John Shearer: Remembering Skipper Fairbanks’ Numerous Contributions

Friday, September 17, 2021
Skipper Fairbanks
Skipper Fairbanks

Although I do freelance writing and some adjunct college teaching these days and can usually pick or choose what I do, sometimes I still feel my stress level go up slightly when asked or offered an opportunity to take on an additional task.


Whether volunteer or work related, the stress still comes along with maybe a night or two of having trouble falling asleep. I crave feeling comfortable where I am, and it was the same when I worked fulltime at the Chattanooga Free Press or taught public high school. 


Rightly or wrongly, I might not stretch myself as a worker or citizen as much as I should, even though I feel I have in the bigger picture over the last 20 years or so through changing careers, etc.


All that recently came to mind after reading what all Red Bank community coach Skipper Fairbanks accomplished in his life in terms of public service, primarily as it related to youth sports.


Seeing the countless areas where he served as a coach and mentor was amazing, and his obituary definitely stressed me out just thinking how I would have juggled all those areas of service.


His obituary of a couple of weeks ago, which mentioned that the celebration of his life will be culminated with a visitation this Friday and Saturday at the Dixie Youth baseball field named for him by Red Bank High School, was three times longer than that of a typically prominent citizen.


But reading it, I realized he was worth every word and maybe more.

It was fascinating to read of all his work with football coaching and officiating, coaching boxing, working with Dixie Youth baseball, and as a U.S. probation officer to make more money for his family. 


He could have likely enjoyed a career as a successful local high school head football coach for two or three decades and been held in as much esteem as such locals as Ralph Potter and Tom Weathers and Benny Monroe, but he focused on the lower grades or more minor sports.


He still won there, but even more importantly, taught valuable lessons of discipline, character, and sportsmanship to an even more moldable group.


Although I wish I could say I had played under him – and maybe learned how to wear more proverbial hats without so much worry – I knew him through Red Bank United Methodist Church, where I did have him as a junior high Sunday school teacher.


And I encountered him at church quite a few times as I got older and my wife, Laura, and I started attending there again before she embarked on her ministerial career.


I can remember that she was on the same committee as he was at the church for a period, and he once or twice called her to discuss something. You would have thought he was retired with nothing else to do but focus his attention on that committee’s work.


He was always nice and friendly and even laughed some. But he was certainly not a back-slapping kind of person who always wore a big smile in public, as he was also a teacher and coach in the classic sense and made sure his pupils learned through discipline and proper instruction.


Although I did not get to know her quite as well, his late wife, Carolyn, seemed to be the more gregarious of the two and always had a friendly comment to make people feel immediately at ease. The couple’s positive traits were passed along to their three daughters, Jamie Harvey, Wendy Lyness and Meg O’Neal, who were popular and likable students of merit at Red Bank High School.


I was certainly sorry to hear of Meg’s passing on Aug. 30, just two days after Skipper’s death.


My father, Dr. C. Wayne Shearer, was also the family’s optometrist. 


Besides observing Skipper at church, I also had an opportunity to interview him a couple of times in the early 2000s. One time I put together a collection of oral histories of Red Bank that had started as a school project when I went back to get a master’s degree at UTC, and I of course wanted to include an interview with him.


As I talked with Skipper, I quickly gathered that coach Marion Perkins, the small former University of Tennessee player who was his football and boxing coach at Red Bank, had been a big influence on him. “He was very demanding,” Skipper told me. “If he would tell you to run through a wall, you would try to do it.”


I had always heard that coach Perkins had died in the 1950s under unfortunate circumstances, but when coach Fairbanks was telling me how while also asking me not to share it publicly, my mind started wandering, and I missed what he said. And I did not have the heart to ask him to repeat it.


Coach Fairbanks also told me during the interview – and this time I was paying attention – that his work with Dixie Youth baseball in Red Bank started by chance. He said he was umpiring some baseball games at a field where the Red Bank tennis courts are now for a group of 11- and 12-year-olds headed by the retired Charles Valentine.


Living nearby and realizing some other youngsters of different ages were also interested in playing ball, he began working with some of them by teaching them fundamentals on Saturday mornings. 


And the Red Bank Dixie Youth program kind of grew from that, and for a period early on drew interest from throughout the area north of the river, not just Red Bank. He recalled that some prominent Chattanooga families from Riverview and elsewhere also became involved.


But no one had a richer life than Skipper regarding all his areas of service in youth athletics. He seemed to be the kind of man who did not like to sit around a lot, and he was always looking for something to do. And Chattanoogans can be grateful that most of it helped his fellow man and family.


I also had an opportunity to do a story on him for about 2002. I tried to find it online this week but had trouble, but I still remember interviewing him over at the now-razed Red Bank Middle School complex on Dayton Boulevard.


Amid the older facility where he had once gone to school, this man who was then in about his late 60s and no spring chicken either was obviously still full of enthusiasm for teaching and working with young people. I remember I met him during his planning period, and he was quite patient and cordial in talking with me about his career and enjoyment of his work and did not seem distracted in the least.


He even invited me to attend both the final Red Bank Middle School football game and subsequent banquet coming up, and I, of course, could not say no. Attending them gave me a better insight into him, and I am sure those young eighth-grade boys of that era have an even greater appreciation for him now.


I also ran into him occasionally in later years as he struggled emotionally following the death of Carolyn in 2009. 


While living in Knoxville, I also saw him at a Golden Gloves boxing event or two I was covering for the Knoxville News Sentinel there in the early 2010s. I think his back was bothering him, but his heart was in the right place, and he was enthusiastically helping the young Red Bank boys along with a younger coach or two.


I think he also mentioned then that he was trying to put together some historical information on the Red Bank Dixie Youth program that was then about 50 years old, and my name had come up as somebody who could possibly help him. 


Needless to say, I stressed out a little thinking about taking on that additional job, although I eventually never heard anything else about it!


Luckily for Chattanooga, though, Skipper Fairbanks never grew tired of taking on additional duties for decades of mentoring youngsters in sports and elsewhere.


And all his work likely helped many deal better with the stresses of life that came as they grew older!


* * * * *

Billboard on Dayton Boulevard
Billboard on Dayton Boulevard

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