Mike Berry was eight years previous the primary time he rode the Delta Queen.
He skipped dinner in the teak-tabled eating room the place waiters in white jackets served bourbon and crawfish étouffée. He didn’t need to lose his place alongside the rail. But his view for a lot of the Great Steamboat Race of 1969 was the Belle of Louisville’s paddle wheel.
When he heard the Belle’s whistle blow because it crossed the Second Street Bridge end line, he knew they’d misplaced. The subsequent morning, he learn in the Courier Journal about how the Belle had cheated. Mike was incredulous. Yet he knew he needed to experience once more.
That first steamboat race ignited Mike’s love of the Kentucky Derby Festival and began what would become the trajectory of his life.
Now, after a third of a century, the brand, the face, the head cheerleader, the historian-in-chief and finally the president and CEO in the business of fun — Mike Berry — is hanging up his neon pink Pegasus jacket. He’ll retire after the 2019 festival.
He’s the patriarch of the festival family but not the family business: Festival doesn’t belong to him, he says. It belongs to the community. He’s simply been its caretaker.
“This is going to sound melodramatic,” Mike said. “But it’s almost like when you know somebody in your family is facing a terminal illness. You know the end is coming. And it’s never going to be the same after that. Wonderful memories. You’ll laugh. You’ll tell stories. But it’s never going to be the same.
“It’s because of the way I grew up, I guess.”
Kentucky Derby was bigger than Christmas
Mike Berry grew up on a 30-odd acre farm when Middletown was considered the boondocks. Back then, the Kentucky Derby was bigger than Christmas. If there was ever new furniture bought, a fresh coat of paint applied or landscaping updated, it was in preparation for Derby Day. A time to show off the hometown.
Mike’s dad, Edward, worked for Sunoco but also raised and raced thoroughbreds. They weren’t good horses, but every now and again they’d catch lightning in a bottle.
He spent Saturdays with his dad at Churchill Downs, wandering the clubhouse, checking out horses in the paddock. He was too young to bet, but he knew how. Lunch was always a hot dog and Junior Mints. And sometimes, they’d slip upstairs to visit his grandfather — PePaw, he called him — a security guard who carried a gun in his waistband and made sure nobody robbed the pari-mutuel clerks.
At night, Mike and his dad hit Miles Park racetrack down in the West End.
At home, he couldn’t muck a stall without gagging. And he hated the mice that hid in the horses’ feed barrels. But he loved the betting, the showmanship — the grandeur of the racetrack.
“Ever since he was a little boy he’d come in and tell me all these things he was gonna do,” Mike’s mother, Helen Berry, who’s now 95, said. “And they were so unbelievable it wasn’t even funny. But I expected him to do it. I was never surprised. He’s a natural winner.”
It was predictable, then, when after college he worked as an administrative assistant to then-Gov. Martha Layne Collins. He coordinated the governor’s events — the prayer breakfast, the 75th anniversary of the state Capitol, and Kentucky Derby events.
He did well, so she appointed him to the Kentucky Derby Festival Board. He was just 23 years old.
Collins, Kentucky’s first female governor, described the younger Mike as energetic and responsible, mannerly and creative. People just liked him.
“I didn’t have to worry because I knew Mike would take care of things,” she recalled. “Obviously I’m proud of Mike, and I’m proud to have been part of the beginning of his career.”
‘Who’s this clown?’
In 1986, Mike walked into the old Kentucky Derby Festival office at 224 W. Muhammad Ali Blvd., ready to interview for an events coordinator job. He’d recently snapped both wrists when he crashed his black Volkswagen convertible so both arms were in casts.
“I walked in, and the receptionist looks me over like, ‘Who’s this clown?’” Mike remembered.
He got the job, but his first festival was a disaster.
At the chairman’s reception, the board member from Coca-Cola could only order Pepsi at the bar. Mike had to stay all night in a trailer at Shawnee Park before a basketball event with a promoter who slept with a gun under his pillow. He forgot a sponsor’s banner. And then, to control traffic at the fireworks show in the Oxmoor Center parking lot, Mike banned anyone at the front entrance who wasn’t in a Derby Festival Cadillac. The only problem was Mike’s boss, the late Dan Mangeot, wasn’t in a Derby Festival Cadillac. He couldn’t get in.
Dan was mad as hell and threatened to fire him.
“It was a lot more profanity-laced than that,” Mike said.
But he kept the job and got promoted two years later to marketing and sales.
“There’s one thing in my life that I hate to do, and that’s ask people for money,” Mike said.
He was even worse at sponsorship sales than event planning. After six months, he was in danger of losing his job again. But he was too competitive to quit.
He proved himself and got promoted to the No. 2 job in 1990. That’s when Dan really taught him how to deal with people — the board, the public, staff and 4,000 volunteers at the Kentucky Derby Festival.
“I grumbled a lot about what he asked me to do, but later I realized he was teaching me something,” Mike said.
Then, on Feb. 11, 1997, Dan died unexpectedly of a heart attack just 100 days before the festival.
Mike took the helm.
“We knew we were going to have to rally around each other and rally around Mike,” said Stacey Robinson.
Stacey was the receptionist who eyed Mike when he interviewed for the job with both arms in casts, but by this time she was the marketing manager.
“We needed to bond in that moment,” she said. “It was February, and we were right in the middle of it.”
They did and built a team dedicated to both the festival’s mission and each other. Mike and Stacey have been there so long, in fact, that younger employees sometimes jokingly call them “Ma” and “Pa.”
“We tease every now and then and say we’re one big dysfunctional family,” Stacey said. “But the patriarch is retiring. And you hope you can keep it all together. I think we can because we have a strong foundation.”
