Tom Ross' column appears in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 970-871-4205 or tross@SteamboatToday.com.
Find more columns by Tom here.
Steamboat Springs “Banana George” Blair, a part-time Steamboat Springs resident who altered the perceptions of people worldwide concerning the athletic potential of octogenarians died Oct. 17 at the age of 98 in New York City. He will be remembered for barefoot water skiing into his 90s, and for all things yellow.
Banana George, who wore bright yellow clothes, drove a bright yellow car and also rode a bright yellow snowboard, taught us not to give up our passions easily.
Blair began water skiing at the age of 38 in 1955 and took up snow skiing in Colorado in the 1960s. He continued barefoot skiing with the help of a boom extended from the ski boat until he was 92. But snow skiing and snowboarding were also part of his life.
“He began skiing on barrel staves in Crested Butte and Steamboat Springs,” his daughter GeeGee Blair said Monday.
I’m going to guess that Werner’s Storm Hut rented Banana George a decent pair of skis so he didn’t have to perfect his stem christie turns on barrel staves. And I know he became a proficient enough snow rider to hang out with Billy Kidd.
“My father thrilled and encouraged everybody,” GeeGee Blair said. “He had a severely displaced fifth lumbar vertebrae. His back was injured in two ways, first by a deformity and then after a fall. To water ski, for him, was a life-changer. He had been in excruciating pain for 13 years.”
In his 80s, Banana George was a familiar sight in Steamboat every January, cruising down the Vagabond trail in his trademark yellow powder suit and helmet.
“God gave me the gravitational pull toward yellow,” Banana George explained over lunch one August afternoon. That trace of yellow paint on his wrist? That was from spray-painting his Stetson cowboy hat yellow earlier in the week.
In that 2000 interview, Banana George shared with me the experiences that drove him to push the limits of human aging. There were many years of adversity at the core of Banana George's spirit, and he wept openly while talking about them.
Blair was born with 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.
He was born into a family of bankers, but the depression claimed most of the family's economic resources. In college at Miami University in 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 off a moving train by a band of hoboes.
The fall from the train exacerbated Blair’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."
In 1955, at the age of 40, 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. Before long, he had founded two water skiing schools, putting on regular ski shows and competing in tournaments and skiing marathons.
Blair rarely visited Steamboat Springs in the summertime. In 2000, he was here to dedicate the lake at Lake Catamount Resort before heading off to Fergus Falls, Minn., for an exhibition at the national barefoot championships. He was going strong in those days, and next it was off to L.A. for another exhibition before boarding a plane to give a series of exhibitions in China.
Blair seemingly wanted to try every adventure sport under the sun. Just before his visit to Steamboat in 2000, he had spent three days at a rodeo bull riding camp in Denver. Blair road a mechanical bull, then climbed over the rail of a rodeo chute and got on the back of a live bull. Just before they opened the chute and turned a ton of furious bull loose, a cowboy looped an arm around Banana George and swept him off the brute. Blair was furious, but that cowboy probably saved him from another broken back. What mattered was that Blair was intent on going through with the daredevil ride.
“He sampled those things for the flair and the fun,” GeeGee Blair said. “It was to show off and play with a different crowd.”
Wherever Banana George is right now, he has a can of yellow spray paint in his hand, and he’s still playing with a different crowd.
To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205, email tross@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @ThomasSRoss1