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Remembering ‘Skippy’ Baxter, an inspiration on ice

Wednesday, December 19th, 2012 | Posted by | no responses

By CHRIS SMITH
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Skippy Baxter, the world-class figure and speed skater who taught for nearly 50 years in Santa Rosa and whose constant, beaming presence at the rink built by the late Charles Schulz all but melted the ice, died Tuesday at the age of 93.

After nearly losing a leg as a child, Baxter grew up to never take a sip of drink, never smoke and never swear. Before giving up driving just months ago he drove often to a Sebastopol cemetery to visit the grave of his friend, former boss and fellow skater and World War II combat veteran, Schulz.

Skippy Baxter

Baxter “really was a rock star,” manager Justin Higgs said at the skater’s home away from home, the Schulz family’s Redwood Empire Ice Arena. “He was gentleman. A gentle man and a gentleman.”

Jeannie Schulz said, “Skippy had a wonderful life, and made a lot of people happy.”

History may remember Baxter as the war-thwarted Olympian who performed in 5,532 ice shows with Sonja Henie and other greats, won national medals in both singles and pairs competitions in the same year and aced his final back-flip at age 70.

To generations of Sonoma County skaters, he was the gracious, smiling, old-school master who made a joyful occasion of a lesson on slippery, unforgiving ice.

“He made all of us his feel that he loved us as much as we loved him,” said lifelong Sonoma County skater Lisa Navarro. She was a kid when she met Baxter in 1961 at his and his late brother Meryl’s brand-new Santa Rosa Ice Skating Rink on Summerfield Road.

The Baxter brothers would later meet “Peanuts” cartoonist Schulz there. He and his first wife, Joyce, brought their five children in for lessons until a structural problem with the roof forced the Baxter brothers to shut down in 1968.

Skippy Baxter remembered Schulz phoning one day and saying, “Skippy, if I build a new rink, will you and your brother run it?”

“Without hesitation,” Baxter said in a 2009 interview with The Press Democrat, “I said ‘yes’.”

(See more photos of Skippy Baxter)

The Schulzes opened the Redwood Empire Ice Arena, better known today as Snoopy’s Home Ice, on West Steele Lane in 1969. Meryl Baxter was its manager and Skippy Baxter the director of instruction.

“I met him when I was 2½ years old,” longtime skating instructor Choeleen Loundagin said at the rink Tuesday, only hours after Baxter died at the nearby Kaiser Hospital. “I don’t remember not knowing Skippy.”

Now 45 and a lifelong friend who visited Baxter almost daily, Loundagin said she certainly learned ice skating from him, and also the importance of passionate endeavor and friendship.

“I don’t think I’m unique” in regard to how her skating instructor impacted her development as a person, she said. “In this community, I can’t imagine how many people were touched by him.”

Loundagin smiled and added, “I always teasingly told him I blame my life on him.”

Baxter hoped to continue giving lessons at the Schulz family’s arena until age 90. But in 2009, at 89, a fall on the ice fractured his hip.

Though that ended his teaching career, he continued to stop by the arena regularly, consult and humbly accept hugs, kisses and adoration from the generations of skaters who could not imagine the rink without him.

“Skippy never really retired,” said friend Jim Doe, who was technically Baxter’s boss through the decades that he oversaw operations of the Schulz arena and gift-shop.

In recent months, as Baxter came to rely on a walker, Doe took his friend on leisurely drives — one the other day lasted five hours and took in Geyserville, the Hopland Grade and several points in Lake County.

“I just loved listening to his stories,” Doe said.

Lloyd Valdemar “Skippy” Baxter was born Dec. 6, 1919, in Saskatchewan, Canada. As a young boy he got a leg caught between two hay wagons on his family’s farm and it was so horribly injured that doctors considered amputating it.

His mother wouldn’t hear of it. The family had moved to Oakland when Baxter’s mother encouraged him to take up skating to strengthen the leg.

He found his passion on the ice. Both he and brother Meryl became regulars at an Oakland rink.

“We were what they used to call rink rats,” Skippy Baxter said in a 1995 interview with The Press Democrat. “We didn’t have to pay to get in because we helped clean the ice. They didn’t have Zambonis then.”

He began to compete as a speed skater and at 12 won the novice division of the state Outdoor Speed Skating Championship in Yosemite Valley in 1932.

Young Baxter subsequently switched to figure skating and became one of the best young competitors in the state. He wasn’t yet 20 when, in 1939, a “Believe It or Not” cartoon by Santa Rosa’s Robert Ripley credited him with becoming the first skater ever to achieve a triple Salchow — leaping, performing three revolutions in the air and landing on one skate.

Baxter competed in the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in 1940 and won a bronze medal in men’s singles and a silver in pairs. He qualified for the 1940 Winter Olympics, but those games were canceled by Hitler’s rampaging in Europe.

So Baxter turned pro. He went to New York and joined what was popularly called the Sonja Henie Show and that starred the blonde, three-time Olympic women’s figure-skating champion.

He’d become a star himself when the U.S. joined World War II. Baxter enlisted in the Army in 1943, became a ski trooper and went with the 10th Mountain Division to the snowy mountains of northern Italy.

“We had 28 professional ice skaters in our division,” Baxter said in a PD interview.

Following the war he returned to the ice show. Henie quit in 1950, but Baxter stayed on as leading man until the traveling show closed in 1956.

He calculated that, other than while he was at war, he never missed an appearance in 5,532 shows. During rehearsals and performances, he said, he attempted about 60,000 back flips.

“Of those, I only missed three,” he said.

Baxter changed direction and became a skating instructor in Walnut Creek in 1957, giving a start to future champions Peggy Fleming and Charlie Tickner. In 1961, the Baxter brothers moved to Santa Rosa and opened a business inside a rink on Summerfield Road built by the late Hugh Codding.

Jeannie Schulz went there as the mother of two young skaters and quickly grew into an an admirer of Skippy Baxter.

“Skippy would skate around with anybody who needed help, and he made you love skating,” she said. In the early ’60s, she had no idea she would one day marry Charles Schulz and later own the arena that employed the renowned Skippy Baxter.

He was long out of competing and performing when he was inducted into the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame, and also the World Figure Skating Hall of Fame and Professional Skater’s Association Hall of Fame.

Baxter cared for his wife, Phyllis, throughout the lingering illness that ended her life in August 2008. Baxter’s brother Meryl died last April.

Skippy Baxter’s condition slipped significantly over just the past few days.

“He just finally got tired,” his daughter, Debbie Baxter of Santa Rosa, said Tuesday afternoon. “I saw him this morning and told him to go ahead and let go. It was very peaceful and very calm.”

Her dad’s playful eyes had twinkled when he told a reporter three years ago he hoped that when he dies somebody will put his skates on him and lace them up, “but not too tight. It might cut off circulation!”

In addition to his daughter, Baxter is survived by his son, David Baxter of Santa Rosa, and two grandchildren.

Chris Smith is at 521-5211 and chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.

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