A tip of their hat ... in Diana's honor
By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on September 27, 2012 1:46 PM
News-Argus file photo
Diana Mann rides her horse around the grandstand at the Wayne Regional Agricultural Fair.
Laura Buday and Wayne Benton look at a memorial wreath placed in the livestock barn at the Wayne County Fairgrounds early this morning in remembrance of Diana Conley Mann, a familiar figure at the fair who most fairgoers would remember as the horse rider who galloped around the ring carrying the American flag at the opening of the demolition derby. She died unexpectedly last month.
Little Joe waits.
He knows it's just a matter of time -- that his best friend will soon give him his cue; that a packed grandstand is anticipating the ceremonial pass he and Diana Conley Mann have completed at the beginning of the Wayne Regional Agricultural Fair demolition derby every year for as long as most fairgoers can remember.
So when she, at last, gives him the signal, he powers around the ring -- the American flag the pair has become known for waving just above his head.
The crowd roars.
For the first time in more than two decades, Diana and Little Joe won't grace the stables at the Wayne County Fairgrounds when gates open this afternoon.
They won't make their ceremonial pass at the beginning of Saturday's demolition derby.
Diana died unexpectedly Aug. 25.
But friends and family members are certain the 55-year-old will be looking down on the venue as the 10-day event she dedicated so much of her life to unfolds.
And she will be there in the memories that will undoubtedly be shared by both those who knew and loved her and the people who wonder why "the lady with the American flag" is missing.
Sandy Jernigan said her best friend of 30 years never met a stranger -- that she had a way with people and animals that is hard to explain.
"She was just so special," she said. "I miss her so much. A big part of me is gone."
And the fair, she added, will also feel the loss.
"She has done it as long as I can remember. Every year she was out there -- doing the flag and the gunfighting," Sandy said. "She was always right there in the middle of it."
Diana's mother, Carol Sutton, said she wasn't surprised that her daughter returned to the fairgrounds year after year.
She fell for horses -- for animals -- as a little girl, and the annual event was a way to share, with others, the joy they brought into her life.
"When she was 3 years old, I would give her magazines and books and she would use her little blunt scissors to cut out all the horses," Carol said. "She would put them in a little pile and just play and play."
But her love for animals was not reserved for a particular time of year.
Her stepsister, Sharon Marriner, remembers how Diana played caretaker to critters of all kinds.
"I can't explain the connection she had with animals. She would take them if they were homeless, abandoned or abused and rescue them," she said. "That's just how big her heart was."
A little girl looks up at the woman leading a horse through a country field.
"I remember it like it was yesterday," said Laura Buday, who characterizes Diana as a mother-figure. "I didn't know her name at the time, but I said, 'Hey. Can I ride that horse?' She said, 'Well, I don't mind if you ride, but you can't unless you get permission from your mama.'"
The then-8-year-old jumped on her bicycle and charged down a long dirt road -- hoping, praying that her mother would say yes.
And when she got the OK, she raced back to Diana's side.
"She put me on that horse and, at first, I was scared to death. I had never been on anything taller than my bicycle," Laura said. "So when she put me on that horse, I looked at her with these big green eyes and I said, 'Wait a minute. What am I supposed to hold onto?' She looked back at me with a grin and said, 'You take your hands and you wrap them in that mane as tight as you can. And you take your legs and squeeze them around that horse. I'll do the rest.'
"From that moment on, I was hooked. I've been riding horses ever since."
But horses were not the only thing she bonded with that day.
"I kind of became Diana's adopted daughter. I went everywhere with her -- horse auctions and friends' houses. I became her little shadow," she said, choking up. "She even had a little nickname for me. It was Pee Wee."
Laura begins to cry.
"As long as I've known Diana, she has always had the biggest heart. She has always loved everyone and everything she came into contact with," she said. "If ever there was an angel that walked this Earth, it was her."
A vine wreath will replace Little Joe in the corner stall located inside the fairgrounds' main livestock barn this year.
"It's red, white and blue," Laura said. "Diana was very patriotic. Every time you saw her, she had red, white and blue on."
There is talk of displaying the late-rider's saddle.
"We want to honor her memory," Laura said. "She just loved the fair. She was always out here."
And Saturday, a packed grandstand will see the ceremonial pass Diana and Little Joe delivered before the demolition derby year after year -- only this time, Diana won't be the one holding the reins.
So even though, for them, that opening lap will never be the same, the woman's friends and family will be among the faces in the crowd.
Diana, they say, would want their eyes on that American flag.
"Yeah, we're still gonna carry the flag at the demolition derby," Laura said, again breaking down. "This is how we honor her."