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Fond farewell to my friend

POSTED: January 19, 2014 1:00 a.m.

The news came in email: Mike Banks had died.

It hit me like a ton of bricks. I knew Mike was not well, but I didn’t know how sick he was.

The night before he died, we were chatting on Facebook. We were making fun of how Atlanta TV stations overreact to the first inkling of snow.

It wasn’t the first time we had mused about snowy weather. A year or so ago, we started compiling a list on Facebook of businesses that would not be open the next day. We listed businesses no longer around. Some of them had been gone for three or four decades.

We thought it was funny and laughed about it for weeks.

Mike Banks and I traveled a lot of the same paths. He worked in radio and I worked in radio. The same was true for careers in public relations and marketing. We were kindred spirits from the time we met.

I don’t remember anyone actually introducing me to Mike. It just seemed we had known each other forever.

There were some things that distinguished us. He was tall and had a booming voice. I did not.

Flashback about 30 years: Mike Banks was working in public relations for Brenau College, as it was known in those days. Somehow, he found out Amanda Blake, the actress who portrayed saloonkeeper “Miss Kitty” Russell on “Gunsmoke,” was an alumna of Brenau Academy. Mike thought bringing Blake back into the Brenau fold could be a public relations coup for the college.

In a day and time before the Internet, Mike found Blake living in Scottsdale, Ariz., a suburb of Phoenix. He arranged a meeting with her and flew to Arizona with then-President Jim Rogers. They convinced the raven-haired actress to come back to Brenau as a college trustee.

For 19 years, Amanda Blake came into our living rooms as “Miss Kitty,” a woman who could take a drink with the cowboys any day.

During its run on network television, “Gunsmoke” became a part of the American fabric.

Kitty, along with Marshall Matt Dillon, his sometime sidekicks and fill-in deputies, Chester (Dennis Weaver) and Festus (Ken Curtis), along with the town doctor (Milburn Stone), were as familiar as neighbors to viewers of the highly rated show.

Rogers, who recalled Blake’s trustee visits to Gainesville, recalled an incident when he was driving Blake and Banks to an event at Chattahoochee Country Club. Blake, a passionate animal lover, suddenly screamed, “stop!”

It seems a chicken had fallen from a poultry truck and Mike Banks was dispatched from the car to rescue it.

No one remembers what happened to the chicken, but I think it is a great story.

Mike Banks was a colorful personality who made this community his canvas for as long as he lived here. The sanctuary at First Baptist Church was filled at his funeral with folks he had touched with his good work.

For many years, he called my daughter, Ashton, now 23, and disguised his voice as Santa. For some reason, he called her this Christmas season at her new job in full Santa voice. It’s a call she will never forget.

Harris Blackwood is a Gainesville resident whose columns appear on the Sunday Life page and on gainesvilletimes.com/harris.


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