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    “I like having stuff around me,” Mike Berry says. “I can look at something and it conjures up a memory.”

    The Kentucky Derby Festival CEO’s South Third Street office is a KDF collector’s paradise: complete sets of festival glasses, walls of event pins, festival-branded editions of several types of bourbon, a signed and framed Tom Brady jersey, a clock that former Belle of Louisville captain Mike Fitzgerald made using the boat’s paddlewheel. A silver vase is from when Berry was a float judge at this year’s Tournament of Roses parade, which leads up to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. A dancing, singing Hillary Clinton doll sits on the windowsill wearing a Pegasus pin, next to a photo of her wearing the pin when she came to town and stumped during her 2008 presidential run. Muppet dolls Statler and Waldorf sit on a shelf, an old joke between Berry and Thunder Over Louisville producer Wayne Hettinger. “Wayne and I disagreed on when was the first Thunder,” Berry says of the fireworks show that began in 1989. “We kind of got into an argument on television and somebody said, ‘You all are like those two old Muppets,’ so that’s kind of stuck all these years.”

    So where’s all this stuff gonna go when Berry retires in September? “That’s under negotiation,” the 58-year-old says. “Not between me and the festival — between me and home. My partner walked in and said, ‘What are you gonna do with all this? You can’t keep all of this.’ ‘You mean my Tom Brady jersey?!’ If I take all of these things off of the walls and with me, my office is probably going to be in the garage where I’m living.”

    After 23 years as CEO and 36 with the festival (which officially began in 1956, though a version of it ran for a few years in the 1930s), Berry says he decided to retire to spend more time with his grandkids, who live in town, and with his partner in Florida during the cold months.

    What he says he will miss most is the festival staff of 22, plus the board members and volunteers who every year pull off the festival of 70-plus events leading up to Derby. “I can be having a crummy day and I can walk down the hallway and sit down and talk through it or talk about college basketball or a TV show or political discourse to reduce stress,” Berry says. “Sometimes you get so close that you think the world revolves around the parade.”

    While the festival searches for his successor, Berry says nothing is leaving until his last day. “It would be like moving your furniture out of your house and then living in it,” he says. “I want to be relative up until the last day. I’m not coasting.”

    One of Berry’s major contributions has been developing KDF archives, which had been almost nonexistent prior to the ’90s. Here are a few objects that mean the most to him.
     

    Delta Queen Replica

    “The very first Derby Festival event I went to was the Steamboat Race when I was seven years old. My mom worked for the Coast Guard, and her office always got to put people on the boats. I went with mom and I was hooked at that point on being a steamboat buff. The first race that I went on, there was a guy that had made a bunch of these (handmade Delta Queen replicas). I bought one and this is one of my favorite keepsakes.

    “This (photo) was from the Steamboat Race in 1973. I was 12. The Delta Queen had won for the first time in five years, and I had been on it all five of those years as a kid. It was on the front page of the Courier. That’s me. I love this picture just because it brings back memories.”
     

    Duck Decoy

    “This duck decoy belonged to my predecessor, Dan Mangeot. He gave me my start. He died Feb. 11, 1997, and one week later the board named me CEO. One of the weirdest things in the world was realizing I’d have to move into this office. I was good friends with Dan’s wife when I worked with Gov. Martha Layne Collins (as an administrative assistant in the ’80s); that’s how I got involved with the festival. When Dan’s family came to clean out the office, I said I would love to keep this (decoy). I don’t think of hunting or a duck or whatever. To me, this is Dan. Through his decoy he kind of watches over.”
     

    Custom Louisville Slugger

    “This bat is a (recent) gift from Slugger. It’s one of a kind. I almost was going to take it to our board meeting today and decided I wasn’t going to because people will want one and I wanted one of a kind.

    “One of the things I’ve thought about doing is: I will definitely leave a note in the desk with a few tips to whoever the successor is, about how protective you need to be of the brand of the festival. I’m not just talking about the color of the jacket or what the Pegasus pin looks like. A lot of times we forget that we’re just caretakers of the festival. It doesn’t belong to us; it’s not a family company. You have to be really careful because the festival should be about everybody, whether they’re black, white, Republican, Democrat, whether they live in the East End or the West End, whether they’re from Louisville, whether they moved here or are just visiting. That’s when you have to realize that the festival serves everybody, and it’s really easy to forget that.”

    This originally appeared in the April 2019 issue of Louisville Magazine under the headline "Mike's Matters." To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

    Photos by Jessica Ebelhar, jessicaebelhar.com

    Mary Chellis Nelson's picture

    About Mary Chellis Nelson

    Mary Chellis Nelson is the managing editor of Louisville Magazine.

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