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Staff file photo / James Wendell "Skipper" Fairbanks, whose impact on the Chattanooga area's sports scene included decades as a youth boxing coach, died Aug. 28 at age 87. He is being remembered for his positive impact on young people through teaching, coaching and his work as a federal probation officer.

According to his younger brother Randy, "Skipper" Fairbanks was boxing for the University of Miami in 1953 when he couldn't take being away from Chattanooga a minute longer.

"He supposedly said a prayer, asking the Lord, 'If you'll just get me home from here, I'll dedicate my life to young people,'" recalled Randy last week. "The rest is history."

History will show that Skipper's 87 years on this planet sadly came to a close Aug. 28 after a brief medical issue. It will also show that perhaps no man in the history of the Scenic City had a greater positive impact on more young people than James Wendell "Skipper" Fairbanks.

"I can't think of one," said longtime Hamilton County educator Ernie McCarson, who officiated high school football games with Fairbanks for decades. "Skipper helped thousands of kids over the years, and a lot of those were kids nobody else was helping. Just a tremendous person."

The majority of those kids had ties to Red Bank, to boxing or both. Fairbanks started the Red Bank Dixie Youth baseball program in 1962. A five-time Golden Gloves winner, he coached boys and girls in boxing pretty much from 1961 forward.

"What he really taught was life, however," said Randy, who was born 22 years after Skipper. "He used coaching to teach about life."

His own life was something amazing. He met Carolyn Gillian while a student at the University of Chattanooga after he returned from Miami. They married in 1956, a union that lasted 53 years until her death and produced three daughters: Jamie, Wendy and Meg.

In yet another one of those tragedies that's hard to accept, Meg died of complications from COVID-19 two days after Skipper's death.

It was Skipper's life, however, that seemed to lift almost everyone he met.

"He was my middle school football coach at Red Bank," recalled Andy Smith, who now runs this city's Youth Community Action Project (YCAP), which was begun by his father Joe through the YMCA. "Skipper played a major role in my life in making me want to be a coach. He was the perfect example of servant leadership. Everything in his life was about serving others."

Smith recalled when his son was born that Fairbanks mailed the family a children's Bible. Randy said he has heard from numerous people over the past week telling of Skipper's baby gifts to them when their children were born.

"To the kids he knew through Dixie Youth Baseball, he loved to send them a baby ball or bat," Randy said. "He was so kind and thoughtful. There were seven kids in our family — five boys and two girls. Skipper was the oldest, and we all looked up to him."

Smith does remember one time Skipper had to look up to the kids he coached in boxing.

"I was probably 11, and we had a bout in Knoxville at Chilhowee Park," he recalled. "Before we enter the building, Skipper tells us if we lose, we might have to walk home, and if we get knocked out, we just need to stay there forever.

"Well, as we're walking in the building, one of these big metal doors swings out instead of in, hits Skipper in the head and knocks him out. When he comes to, he looks at us and says, 'I guess I should have been talking to myself about getting knocked out.' From then on, wherever we went, we made sure to open the door for Skipper."

As McCarson said, Skipper made an impact on thousands of kids, whether from teaching, coaching or his time as a federal probation officer.

A few years ago during a television interview, Fairbanks said of his belief in the power of athletics during his nearly 30 years in law enforcement: "We only had five people appear in federal court that had been in athletics. And there was no telling how many (cases) I did. Now that's not saying that if you play sports, you won't be in trouble, but it's a pretty good lesson."

Of life lessons learned from boxing, he once said: "Sometimes a boxer will box, and if he loses, he won't come back. We tell our kids that the second time they get in the ring, they're growing up whether they win or lose, because they didn't quit."

Johnny Jones was so impressed by Fairbanks' work with his son Kent, who has since become an accomplished lawyer, that he wrote the following to Skipper one Christmas: "You can take great pride in knowing all your efforts have molded many young men into outstanding individuals."

He once molded the Bridgeport (Alabama) High School football team into an undefeated squad in 1958, before quitting coaching as a primary profession for a reason heard far too often in education.

"He couldn't feed his family on a coaching salary," Randy said.

But he kept coaching and teaching whenever possible because, in his brother's words, "he loved teaching kids."

That work led him to be inducted into the Greater Chattanooga Sports Hall of Fame, as well as numerous other such halls, and to win dozens of honors, including the Liberty Bell Award from the Chattanooga Bar Association.

To this day, Randy wonders what happened to all those awards: "You never saw any of them in his house. The only pictures or awards in his house were of his wife and daughters."

We have lost too many of these local coaching and mentoring giants of late. Over the past 10 months alone, Clifford Kirk, Catherine Neely, Tom Weathers, Anthony Martino, Grace Keith and now Skipper Fairbanks — to name but six — have all passed away.

Said Randy regarding his brother, using words that could just as easily describe any of the above six: "I spent my whole life trying to emulate him, and I never came close because he set the bar so high."

Then again, that's how you make history for all the right reasons.

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Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.

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