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Steve Scarpino hands out the last four of Eddie's High $5 envelopes at the 2019 Iowa State Fair. His family handed out 400 envelopes to honor his father. Sam Owens, Courier & Press

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Five dollars at the Iowa State Fair goes further than you think. 

Know the right stand and a snow cone, some cotton candy, a strawberry shake, a ride down the big slide or even an order of X-Treme Balls (pork tenderloin balled up on a kebob with pickles and onions) will only cost you a Lincoln.

But all the Scarpino family wanted for their $5 was a smile.

And that was exactly what they got — 400 times over.

Walking nearly every inch of the fairgrounds, Steve Scarpino and Janel Marcovis handed out $2,000, $5 at a time, to kids, all of whom were complete strangers. They approached each family with one simple request: Let the kids choose what they want to do with this money.  

The endeavor fulfilled one of their late father’s last wishes, revealed to the brother-sister pair only after he passed in September. The wish was sototally their father — Edmund “’Eddie” Scarpino, a photographer and cartoonist with a soft spot for kids’ creativity and the Iowa State Fair — that the Scarpinos knew their mom wasn’t making it up.

And they knew they had to figure out a way to make it happen.

“As soon as we heard that he wanted to give away $5 at the fair, we just knew that was what we had to do in his memory,” Janelsaid. “We didn’t know how we were going to do it, but we knew we were going to at least try to figure it out.”  

They approached fair organizers in the winter, and employees could not have been more excited to help them make this wish come true, they said. Staffers even helped print out envelopes — because walking up to kids with plain $5 bills sort of screams “stranger danger” — and the official “Eddie’s High $5” movement was born.

In the intervening months, as Steve and Janel told the people in their orbit about their summer plans, they would throw $10 and $20 bills into the pot — one friend even gave $200. Everyone just wanted to play some role in making a kid’s day better.

Sitting in her Waukee home, Janel thinks the reason Eddie’s High $5 has caught so much fire is its simplicity. It’s a perfect gesture for her father, a simple man and Korean War veteran who kept his big, Italian family laughing with silly cartoons in equal measure with unwavering devotion.  

All he wanted to do in life was give without the need for anyone to feel like they had to return the favor, Janel said.

“He'd be so proud that we're doing this,” Steve said. “The one step that would be better is if he could witness it, because he would love to see the kids' faces.”

“Now, that,” he paused, “I mean, that would be the ultimate.”

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Eddie, before the wish

Before I dive too much further into Eddie’s wish, I want to tell you about how he lived.

Eddie swept his devoted wife, Mary, off her feet — literally — the first time they met.

Locking eyes in the St. John’s basement during a Catholic youth group more than 60 years ago, the pair danced the night away, giggling until curfew. About seven months later, they were married, Mary said.

They kept dancing until the cruelty of old age swept them both off their feet, but they laughed until the very end.

A photographer by trade, Eddie was also a cartoonist with a penchant for comedy. He’d draw himself thanking his son in advance for picking up the items on his grocery list or pen he and Mary, both diabetics, sitting down to enjoy off-limits sweet treats.

One showed the couple separated by cinnamon rolls piled high above their heads. “I’ll see you when I’m halfway through,” cartoon Eddie tells cartoon Mary.

Mary worked at John Deere for years, leaving Eddie to take over a lot of the household duties. Every morning he was up with the roosters, rousing his two kids, cooking them breakfast and getting them out the door.

He was a devoted father who understood that time and attention were more important than money, making a point to attend Steve’s golf meets before that was a must-do in suburbia.

But, still, he understood the importance of pocket money — especially to youngsters.

“I couldn’t go anywhere as a kid, whether he was dropping me off at a roller rink or the golf course or wherever, he always made sure I had money," Steve said. "He might not have had much money, but he definitely made sure his family could do the things they wanted to do.”

Definitely, his mother said, adding, gently, that her husband just didn’t know how to make money.  

“He was in business for himself and he would say, ‘Well, what have I got in that wedding? $60? I’ll charge him $70,’” Mary remembered.

So when Eddie passed at 90 years old, the family was in total agreement that the marker where his cremated remains were interred at the Iowa Veteran’s Cemetery would feature the word that best described him.  

“Generous.”

Fair fun for the whole family

On their last trip to the Iowa State Fair, Mary and Ed stopped for a quick rest just inside the fair gates. After a full day in the heat, the pair needed just a bit more fortitude to make it the rest of the way to their car.

Sitting there, catching their breath, they watched kids wander past.

“He says, ‘You know, I’d sure like to come up here and just hand $5 bills out to kids as they come in,’” Mary said.

“It just came off the top of his head and I was really surprised, but I thought, ‘Well, next year, we’ll do it,’” she said. “And then we never went again.”

Years later, as the family planned Eddie’s service and poured over memories, Mary offered this story — a surprise to both their kids, who quickly decided that fulfilling his wish would be the best way to memorialize him.

“He didn't have cancer or something that the funds, if people made a donation, would go to,” Janel said. “So when she threw that out there, we were like, well, that’s what we’ll do.”

The wish was made even more special given the Scarpino family’s deep ties to the fairgrounds. Their grandpa Bill was the chief of police at the fair for 25 years, and Steve worked the Midway gate (the toughest gate around, he tells me) throughout high school.

“I remember staying in the police barracks and we used to take naps in there,” Steve said. “Then we’d get up and we’d get in the golf cart, and we’d go through the whole fair and see all kinds of stuff.

“It was always fun for the whole family," Steve added. "And I think that’s the thing: There’s always been a connection.”

Nothing compares

Arriving at the fair just after 9 a.m., Steve and Janel were excited but nervous. Janel had figured out the sound bite she was going to use when she approached families, but as they told me over and over, neither was really sure how this was going to work.

But nearly everyone they met embraced their endeavor with open arms. Kids' eyes widened like flashbulbs when they realized actual money was inside their envelopes. Some jumped up and down, some were simply dumbstruck.

One girl declared that after getting the envelope, she had $7 to spend at the fair.

Jack Waite, 6, told me that he was using his money for either toys or ice cream. His brother Charlie, 4, quickly agreed in the way that a younger brother always agrees with an older one, while their mother, Erin, of Van Meter, dabbed her eyes.

“I love the State Fair; I had my bachelorette party at the State Fair,” she said, “But I have never heard of anything like this. What a fantastic way to honor someone.”

The Vanderpool family offered Janel hugs. Their Des Moines family, complete with 12 grandchildren, loves the fair, too, and they often show up as a “mob,” just like the Scarpinos would.

Rachel Ackerman, of Bondurant, asked the Scarpinos to pose with her kids for a photo. “I have goosebumps,” she said.  

Others shared their own losses, commenting that their grandpa, husband or brother would love something like this.

Steve wasn’t expecting so many people to ask about his dad — what his name was, what he did, what he was like. Janel didn’t realize how many kids would instinctively reach out for hugs or offer “thank yous” without prodding from their parents.

After five hours of hoofing, the 400 envelopes were gone. 

Standing in the shadow of the kiddie ferris wheel, Eddie’s son and daughter didn't shed tears. This was not a sad occasion for them.

It was a celebration of all their dad loved: family, fun, the fair.

“He’s happy, I think,” Steve said. “I just wish he got to see their faces, because there is nothing that compares to those smiles.”

“But,” he added, pausing again, “I think in some way, he did.”

COURTNEY CROWDER, the Register's Iowa Columnist, traverses the state's 99 counties telling Iowans' stories. She'd spend her $5 on a cup of ice-cold lemonade. You can reach her at 515-284-8360 or ccrowder@dmreg.com. Follow her on Twitter @courtneycare.

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