'Banana' George lives gold-tinted life at 85

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— "Banana" George Blair glances over as a screaming yellow Dodge Ram pickup slides up next to him at the stoplight. He quickly critiques it.

"It's not as bright as I like my yellow to be," Banana George points out. He dismisses it with a wave of his hand. It's not as bright yellow as the yellow Cadillac he stores in his yellow garage back home in Winter Haven, Fla.

Blair, 85, knows yellow. From his sunglasses down to the basket-weave summer shoes on his feet, he is clad in yellow. His shirt and trousers, of course, are yellow. When he slips his billfold out of his pocket, it, too, is yellow.

Luncheon companions might notice that there are traces of yellow on his left wrist that's from spray painting his Stetson cowboy hat yellow earlier in the week, he explains. He always keeps a few cans of spray paint handy in case he runs across something that isn't yellow, but could be.

The color yellow may be George's trademark, but it doesn't begin to explain a man who refuses to grow old, and spreads a contagious enthusiasm for life, everywhere he goes.

Steamboat Springs residents should readily recognize Blair as the elderly gentleman who shows up every January to mount a snowboard and shred the mountain. Banana George is a pretty good snowboarder, but he's a world-class water skier.

"I'm the king of bare-footin' with the tow rope held in my teeth," Banana George declares.

He skis and rides like no other octogenarian on earth, and he's rarely seen in anything but yellow.

"God gave me the gravitational pull toward yellow," George explains.

Following last week's rare summer visit to Steamboat to dedicate the lake at Lake Catamount Resort, George was off to Fergus Falls, Minn., for an exhibition at the national barefoot championships. Then, it's off to Los Angeles for another exhibition before boarding a plane for Tokyo and a string of public exhibitions in China in October.

The morning after his last performance in China, he hops back on the plane so he can hustle home to make an appearance at a tournament he has cochaired on Lake Silver in Winter Haven for many years.

Younger men would have passed on the China trip, or made their excuses to old friends in Winter Haven "My wife Joanne is just begging me not to go." But Banana George can't help himself.

"I'm adamant. I'm not going to slow down," Blair said. "It's just the way I'm built it's the way I tick. Looking for a new challenge is part of my makeup."

Banana George is pretty proud of the latest new sport he took up, even if things didn't turn out exactly the way he wanted. Last March, George enrolled in a bull riding school with former world champion rodeo cowboy Charlie Sampson.

Blair had been attending the Cowboy Downhill in Steamboat for many years. And since he makes friends with everyone he meets, he naturally became a compadre of Sampson. Blair asked if he could enroll in Sampson's three-day school in Denver. The bull riding great couldn't refuse, even if putting an 85-year-old man on the back of 3,000 pounds of snorting hell fury doesn't sound like a wise thing to do.

Banana George was in it for the thrill.

"What is amazing is to stand at the chute and to feel the power and fierceness of those wonderfully huge" animals, George enthused. "That burst of anger and unbridled rage. If you don't have the fear of God by the time you climb on, you're never gonna have the fear."

Despite repeated warnings from the cowboys working the clinic, George insisted on climbing aboard mechanical bulls and getting tossed off repeatedly as he worked his way up to the real thing. They tried to dissuade him by telling him they would invent new waivers for him to sign, that he'd surely be badly injured and that a man his age had no business on a bull.

When the fateful day arrived, George climbed aboard a seething bull and looped the rope around his gloved hand to secure his grip. One veteran cowboy hung on the front of the chute to keep the bull's head up and another rode shotgun at the rear. The bull's hooves hammered at the chute like thunder and the gate swung open.

The next thing George knew, a cowboy had hooked an arm around him and swept him off the bull as it stormed into the rodeo arena riderless.

"Boy was I mad," George recalls. But what matters is that he confronted his fear and was fully prepared to go through with the ride of a lifetime.

In order to understand what drives an 85-year-old man to take on challenges that many 25-year-olds would think twice about, you have to know something about Blair's childhood. Sure, he greets every knew day with an insatiable appetite for fun and never ending reservoir of warmth for the strangers he meets. But there are years of adversity at the core of Banana George's spirit, and he weeps openly when he talks of them.

Blair was born with marked scoliosis, resulting in a curvature of the spine. He ignored that condition to play golf, race ice boats and ice skate for miles near his boyhood home of Toledo, Ohio.

George was born into a family of bankers, but the depression claimed most of their economic resources. In college at Miami University (Oxford, Ohio), the only way to join his fraternity brothers on spring break trips was to hop a freight train like a hobo. One trip, while guarding his food stash, he was tossed offer a moving train by a band of hoboes.

The fall exacerbated George's spinal condition, displacing his spine three-quarters of an inch and pinching a bundle of nerves. He lived with the injury and the resulting pain for years while resisting an operation to fuse his spine.

"I decided that as long as that was my body, I was going to do something with it," George said. "I'm on this campaign."

During his professional life, George started a successful business that snapped newborn infant portraits at hospitals in numerous states, and started his own bank when he couldn't get the loans he need. He remains an entrepreneur to this date.

In 1955, at the age of 40, he he finally underwent spinal surgery and headed to Florida to recuperate in the warm climate.

It was in Florida that Banana George fell in love with water skiing.

He went home to Red Bank, N.J., and founded two water skiing schools, putting on regular ski shows and competing in tournaments and skiing marathons.

Banana George excelled at barefoot skiing and his lifelong passion for the color yellow emerged during his ski shows. His costumes were yellow and he became known for peeling and eating a banana as he skied off the ski course.

Banana George first came to Steamboat 35 years ago at the invitation of Don Valentine and Charlie and Barbara Williams. Blair and Billy Kidd are mutual admirers, and with his flair for showmanship and love of people, George quite naturally became a roving ambassador for snowboarding at Steamboat. But bananas, his yellow costumes, and even his passion for water skiing and snowboarding can't adequately explain this little man who contains seemingly endless stores of crackling energy.

Spend a couple of hours with Banana George and you realize it's the positive influence he has on other people that draws them to him like children to a "good humor man."

"I can't stand to be around people who are negative," Banana George said. "I like every where I am, and I like everyone I'm around."

To reach Tom Ross call 871-4210, or e-mail tomross@amigo.net

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