By ADAM ASHTON
Tuolumne Market owner John Egger thought he was going to the Mother Lode fairgrounds Wednesday for a free lunch.
Instead he received the Mother Lode Fair's 2002 "Outstanding Buyer" award, an honor the Junior Livestock Auctioneering Committee bestows upon one individual annually for support of Tuolumne County 4-H and Future Farmers of America programs.
Though he never got that free meal, he was proud of what he did get.
"Ever since I went into business in 1978, it's always been a part of my business in Tuolumne County to support the youth in the county. That's what we've always done," Egger said as he accepted the plaque beneath the hog tent.
For the past 17 years, Egger has attended Mother Lode Fair junior livestock auctions with a keen eye for animal quality and a passion for helping county youths.
That perennial support is what made him stand out for this year's honor.
"It's not how much he buys or how much he spends, it's his being here," said Junior Livestock Auctioneering Committee member Tom Fraser as he introduced Egger.
Egger said he usually buys the animals for his own family, but he once bought the fair's grand champion goat and created a display marketing the meat.
But he said helping kids learn how to sell livestock is much more important than making a profit off an animal.
That's why he pays special attention to kids who recruit buyers by hitting the streets and showing off pictures of their animals to local businessmen.
"I don't always buy them but I'm always there to help them along. That's part of their learning process, to get out in the business community and get us down here," he said.
Egger, who grew up in Soulsbyville, says finding a sense of community was one of the main reasons he quit his job as a Merced Safeway manager in 1978 and bought what was the Easy Market in Tuolumne.
Since then, he changed store locations a couple times but always found a way to involve himself with youth programs, including sponsorship of Little League and soccer teams.