposed to transition to a past-chair role, the event’s leader passed away from COVID during the auction’s fundraising phase, so he took on an extra year as chairman. “Whatever I thought 2020 was, 2021 was even harder,” he says.
Last year, the program raised $1.8 million for about 200 kids; it’s on track to beat that record at this year’s event in October. “It’s cool to see each of them becoming little livestock entrepreneurs and to help them go to college or set up their careers,” Cheek says. —Kelsey J. Vanderschoot