When Aubrey McCoy won the grand champion hog trophy July 20 at the Fayette County Fair, it was a moment of pure joy and accomplishment for the 14-year-old and her family – a proud family with a strong tradition of raising and showing hogs.
But as the moment subsided and the celebration ended following a long, arduous day of hog-showing, the trophy presentation itself evoked a brand new wave of emotion for several who were involved in the process. It wasn’t so much the trophy, but rather the name that’s engraved on it – the man who the trophy is named for: Mark Garland.
Mark, another hog enthusiast whose family has deep roots in the Fayette County farming community, was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis at 8-months-old.
“It’s hereditary, both my wife (Melissa) and I have the gene,” said his father, Jim Garland. “They say that 50 percent of those diagnosed so young die by the age of 18. But not Mark.”
No, Mark beat the odds. With a zest for life and a passion for hogs and fast cars, he lived until the age of 26 before finally succumbing to the disease which causes persistent lung infections and limits the ability to breathe over time.
“He was in the hospital for years. He had to have a lung transplant in ‘02 and then he died in ‘03,” said Jim.
His 40th birthday would have been today.
“He always loved the hogs,” his father said. “He showed hogs for about 10 years and he just loved that part of it. When he was sick, I kind of fought with him about it….I just thought he didn’t need to be doing it with the smell and everything. But he just loved it, there was no stopping him.”
Since Mark passed away, his father donates enough money to ensure that every year, the hog grand championship trophy is named after his beloved son.
“It’s been sponsored in his name for 13 years,” said Garland. “I was in the photo in the Record-Herald with Aubrey and I was holding the trophy. Some people were probably wondering, ‘Why is that fool standing there in the picture holding the trophy?’ But it’s because I wanted to sponsor it in Mark’s name. The first couple of years, I couldn’t get in there for the picture, I would get too choked up. But especially this year with Aubrey winning and knowing how close Mark and Aubrey’s father were, I decided to do it.”
Aubrey’s father is Bryan McCoy, who had much success as a hog showman in his own right. Twenty-three years before Aubrey claimed the top prize, Bryan won the grand champion hog trophy at the Fayette County Fair. Eight years prior, Bryan’s sister, Bethany, won the state grand championship.
Success in the hog business has always been important to the McCoy family, but the relationships they’ve built along the way have always meant even more.
Bryan and Mark Garland were close friends growing up on their respective farms as neighbors. Bryan graduated from Miami Trace in 1994 and Mark in ‘95.
“We were friends in high school and even into our college years,” Bryan said. “We were friends as long as I can remember. We had a lot in common, both of us were raised on hog farms. I took some tips from him when he was showing hogs. He was in my wedding in 2000. He was a funny guy. He used to always say, ‘Mark is my name, red hogs are my game.’”
Bryan was visibly emotional following his daughter’s victory at this year’s fair. The reason is twofold.
“Just all the time, effort and hard work finally paid off for her, and I was very proud,” he said. “We’ve been pretty successful doing this. My girls (Aubrey and Hillary) do a great job and they stay humble. I tell both of them, ‘Don’t ever give anybody a reason not to like you.’ Because sometimes when you’re successful, you’re going to have those people out there who just look for a reason not to.”
Also in Bryan’s thoughts was the man he grew up with, a man who meant so much to him. Mark’s influence and legacy have shown themselves in many tangible ways, but then there are also several almost uncanny signs that Mark may have been looking down on the market hog show last July. Interestingly enough, they all involve the number 13.
“This stuff was brought to my attention. I’ve been a Catholic all my life and Catholics aren’t supposed to be superstitious,” Jim Garland said while chuckling. “Thirteen is supposed to be an unlucky number, you go to most hotels and hardly is that number ever on the floor. But I’m not going to be scared of it anymore.”
It was 13 years ago that Mark passed away. Aubrey was 13 at the beginning of the 4-H year, a year that culminated in her grand championship victory. Her champion hog’s ear tag was 292, which adds up to 13. Bryan was born in ‘76, which adds up to 13. Bethany McCoy’s state fair hog championship came in ‘85, also adding up to 13. Bryan graduated from high school in ‘94, which of course, adds up to 13.
“It was our lucky number this year,” said Jim, who also has fond memories of being neighbors with the McCoy family.
“Roger McCoy, Bryan’s father, had a great big farm and we were always neighbors, we lived in the same township,” Jim said. “We would have parties together, they would throw a big barn party every year. My sister, Nancy, graduated with Roger. I know Mark would’ve been happy to see Aubrey win this year.”
Another close friend of Mark Garland’s, Nathan Warner, was also moved by Aubrey’s accomplishment and watching Jim hold the trophy. To this day, Warner is still close with Mark’s younger brother, Luke Garland. Also, Warner just happens to be the person who sold to the McCoys the hog that became this year’s grand champion.
“We’ve sold them hogs for a long time,” Warner said. “I’ve been close to both the McCoys and the Garlands. I’m good buddies with Luke and knew his older brother well. We made quite a few trips to visit Mark when he was at the Cleveland Clinic, when he had a lung transplant. I’m glad I knew him.”
Warner sent a message to Luke Garland the night of Aubrey’s victory.
“Makes me think back at why I chase this whole pig thing around and it all goes back to Mark and you,” Warner wrote. “Well today when we pictured the barrow after show, your dad brought out the grand trophy from the Mark Garland family. Man, I could’ve cried like a baby right on the spot. Feels like he is looking over us.”
Reach Ryan Carter at 740-313-0352 or on Twitter @rywica.