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Published: Saturday, 8/10/2002

`Banana George' rolls into town for Blair reunion

BY REBEKAH SCOTT
BLADE STAFF WRITER
These bare feet are made for traveling - water-ski style. George Blair returns to his Toledo. These bare feet are made for traveling - water-ski style. George Blair returns to his Toledo.
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“Banana George” is a gnarly surfing dude, a bright-eyed jet-set millionaire water-skier.

“I've never been shy,” said the 87-year-old Toledo native. “Have a banana. A banana pen. Here's a postcard with my picture.”

You can't miss George Blair. His Stetson hat is bright canary-yellow, and his sports coat, loafers, and belt are dyed to match. He's got a George Hamilton tan, a lovely wife, and homes in New York, Paris, Florida, and Steamboat Springs, Colorado.

He's raised four daughters, driven with a prince in a Ferrari round the Monaco Grand Prix, appeared all over TV and magazines, and been listed in the Guinness Book of Records. This month he was named one of “The Sexiest Men in Sports” by Sports Illustrated Women.

Mr. Blair is in Toledo this weekend for a family reunion, touring a new museum of rare lithophane artworks his late brother, Laurel Blair, left to the city when he died. He and his legion of children and grandchildren are perched high above downtown in a panoramic hotel room, when they're not traveling to cemeteries and homesteads.

Mr. Blair was raised on Scottwood Avenue, the son of Roy Blair, a banker and real estate developer who gave Toledo its Heatherdowns neighborhoods.

Young George wanted for little. He rode his horse, put together a jazz band (he still plays drums), and played football, baseball, and basketball for Scott High. His Dad owned a golf course, so the boy sometimes played 36 holes a day.

George attended two years of college, then worked for city management reforms in Toledo, Chicago, New York, and Pennsylvania. He spent World War II in Dayton, doing procurement work for the Army Air Force.

He made his fortune in New Jersey, from the postwar “baby boom.” After false starts selling rustproof diaper pins and a Jeep-mounted insecticide fog machine, he hit on a winner.

“I built a camera and took pictures of newborns in the local hospitals,” he said. “They were gorgeous. It was a phenomenal success, right away. No one had thought of it before, and it spread like wildfire. We started in 1950. I sold it 35 years later, to the day, for a few million.”

Meantime, a degenerative spinal condition sent him to surgery, and from there to Florida to recover. It was there, he said, he discovered water skiing.

“It was 1955. I was 40. I was feeling really sorry for myself, standing on the beach watching people water-ski. But somehow, the man who ran the skiing school convinced me to try it. And wow! Wow. I guess you could say I had a rebirth.”

At this, Banana George started to weep. He's always been emotional, he said.

“For nine years, I'd been virtually incapacitated,” he said. “The spinal fusion operation was important, but the skiing, that was something I could do. It was athletic. It saved my head. Its saved my body. It saved my life.”

And Mr. Blair was very good at water-skiing.

He soon opened a water-ski school near his home in New Jersey, where he met JoAnne, his second wife. His fondness for yellow spread to his wardrobe, he said, and people started calling him “Banana Man.” He first learned the difficult barefoot ski technique at age 46.

At 50, he performed his first professional water-ski show at Cypress Gardens, where he still periodically shows off his trademark move: barefoot, with no hands - the tow rope grasped between his pearly white teeth.

He sold the school in 1975, opened a bank, and made another fortune. He taught the Osmond family to ski. He showed his moves to King Hussein of Jordan, and was a guest for four days of Prince Albert of Monaco. He's traveled to all seven continents, and skied, snowboarded, skated, surfed, or jumped from airplanes in most of them.

In 2001, he broke his back, once in May, again in November. By June, he was back to barefooting again. “The crowd went bananas,” he said. The next day, he tried a more difficult move, and hurt himself again.

Is someone trying to tell him something?

“Don't you talk that way,” he snapped. “I'm slowing down. I'm 5-foot-1 now, and I used to be 5-foot-7. But I did a show a month ago, outside Paris. I did my rope-in-my-teeth thing, but on two skis. I'm building myself back up.” And it feels good, he said, being named a “sexiest man in sports.”

“I'm the only one of 80 men in that “sexy list” who's over age 47!” he cackled. “It's a good feeling, being sexy. I didn't start out that way. But it's a nice place to end up, don't you think?”



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