A crowd of spectators watches intently as Jerry Ayers’ slim knife swiftly whittles pumpkin flesh, leaving only a jack-o’-lantern’s spooky features. Ayers of Baltimore, Ohio, (pop. 2,881) knows the more jack-o’-lanterns he creates, the more money he’ll raise for a charitable cause.
“When you’re doing something for charity, people are willing to be generous,” says Ayers, 61, a one-time insurance agent turned world’s fastest pumpkin carver.
During the last two decades, Ayers has traveled across the country demonstrating his pumpkin-carving technique and raising more than $100,000 for everything from breast cancer research to construction of a public library in upstate New York.
Through it all he’s not only raised money for worthy causes, he’s also set world records for his pumpkin-carving feats. In 1999, he broke his own world record by carving a ton of pumpkins in just over seven hours during a fund-raiser at Klickman Farms in Elmore, Ohio, where his creations raised $2,100 for expansion of a homeless shelter.
“Whether it’s a jar set out for donations, a silent auction, or a full-blown event with a fast-talking professional auctioneer, the amount I raise varies,” he says, adding that one of his jack-o’-lanterns sold for $329 during a police fund-raiser in Fairfield County in 1993.
More than a decade before he went “public” with his talent, Ayers carved pumpkins for practice and the enjoyment of others, creating jack-o’-lanterns for schoolchildren and seniors, dressed in a clown’s guise to shield him from the limelight. The notoriety came, however, after the nearby Lancaster Eagle Gazette ran a human-interest story about him—out of costume and after the pumpkin-carving season.
“I thought people would forget by the next fall,” Ayers says. “But they didn’t.”
Since then Ayers has been the center of attention at more than 300 fund-raising events and made nearly 40 television appearances, including one on CBS’ The Saturday Early Show last October in which he set another world record by completing an elaborate pumpkin carving in one minute, 18 seconds.
Ayers will continue his road show this fall at events across the country, but he won’t be trying to set a world record this time.
“It’s not always about speed, it’s about having fun,” he says. “I spend a lot of time teaching people how to carve. They learn about pumpkins, too—more than they really want to know,” he adds, laughing.
What he teaches stems from Ayers’ business, Designer Pumpkin. A book and video of the same name provide directions for using a narrow, flexible-bladed knife he designed to add character to field squash. The unique tool is the secret to carving works of art, he says.
And as you might expect, his carving business promotes a positive work ethic for others less fortunate than himself. Products are packaged via an upstate New York sheltered workshop, and a similar company, Fairfield Industries in Lancaster, builds store display units for his pumpkin-carving merchandise. He says he knows firsthand just how helpful their environment is for those with learning difficulties.
In Baltimore, anecdotes about the town’s expert pumpkin carver include the time, during his stint as Baltimore Chamber of Commerce president, he rallied local firefighters and their annual fish fry, the Lion’s Club with its car show, and the chamber to pool their efforts for a three-day Baltimore Festival. Now in its 12th year, the festival attracts some 30,000 visitors to the central Ohio community.
“The money we earn is divided between the three groups, and then we put it back into the community for the Christmas lighting, the food pantry, and a new stage for this year’s event,” says resident Chuck Hedges. “Jerry’s the backbone of the festival.”
“His carvings brought national attention to Baltimore,” chimes in Judy Smeck, manager of Fairfield National Bank’s Baltimore branch, “but he’s also brought our community together.”