Walter Banks, the Henry Aaron of ballpark ushers, turned 80 on Monday.
He did not show the Romans to their seats at the Coliseum — it just seems he has been working that long.
He did, however, literally usher in the era of pro sports in his hometown, working the Braves’ first stadium, the cookie-cutter one, even before the team completed its move from Milwaukee in 1966. He outlived that one – we happened to watch together the moment in 1997 when they imploded Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. Imagine standing with Jack Nicklaus while they turned Augusta National into a parking lot. It felt sort of like that, if Augusta National was kind of a dump. For Banks did some of his most notable work at the Braves first Atlanta address, carrying a great burden of unceasing goodwill from the beginning, when the team was unable to generate much on its own.
He moved next door to Turner Field, packing up his smile and his penchant for engaging anyone in flights of numerical trivia. (Example: When asked about looking beyond this season to a 55th year with the Braves, he replied, “Fifty-five — that’s the year Hank Aaron changed his number from 5 to 44.”)
And Banks, whose good nature is more lasting than concrete and steel, worked Turner Field until it was deemed insufficient.
Stadiums crumble. They get repurposed. Walter Banks endures.
So, he’s planning on working Tuesday night at yet another home ballpark, when the Braves play Philadelphia in a meaningful series. “I’ll probably work all over,” he said, not settling in once section. And work right through to the All-Star break, including Friday, Walter Banks Bobblehead Night at SunTrust.
“I’m busy in wanting to make a person enjoy this experience,” he said, giving quite a succinct description for a job that has spanned so many years.
If ever someone who never wore the uniform or built a roster – he did run the 800 in high school track long, long ago – should be bestowed the great modern honor of a bobblehead, it’s Banks. He’d already been a Brave a dozen years before Bobby Cox started his first stint as manager; a quarter century before John Schuerholz came along to generally manage, and 27 years before Joe Simpson took the mike.
The nodding figurine has his approval. “I was surprised. I think it really looks like Walter Banks,” he said. It is fixed in a bright smile, with its hand out, waiting for someone to shake it. So, yes, it is true to life.
On Monday the Braves surprised Banks with a birthday party at the onUp Experience in The Battery. They skimmed the surface of his more than 50 years of memorabilia and put that on exhibit, entitled, “Walter Banks, A True Atlanta Treasure.” He was lured there on the pretext of reviewing the display, and instead had “Happy Birthday” sung to him by noted seventh-inning tenor Timothy Miller.
Banks has worked a great many jobs – at the Georgia Dome and Mercedes-Benz Stadium, at Bobby Dodd Stadium, and 50 years at Macy’s. But he is most lastingly identified with the Braves.
In reality, this impossibly pleasant human being quit being an usher a long time ago, earning a full ambassadorship. No one has had more interaction with this city’s baseball public than Banks. And he holds the unbreakable record of consecutive days without uttering a mean-spirited word at a ballpark, dating to Atlanta Braves Day 1.
For a guy so handy with numbers, Banks can’t begin to guess the number of fans with whom he has had contact. But for each one of the hundreds of thousands through the years, the goal has been the same: “Give them attention and let them know where they are and show them appreciation and mean it. If you don’t mean it, they’ll know it,” he said.
“You want the person to look you in the eye, shake your hand and tell you have much they enjoyed themselves.”
Imagine building a career upon making someone feel better about how they spent their day.
He has set no firm date for retiring from the aisles of Atlanta baseball, saying only, “When the fruit gets ripe, it will fall by itself.”
But asked if he anticipates working when the Braves duplicate their 1995 World Series, Banks said, “I don’t see why not.”
“I’m looking to the 2021 All-Star game (at SunTrust Park),” he said, before launching into the mandatory history lesson. “We were there in ’72, there in 2000, now looking forward to one in ’21.”
Age is just a number, and Banks has shown himself more than capable of having fun with any given one of those. And the attitude is forever.