Between Ohio State University football and agriculture education, Urbana resident Larry Lokai has been wholeheartedly living his passion for 23 years.
When the pandemic called an 11-month halt to his attending football games and making myriad public appearances, the 79-year-old icon — also known as Buckeyeman — says he felt like a part of him was missing. “I don’t feel complete,” he says. “I guess that’s the best way to say it.”
So as restrictions eased in late spring and early summer, Lokai eased himself back into the game. He donned his trademark scarlet-and-gray wig, painted face, and strings of buckeyes and began making a few personal appearances.
Now, as football season approaches, he’s ready to go all-in and plans to be there once again — a favorite of both fans and television cameras at the games.
Along with the hair and face paint, Lokai’s Buckeyeman is best known for handing out buckeyes, the fruit of the Ohio buckeye tree. As he’s expanded the role, he says he’s handed out more than 1.8 million of them.
“Every student who’s come through orientation since 2002 on the main campus has received a buckeye from me,” he says. More recently, he’s also begun giving the nuts to new students at the Mansfield and Marion branches.
In addition, he’s given away 1,800 buckeye tree seedlings in the last 16 years, all of which he grew in his yard — though that portion of the Buckeyeman legacy ended last year. “I gave up trying to keep up with Johnny Appleseed,” Lokai says.
Buckeyeman is much more than a superfan at football games; his reach extends far into the community. Those trademark buckeyes are in fact more of an outgrowth of his agriculture background than a product of his fandom.
After earning his bachelor’s (1967) and master’s (1973) degrees from Ohio State, Lokai taught agriculture for 30 years before he retired in 1997. He also was a 4-H advisor and taught hunter education for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Division of Wildlife for 25 years.
After his retirement — during the same years Buckeyeman arrived on the football scene — Lokai began a new ag career.
In 1998, he returned to Ohio State as coach of the poultry judging team for three years. In 2002, he returned to consulting with high school ag teams, and when his grandchildren started entering high school, he started working with their ag contest teams.
When his son started teaching ag education in 2013, Lokai decided that instead of competing against him, he’d help with his son’s teams instead. That, in turn, led to working with teams from more high schools.
Today, he continues to consult with FFA contest teams, and in 2019, four of the teams he worked with took the top four places in state competition. He also judges youth projects at county fairs. To date, he has judged poultry shows in 84 of Ohio’s 88 counties as well as in several neighboring states and as far away as California. Even during the pandemic, he judged at 21 county fairs.
“I can go to any county in Ohio and know somebody,” he says.
In 2016, Lokai was honored by OSU’s College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences with its Distinguished Alumni Award.
Through his youth work, Lokai carries over his buckeye tradition, giving away buckeyes.
Birth of Buckeyeman
Huge quantities of buckeyes weren’t on Lokai’s mind when he first donned his “uniform.”
Buckeyeman was born in 1998 when Lokai scored tickets to the Ohio State-Michigan game right behind the Michigan bench. He decided to go ultra-Ohio State with face paint and a wig.
His alter ego got a boost in 2000 when he finished third in a Halls Cough Drops national contest to find the loudest college football fan, and by 2015, he was honored as the NCAA Fan of the Year.
Buckeyeman wears four strings of 42 buckeyes each around his neck — one string for each of his children who graduated from Ohio State and 42 because he was born in 1942.
In the early days, Lokai said he would rise at 4 a.m. and put on his face paint and costume. “By 6 a.m., I was at Bob Evans for breakfast, and I’d be at the stadium by 6:30 or 7,” he says. “The last few years, I’ve slept in until 5.”
Another change came eight years ago when Lokai gave up boards and committees to focus on youth activities and Buckeyeman appearances — including his 10-year seat on the Urbana City Council, state and county retired teachers associations, and others.
“I started counting up the meetings,” he says. “By the time I got done, I got out of seven organizations. I had 80 fewer meetings a year in 2014. In January 2014, the sun came up exactly the same.”
As fans gear up for this fall’s season of Ohio State football, Lokai looks forward to returning to his place as a superfan for his 24th year. “I’d like to go to 90 at least,” he says. “I’ll do it until it stops being fun.”