“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more, you are a leader.”
~ John Quincy Adams
People often say that leadership is not a quality we learn, but it is a quality we are born with. Whether or not that statement is true, a leader is oftentimes recognized for their title or ability to lead, and also by the influence of their actions on a community or group of people.
For Bill Fairbanks, Clearwater resident and Buffalo American Legion Post #270 Commander, leadership is not just a mantle he wears well, but it appears to have been passed down through the generations and lives throughout the years in his family line. A man with a gift for rallying others to a task and relational engagement, Fairbanks is a name Buffalo will not soon forget.
The Fairbanks Legacy
Bill Fairbanks’ home is set back along the quiet backgrounds of Clearwater, well away from any business activity that seems to go with it. Nestled along a small lake, his sitting room beautifully overlooks the expanse of water, his office complete with floor-length pane windows, which welcome warm winter sunlight.
He serves coffee to you with a smile, while asking his three Spaniels to come down and say hello. Lucky, Lacy, and Lucy aren’t entirely sure what do with the presence of a newcomer, excitedly darting to and fro upon realization that you’re here to stay for a while. Well, two of them are excited, anyway. Lacy is more nervous than ever.
“She’ll warm up to you, eventually,” Fairbanks says with a chuckle. “She’s a little shy.”
Fairbanks is a long-time Wright County resident. He grew up in Maple Lake, with a family fully dedicated to the area. His father was from Maple Lake, and his mother was from Buffalo – and, at the time that their relationship started to bloom, this was scandalous information.
“My parents had that stereotypical relationship,” he shared with a smile. “She was the homecoming queen for Buffalo High; dad was a star athlete in Maple Lake. They would’ve been perfect had they been from the same community.”
His parents’ love story isn’t the only interesting thing about his family history. Fairbanks comes from a long line of incredible family history, beginning first with a distant relative, Charles Warren Fairbanks, who was personally employed under President Theodore Roosevelt. Fairbanks shared that his relative almost won the presidential endorsement from Roosevelt, but it just wasn’t in the cards, it seemed.
The Fairbanks name also has strong connections to the White Earth Indian Reservation. Another relative, one Jonathan Fairbanks, started the first trading post in White Earth, and consequently, the Fairbanks name owned most of the operating businesses in that time period.
While not a Native American name, the family has strong ties to the Reservation and its people. “’Fairbanks’ is actually English,” he explained. “We’ve traced it back to England, circa the 1500s. My ancestors married into the Native American people, and that is what introduced the Native American bloodline.”
Not only does the Fairbanks name have strong ties to the Native American people by marriage, but another of the family’s ancestors also was a commanding major in the Indian Wars, which qualifies Fairbanks to be a lifetime member in the Sons of the Revolution, a congressionally-chartered organization which calls 16 U.S. Presidents and 27 Medal of Honor recipients members.
His ancestors are also believed to be the family for which Fairbanks, Alaska is named.
“There is so much history,” Fairbanks shared. “I mean, the Fairbanks home in Dead Ham, Massachusetts, is the oldest residential building standing in the state, which belonged to my relatives. It baffles me how much the name is woven in with history.”
Closer to Home
On a more personal note, Fairbanks shared that his father, known mostly as E.W., was a living legend in Wright County. E.W. is forever memorialized at the Minnesota Amateur Baseball Hall of Fame, was a 60-year American Legion member and former Commander, was friends with President Hubert Humphrey, and was commonly known as “Mr. Baseball of Wright County.”
“My father was a spectacular athlete,” Fairbanks recalled. “He had a passion for baseball, which is where I think I got my athleticism from. My birth announcement in the [Buffalo] paper was ‘Potential First Baseman Arrives on Tuesday,’ which proves how well-known my father was for athleticism.”
E.W. passed away in September of 2005, a loss that Fairbanks still remembers as if it were yesterday. His office wall is filled with memorabilia commemorating his father, right down to newspaper clippings and a picture of “Mr. Baseball” with President Humphrey. E.W. was also a veteran, serving in what was then known as the Army Air Corps, as a radio operator from 1943 to 1946. His unit would fly patterns to protect U.S. Forces, confirmed by one of the flight maps Fairbanks keeps with his father’s memoirs.
His father’s military service inspired Fairbanks to join as well, and he was drafted at the “tail end” of the Vietnam conflict. He left the Minnesota School of Business, where he was working toward a degree in business, putting a pause on his education.
