By Reggie Ellis

Ever since she was a little girl, Delora Buckman has been promoting and marketing Tulare County and its national treasures.

Her father, Phil Buckman, ran the Mineral King Pack Station to pay his way through medical school in the 1940s. He later opened a medical practice and hospital where Elan's Restaurant now stands on E Street, but would still take trips with his family into the back country.

"We would take family vacations there for a month at a time," she said. "Sometimes we wouldn't even see another person for 10 days."

Delora said her parents were strict, taught her a strong work ethic and to have passion for what she did. "As a Girl Scout I enjoyed knocking on doors and selling cookies," she said. "Promoting is something I have always done."

For the last eight years, Delora Buckman-Merritt has served as CEO of the Exeter Chamber of Commerce using the pull of the national parks to attract visitors to her hometown. Her tenure is a long list of accomplishments that have made Exeter its own attraction, a destination separate from the park with enough family entertainment for a day trip.

"We developed Exeter as a day destination on the way up to Sequoia National Park," she said. "Spend a few hours here, discover what we have and we knew they would want to come back."

But her accomplishments also what make it difficult to say goodbye as she has taken a position with the Visalia Convention Center and Visitors Bureau. Joann Peterson, who grew up near Delora in Lindcove east of Exeter, said Delora will never be gone from Exeter, she just might not live or work here. "Exeter is her hometown," said Peterson, a chamber member since 2000. "She still goes to church here and is still going to be involved in the community."

Peterson credited Delora with building up the ribbon cutting ceremonies held for new and relocating businesses. Delora attended her last ribbon cutting as chamber CEO on Sept. 1 at Hollyhocks new location at 228 E. Pine St. Also in attendance was chamber ambassador and former Woman of the Year, Judy Anderson.

"She has done a very good job leading the chamber," said Anderson, who has been an ambassador since 2000. "She has done a good job for Exeter. I'm sure she will do well with her new job but we will definitely miss her."

Sandy Blankenship, office manager for the chamber, said Delora's artistic vision for the city will be missed. "She brought a refinement to the arts, and the tourism and marketing rose to a different level," said Blankenship, who has worked for the chamber for 14 years. Blankenship was hired by Gina Butler in 1991 and worked under Darren Cantrell and Vickie Dungan before Delora took over in 1997.

"I think we really complimented one another," she said. "I learned a lot about art appreciation."

Delora helped kick the mural program into high gear in the late 1990s. An accomplished watercolor painter herself, Delora's painting of the Fox Theatre has helped raise money for the landmark. Several beautiful pieces hang in the chamber's office, including one of a gondola in Venice, Italy, a cafe in Prague, Czech Republic and another of the chamber's railroad architecture style building.

"Art has to be more than just a pretty picture," Delora said. "It should communicate more than what initially meets the eye. It should give you a feeling that might connect with a memory and even bring back emotions or smells."

She even personally drove artist Varian Mace up into the mountains one winter morning to make sure she accurately captured Sawtooth and Homer's Nose rock formations in her mural "Poppies and Lupine." In 2000, Exeter was named one of America's Prettiest Painted Places by the Paint Quality Institute in Pennsylvania, the last year it gave out the award. The murals put new businesses in previously vacant store fronts, revitalizing a dying downtown. Delora will remain active on the Mural Team, a subcommittee of Exeter, A Festival of the Arts, the non-profit association dedicated to the beautification of Exeter through art. Exeter's 22nd mural is currently in progress. The mural, which depicts children playing in front of the old Lincoln Schoolhouse, is being painted on the north wall of the Exeter Boys & Girls Club, located at 360 E. Pine St. in downtown Exeter.

"The murals have done more than just bring people to town," she said. "It has brought a citywide beautification that has created a real sense of community pride."

Sales tax revenue in the city increased from $471,018 in 1998 to $557,344 in 2004. And of the businesses that join, the chamber retains nearly 91% of its membership. That steady stream of members has helped the chamber to own the railroad property on which the building rests and have plans to landscape the area into a park for hosting events and formally welcoming tour buses as they drop off mural tourists.

"Tourism doesn't affect infrastructure," she said. "We had them come in, spend their money and then leave. That way we could keep our small town charm," she said. And keep them coming back for more.

Exeter is also known for its outstanding community events throughout the Valley. Fall Festival records larger crowds and vendors each year. And chamber events that people have come to associate with Exeter, such as the Garden Party dinner and silent auction, the Garden Walk and the Chili Cook-Off were all started under her leadership.

"I have loved every day of it," she said. "I had a real passion about it. I think my parents and grandparents would be proud of what Exeter is today."

Her last day with the Exeter chamber will be on Sept. 9, ending a prosperous era in Exeter's history for both its businesses and the community.

"My decision was influenced by the fact that it’s an upward move to a more progressive Chamber/CVB. I want to pursue opportunities that challenge and move me forward in life. This move allows me to focus on my strengths and experience in convention and tourism sales and marketing. I’m looking forward to promoting Visalia as a convention destination," Buckman-Merritt said.

The move continues a a long and diversified career in promotions and marketing. Prior to working as the Exeter chamber's CEO, Buckman-Merritt worked as the director of concessions for lodges located in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park. She has also worked for an airline and the Holiday Inn. Buckman-Merritt starts her new job with the CVB on Sept. 12.

"We are very excited that Delora has decided to join our team, and know that she will bring with her an abundance of experience, energy and enthusiasm," said Kristi Johnson, Director of Tourism for CVB.

To this day, Buckman-Merritt considers the backcountry of the national parks "some of the most beautiful places in the world right here in our own county." That's saying a lot for someone who just got back from the untouched terrain of Mongolia, spent time growing up in Austria and has visited Napal, Japan, Bali, Indonesia, Kashmir, Thailand, Malaysia and India to name a few.

"I have always enjoyed traveling," she said.

In May she took staff members from both the Exeter and Visalia chambers of commerce on a day trip into the backcountry. She instructed them to take notes on how long it took to get from Visalia and Exeter to the entrance of the park, and how far from there to Ash Mountain and so on. It also familiarized the staff members with the type of terrain, rock formations and trails to recommend to visitors.

"I think we should take a trip like that every year," she said.

Her new position with the CVB will keep her on the go more than half of the time. She said selling Visalia as a convention destination will take on her many trips to both Southern California and the Bay Area. She will also continue to promote the park as an attraction for visitors looking for something in addition to the convention. And, of course, she will be sending a lot of those people to discover the "small town charm" of Exeter that she helped cultivate.

Start typing and press Enter to search