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All those years have been marked by fun — and frustration. Photos snapped with gracious celebrities. Magic Johnson and Carol Channing, Loretta Lynn and Lily Tomlin. And high maintenance ones like William Shatner who wouldn’t sign an autograph even after festival staff agreed to fly his horse in from California. And Bill Cosby, whose handler insisted they needed $5,000 in cash for airplane fuel.
Don’t forget Cyndi Lauper dropping the F-bomb on live TV. Then there was parachuting with the Golden Knights. Bad weather and missing port-a-potties. Times when some tried to use thefestival for political gain. Times when the community reminded them they were out of step. Lost sponsorships and increased expenses. Fried food and fireworks.
But always — always — the awe on a kid’s face at the sight of glowing hot air balloons, the zaniness of the bed races and the iconic Pegasus inflatable in the parade.
“Not everybody gets to be CEO of something that is beloved,” said Leslie Broecker, president midwest for Broadway Across America and a former KDF board chair. “And I think it takes that sort of person — Mike’s heart — to recognize that he is the caretaker. … No one is left out. That’s what he’s made sure of. There’s really almost no segment of our community that isn’t touched by festival or can’t claim, ‘This is my festival.’”
Time to go
The longest running president and CEO of the Kentucky Derby Festival, Mike Berry, is retiring. A look back at his time with the festival.
Michael Clevenger/The Courier Journal, Louisville Courier Journal
Just before Mike negotiated his last three-year contract, Bill Petter, his partner of more than 30 years, encouraged him to hang it up. He himself had been retired and living in Florida for the winter since 2006.
But Mike wasn’t ready. Not financially, not emotionally. He wanted to burnish his legacy.
He’d already more than doubled the nonprofit’s budget to $7 million during his time as CEO and seen the festival’s economic impact skyrocket to $128 million. They’d gone from using two-way radios to a festival app to entertain 1.5 million people for the two-week party leading up to the Kentucky Derby.
“Mike’s footprint will be on KDF forever,” said Marita Willis, the 2019 Kentucky Derby Festival board chair. “There’s no way it cannot. He has taken us to higher heights.”
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But he wanted to put the nonprofit in an even stronger position before he left. The organization had never had good transitions, and he wanted to ensure this one was.
He wanted to solidify the festival’s reputation as an economic driver. So, he got himself appointed to the Louisville Tourism Board. Now, the festival is booked like a convention.
“We don’t just call the Galt House and say, ‘You got 112 rooms you can hold for us?’” he said.
He also wanted to increase diversity — from the musicians who write the jingles and the artists who design the posters to the parade marchers and members of the royal court.
“Somebody might say, ‘Why are you spinning your wheels on something that stupid?’” he said. “My answer would be because we’re not traditional in that everything is the bottom line. … If you can see a face that looks like yours in something, then to us that’s success.”
He also bought every piece of Kentucky Derby Festival memorabilia on eBay he could find — including an original 1935 program. For many years, festival staff were like “Bedouin tent dwellers,” moving offices around town, he said. None of the archives moved with them. So, he wanted to recreate them.
Kentucky Derby Festival’s Mike Berry has met plenty of celebs. And really, he’d just like an autograph (looking at you, William Shatner).
Michael Clevenger, Louisville Courier Journal
Then came the winter of 2018, the denouement in his decision to leave. With a big empty house and Bill in Florida, Mike was lonely. He thought about how his dad planned to work until he turned 65 but dropped dead at 64. His grandkids were getting older and soon probably wouldn’t want to hang out as much with Bill and Mike, their PaPa and Poppy. He wanted more time with Bill. To do the things they like to do — go on cruises, spend time with friends.
For once, he didn’t want to miss everything for an entire spring because of the festival.
“There’s an 11-year age difference,” said Mike, who’s 58. “We don’t know what kind of time we have.”
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The next chapter
Bill isn’t sure how Mike will handle the transition. They have vacations planned, but Bill suspects he’ll get back into something.
“He’s so high strung and full of energy,” Bill said.
He’s proud of Mike’s success at the festival but most of all the relationship he has with their grandkids. He’s at almost every game, every school performance.
“He may show up in his Derby Festival jacket, but he will be there if he can,” Bill said.
Mike doesn’t know just yet what’s next for him after he retires. It will be hard to leave something that has been his identity for a third of a century. He might be a consultant, serve on some boards, work in a political campaign — maybe even become a candidate himself. He could see himself participating in a college lecture series.
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He knows he wants to spend more time with his grandkids. And more time with Bill.
“The toughest thing is going to be the 2020 festival,” Mike said. He hasn’t decided whether he’ll come back to just enjoy the show.
“I think it would be easy for me to step back and say, ‘I just want to stay away.’ But I did it before I worked here. It’ll be interesting to see. It’s scary. I don’t like change.”
Mike knows the history of the festival, its characters and story probably better than anyone else alive. And he likes to quote its founding members, especially Earl Ruby, who wrote in the Courier Journal in 1956 about the festival’s enduring nature.
“Mike’s footprint will be on KDF forever. There’s no way it cannot. He has taken us to higher heights.”
Marita Wells, 2019 KDF board chair
But it may be Mike’s own words about the festival’s importance — printed in the festival’s 50th-anniversary book — that will remain as its legacy.
“We can never lose sight of the fact that, for two weeks each year, we lay aside our labels and celebrate our common journey in this place we call home,” he said. “To fail in this endeavor would be a travesty. To have the Festival become less than a shining example of the best in all of us would be unthinkable.
“To give anything less than our best would be a betrayal of the dream.”
Kristina Goetz is Narrative Editor at the Courier Journal, and sometimes she writes stories. She can be reached at 502-582-4714 or email@example.com.
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