“Going into the military wasn’t a direction I thought my life would go,” Fairbanks admitted. “But, the fact I was guaranteed 15 months in Germany made it a bit easier.”
The reality of potentially having to sacrifice his life didn’t hit Fairbanks until jungle training in bootcamp. He remembers it clearly.
“I had this epiphany,” he shared. “I was crawling my way under the wires during jungle training, practicing the procedure for checking for landmines, and it just hit me like a ton of bricks that what I was doing could potentially end my life without warning. That’s when my military service really got serious.”
Fairbanks’ high testing in business, problem solving, and other administrative duties landed him in a “special services” or recreational assignment, in Günzburg, Germany, a small village with not many people around – the best place anyone serving could hope for, he recalls.
He was stationed with the 510th Ordinance Company, in the 512th USAAG, not far from the 512th Artillery Group, not far from the Swiss and Austrian borders.
“My time in the service was not like everyone else’s,” he remembers. “I basically lived in Germany. I lived off base, made friends, befriended officers, had my own car, and did office work.” His duties required him to be in the office before his commanding officers or fellowmen, to compile daily reports, which were done on a manual typewriter.
Later, after he left Germany, Fairbanks was assigned to the SASCOM military softball team, in 1975 – the same year he would receive a military commendation award as an E5. Around that time, his fellowmen discussed the option for Fairbanks to go into officer’s school, though he declined.
“Playing fastpitch for SASCOM was a great experience,” Fairbanks said. “I attribute my success there to my dad being an excellent athlete, which eventually passed on to me. From there, I coached a lot sports.”
Fairbanks never finished his college education, instead finding success in a variety of positions in the Twin Cities. He retired from the North St. Paul Economic Development Commission, was a Minnesota Volunteer Master Naturalist with the park preservation, and refereed high school basketball for a decade. He has spent time in North St. Paul working with Parks and Recreation, and eventually became the Vice President for a Golden Valley company for 27 years, of which he began from the “bottom of the totem pole.”
Now, Fairbanks works with Humana. “I didn’t strive for any of these opportunities,” he recalled. “They have just come along. If someone works hard enough, and dedicates themselves to any given job, you never really know what comes down the pike.”
Life in Wright
“My father loved Buffalo and Wright County,” Fairbanks commented. “He had an opportunity to go to college in Oklahoma with a good chance of playing pro baseball. But, he wouldn’t leave, because he wanted to pour everything he had into this community. I want to continue that legacy.”
E.W. Fairbanks was Wright County Citizen of the Year at one point in his life, a fact of which Fairbanks himself is most proud. The yellowed newspaper article hangs proudly on his office wall, overlooking whatever baseball memorabilia he’s collected over the years.
“Serving this community was engrained in me and my family from our foundational years,” he said. “Each holiday, we could not participate in our own festivities without first going to key families in this community and making sure they were looked after. That is a tradition I still follow. There are so many people who go unnoticed; so much need that isn’t addressed. I can’t help but do what I can for others; it’s what my father did.”
His heart for the American Legion of Buffalo, of which he is now Commander, started early. E.W. saw to it that his son was a junior member, which has led to Fairbanks being almost a 40-year member himself.
“Minus that time, my membership [with the Legion] lapsed,” he commented with a chuckle. “Overall, though, it’s been around 40 years.”
He wasn’t always active, though. It was when a friend who saw combat in Vietnam developed Sarcoma cancer and passed away was when Fairbanks was spurred into deeper service to the Legion, and fueled his passion for relationship with fellow veterans.
“He [Fairbanks’ friend] literally surrendered his life to the effects of the war,” he remembers. “I didn’t have to do that being in Germany. That is a part of his legacy I want to honor.”
His work has presented many opportunities to form lasting relationships with not only veterans, but other Wright County citizens, as well – a fact he is profoundly grateful for. Fairbanks hopes to continue serving his community and friends for as long as possible, as well as form new and lasting relationships around Wright County, something he feels is from his family’s legacy.
“Honestly, in comparison with other people in my lineage, I am really nothing. These are great men and women who had the respect of tribes, had the ear of presidents, and really affected change. I can only hope to do my part so that their legacy is shared with my own children, and their generations.”
Fairbanks resides in Clearwater with his family nearby.