Bill Caulkins Retires From Chattanooga Area Swim League Duties

Sunday, June 8, 2014 - by John Shearer
Bill Caulkins
Bill Caulkins
- photo by John Shearer

For the first time in more than 40 years, Bill Caulkins this summer is not walking the deck as an official and volunteer for Chattanooga Area Swim League meets. 

However, his name will still be prominently on everyone’s mind, as local swim officials announced earlier this year that the CASL city swim meet held at the end of the season will be renamed in his honor.

It is all part of a proverbial last lap the 83-year-old Mr. Caulkins has enjoyed after announcing he was retiring from his longtime volunteer duties. 

A dinner salute in his honor was also held in March at the Fairyland Club, where the announcement about the new name was made.

“It was well attended,” Mr. Caulkins proudly said. “We had a good time there and saw a lot of people who had been involved in swimming years ago.” 

Just as was his trait in working meets, the decision to retire from his volunteer position came with careful thought and attention.

“I just figured it’s time for me to hang it up,” he said during an interview recently from the Sherman-Reilly utility and telecom equipment firm in Alton Park, where he still helps out part-time after a lengthy sales career there. 

“Not that I don’t want to do it anymore, I just don’t want to be responsible for it anymore.”

Mr. Caulkins had become involved in swimming after older daughter Betsy Caulkins Bookout started in the sport initially in California before the family moved back to Chattanooga. Younger daughter Caroline Caulkins Bentley also soon took part. 

He and his wife, Nancy, started out as judges with stopwatches, but he eventually gravitated toward being a deck official. The reason was that deck officials seemed busier than those handling the more mundane job of watching lanes as a judge, he said.

Mr. Caulkins also handled other volunteer administrative duties over the years. 

One of the more memorable times related to his volunteer work occurred more than four decades ago, when the fairly new James L. Fowle Memorial YMCA in downtown Chattanooga hosted an invitational meet that drew standout junior swimmers. One of the winners was a young female swimmer who was a distant cousin – Tracy Caulkins of Nashville, who would go on to win three gold medals at the 1984 Olympics.

About the best Chattanooga swimmers he saw over the years were Geoff Gaberino, who went to Baylor and Florida and won a relay gold medal in the 1984 Olympics, and Girls Preparatory School graduate Annemieke McReynolds. The Auburn swimmer was a Pan Am Games silver medalist, who just missed making the Olympic team in the breaststroke. 

While Mr. Caulkins saw a lot of people swim competitively over the years, he was not one of them, as he was never much of a swimmer growing up. He remembers swimming in a cold residential pool on Lookout Mountain as well as the one at the Fairyland Club, but he never warmed to the sport as a competitor.

But in the days when he was a student at McCallie, summer swim teams did not really exist. The reason was not a lack of interest, but a lack of a vaccine for polio until the 1950s. 

“When the season for polio came around, no parent would let their child get in the pool,” Mr. Caulkins remembered. “North Carolina and Tennessee were the two hottest spots for the transmission of the disease.”

But Mr. Caulkins did play plenty of other sports seriously before graduating from McCallie in 1949. He was involved in football and track and field, and could run the 100-yard dash in a swift 10.0 seconds. He also pole vaulted, using the school’s lightweight bamboo pole that had been taped. 

When he went to the University of North Carolina, he became an unlikely pioneer in the sport of lacrosse. An acquaintance asked him to try out for the new varsity team being formed, so he became a midfielder.

“It was a pretty lousy team,” he said with a laugh. 

However, his status as a former North Carolina lacrosse player has no doubt risen over the years, because now the Tar Heels are a national lacrosse powerhouse.

Mr. Caulkins also helped organize the Lookout Mountain softball league for several decades after becoming involved initially as a teenage player. 

Although he had his feet in the other sports as a competitor and even as a volunteer, his heart in recent decades has been primarily in swimming as an official.

“I enjoyed from the very beginning dealing with the swimmers, the parents and the coaches,” he said.     

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