A warm farewell to the man who put us on ice
BY CHRIS SMITH/The Press Democrat
Olympic figure skating gold medalist Scott Hamilton flew across the country to take part in a celebration Tuesday of the life of our Skippy Baxter, the humble superstar who taught Sonoma County to love the ice.
The tribute happened, of course, at the Schulz family’s Redwood Empire Ice Arena, or Snoopy’s Home Ice. Skippy was the inspiration and catalyst for late “Peanuts” cartoonist Charles Schulz and his first wife, Joyce, to build the arena in 1969.
Skippy had retired from competing and performing as one of America’s highest flying figure skaters and in 1961 he and his late brother, Meryl, opened the Santa Rosa Ice Arena on Summerfield Road.
At that time, Craig Schulz told several hundred people at Tuesday’s memorial celebration, “Our family was a bowling family.” But upon his folks’ discovery of the Baxter brothers’ rink, they switched to ice skating.
Harsh news struck the Santa Rosa Ice Arena late in 1967. Separation of laminated roof beams forced the Baxters to lock the doors.
The rink hadn’t been closed long when Joyce and Sparky Schulz devised a plan, then asked the brothers a question: If we build a new skating arena, will you run it?
The Schulz’ gorgeous arena on West Steele Lane opened in 1969 with Meryl as manager and Skippy the director of instruction. Meryl would later move on, but Skippy stuck.
Over the next 40 years, the gracious, beaming superstar taught generations of youngsters to skate. He kept it up into his 90s and he last walked through the arena and the Warm Puppy Cafe, stopping every few feet to accept hugs and kisses from admirers young and old, shortly before his death on Dec. 18 at age 93.
“He imbued Sonoma County with the love of ice skating,” Jeannie Schulz told the audience Tuesday.
Charlie Tickner, who’d trained with Skippy as a kid and went on to win a gold medal at the 1978 World Figure Skating Championships, and longtime pro Richard “Mr. Debonair” Dwyer both were there and both skated in Skippy’s honor.
Scott Hamilton, who took gold in figure skating at the 1984 Oympics and lives now in Nashville, said his skating career would not have been what it was had Skippy not taught him his signature backflip.
Pointing to the southwest corner of the rink, Hamilton said, “He gave me my first lesson. It was right there.”
A collage of photos from a most extraordinary life flashed on a video screen, accompanied by the playing of a song that Skippy himself had dreamed up for the occasion — a song with a familiar tune but original lyrics.
The charming old jokester had titled it, “Don’t Cry for Me, Ice Arena.”