DeFo Spencer swam as a youngster, graduating from McCallie School in 1974, and had a daughter who swam at The Fairyland Club. He swam in the Chattanooga Area Swim League, in high school and later at Furman University.
And for Spencer's entire life, both as kid and adult, Wilford "Bill" Caulkins III has been a constant presence.
"Growing up as a swimmer, I don't think I ever attended a swim meet as a competitor, or now as a parent, that Bill wasn't there," he says. "He is an institution."
For the last 50 years, Bill Caulkins has been a fixture in Chattanooga area swimming circles. For many, without the man dressed all in white gracing the deck at Warner Park, the idea of a City Meet Championship -- a year-end, multi-day, multi-team event -- is unimaginable.
But they'll have to get used to the idea. Caulkins, 83, is retiring from his duties as a volunteer swimming official, trainer and scheduler. He will be honored Friday at the Fairyland Club on Lookout Mountain, where he has lived most of his life.
"I've done this a long time and met a lot of nice people along the way," Caulkins says. "It means a lot they are doing this for me."
Caulkins leaves behind a considerable wake, having officiated just about every type of swimming event around, from hundreds of Chattanooga Area Swim League meets to high school events to the competitions for the old Amateur Athletic Union. In so doing, he has earned the respect of swimmers, coaches and parents.
"He was almost someone to be feared, in a quiet, respectful way," says Ricky Brackett, a
Chattanooga Area Swim League veteran who later swam at the University of Georgia in Athens.
In the old days, coaches would try to intimidate meet officials, who were almost always volunteer mommies and daddies, he recalls. Since getting involved, Caulkins has been on a mission to train and educate not only officials, but swimmers, coaches, parents and recruits interested in officiating meets.
"He is very well-respected, and he did away with a lot of the shenanigans on the sidelines. You don't really question the refereeing, anymore," Brackett says.
"In the AAU ranks, he really took it from parents and coaches running it to a more organized way of doing things," Brackett says. "He raised the bar to good officiating, and he brought in sort of the Wimbledon behavior with officials dressed in white.
From the start, Caulkins has cut an imposing figure on area swim decks, running meets with a firmness and seriousness that left little doubt who was in charge. Even today, he stresses the importance of doing things the right way, and the importance of calling every race the right way, whether it's an 8-year-old freestyle event for the local swim league or a high school state final..
"It puts a lot of pressure on the referee," Caulkins says, "but they are going to do it right and they are doing it for the swimmer and not against the swimmer. As a result they learn to respect you. When all is said and done, 99 percent of coaches and parents understand and later on they will thank you."
Caulkins spent his career working in sales for power and communications tool and equipment manufacturer Sherman & Reilly. For a man so identified with area swimming, though, he never much cared for the water himself.
"I was not a swimmer growing up," Caulkins says. "Lookout Mountain, in fact, only had two swimming pools. One was at the Fairyland Club and another was owned by a man near Point Park. It had no heater. I was in it one time and nearly froze to death. And, the only swimsuit I had must have been secondhand. It was made of wool, so you can imagine how it felt."
As a student at McCallie, Caulkins says he learned that, to graduate, he would have to swim two laps in the McCallie lake on the school's campus. At the time, it was about like swimming two laps of an Olympic-sized pool.
"I did make it, but I first learned of that [requirement] in sixth grade, and I was scared to death that I wasn't going to be able to do it," he says.
The truth is, he says, he became an official primarily to help pass the time while his oldest daughters, Betsy and Caroline, swam. While son Wilford Caulkins IV never got into swimming, both girls swam year-round, so Caulkins suddenly found himself spending quite a bit of time around pools.
"He drove me to 5 a.m. practices and then had breakfast ready," says daughter Caroline Caulkins Bentley.
A 1983 graduate of Girls Preparatory School and a two-time high school swimming All-American, she recalls that there were some years the school didn't have a full swim team of its own, so her father stepped in.
"He would volunteer and coach us [the girls who wanted to compete as individuals] at the state meets."
When Betsy was 7, the local YMCA hosted a three-day swim meet over the Thanksgiving weekend. Being the type of parents who got involved, Caulkins and wife, Nancy, signed up to help. In those days, races were monitored by volunteers, who sat along the pool and reported to a scorekeeper on how a racer in a particular lane finished. They used watches to guesstimate the time.
"It was a pretty boring job to have," he says, "and I remember telling my wife that, if we are going to stay in this swimming business, I've got find another job."
He noticed that the deck officials, the guys in charge of running things and gathering race results, seemed to have more to do so he eventually looked into becoming one. Not one to simply go through the motions, he jumped in with both feet, learning not only the rules, but proper stroke techniques.
"He acted as an instructor for the kids, the coaches and the parents," Spencer says. "He is so knowledgeable."
Over the years, Caulkins has done just about every chore involved in area swimming from training officials to running meets. He also handles game scheduling duties for the softball league, in which he played, on Lookout Mountain for more than 40 years. Caulkins still plays handball, as well.
"Bill is one of those people you never have to worry about," says Chattanooga Area Swim League President Randy Rhinehart. "You never worry about officials being scheduled, or even worry about the officials. He is very serious and very thorough and just does a really good job."
Even today, Caulkins mentions more than once the importance of teaching young swimmers the proper way to swim. He strongly believes it is the role of the official to make the right call during meets, which can mean disqualifying a swimmer for improper technique.
"If you let a swimmer go, he may never be able to do it right," he says. "If it's a call that should be called, call it, and then the child can be coached right."
Contact Barry Courter at email@example.com or 423-757-6354.
Barry Courter is staff reporter and columnist for the Times Free Press. He started his journalism career at the Chattanooga News-Free Press in 1987. He covers primarily entertainment and events for ChattanoogaNow, as well as feature stories for the Life section. Born in Lafayette, Ind., Barry has lived in Chattanooga since 1968. He graduated from Notre Dame High School and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga with a degree in broadcast journalism. He previously was ...