William T. Fanning

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William T. "Bill" Fanning July 12, 1921 – February 8, 2013 William T. "Bill" Fanning, 91, of Grand Junction, CO died February 8, 2013, at the Grand Junction Hospice Care Facility from complications brought on by pneumonia. Coach, as he was fondly called, was surrounded by family and friends. Coach was born on July 12, 1921 in Pittsfield, MA to William F. Fanning and Mary Mahan. He attended St. Joseph's Catholic High School where he was a star athlete in western Massachusetts and up-state New York area graduating in 1939. After high school, he began working for the General Electric Company in Pittsfield but opted to enlist in the Navy on June 22,1942. He was stationed in Newport, VA for boot camp and was trained as a ship-fitter in Quonset Point, RI. Fanning made the Navy base's baseball team as the starting third baseman for Baseball Hall of Famer Luke Appling's team, but a missed curfew saw him receive orders to report to Oran, Algeria as a ship-fitters first class. While in Oran, he was selected to play in the first Army/Navy All-Star Games in Baseball, Basketball and Football. In addition, he was selected by the Algerian Bishop as the Navy representative to serve Christmas midnight Mass in 1944 at the Cathedral in Oran. He was honorably discharged in October 1945. Prior to his enlistment in the Navy and while working at the GE manufacturing plant, he met Velda "Val" Mae Lipsey, the love of his life and his number one fan, of Boulder, CO. The two were married in Bennington, VT on August 13, 1942. After his discharge from the Navy, Fanning returned to work at the GE facility. The following year he enrolled at the University of Colorado, where he pursued a B.S. Degree in Education, graduating in June of 1950. He accepted his first teaching and coaching position in 1951 in Hayes Center, NE.While in Hayes Center, Bill learned how to drive, coach six man football, artificially impregnate cattle and how to eat Rocky Mountain Oysters. His athletic teams were the talk of western Nebraska for the three years he coached at Hayes Center. In 1954, he accepted a teaching and coaching position in Grand Junction, CO culminating in a stellar 35 year career. At the University of Colorado, Fanning was a four-year letterman in Baseball and an All-Big Seven selection in 1947 as a pitcher and utility infielder. In 1948, in a series against Oklahoma, Fanning played seven different positions and led the Buffs with his arm and bat to a series sweep against the Sooners. Between games a group of fraternity members brought Fanning a wrapped box. Inside was a box of Duz soap and a note that said "Fanning Duz Everything". Coach had a cocky side that he occasionally exhibited. He knew he was a good ball player and sometimes felt the need to let others know. With CU leading by one run in the bottom of the ninth in a game against Missouri, there were two outs, men on second and third with Fanning playing third base for CU, the hitter popped the ball up in Bill's direction. Rather than catching the ball in front of his body, Bill decided to catch the ball behind his back. The played was made, CU won, the fans went crazy, and Bill just smiled and asked "What's the big deal?". To supplement the family income after college and while working for the post office in Boulder, Fanning was a "hired arm" to pitch for various semi-pro baseball teams during the summer in the Colorado/Nebraska Semi-Pro Baseball League. In 1951, he pitched and hit the Hayes Center town team into the National Semi-Pro Baseball Tournament in Wichita, KS, the smallest town (population 280) ever to compete in the national tournament. Fanning's Hayes Center team was defeated by group of major-leaguers who were on military duty and playing for Goodland, KS. Goodland was led by the New York Yankee's, Billy Martin. Hayes Center lost the game on a misplayed fly ball by the right fielder. In 1952 and 1953, Fanning was named All-State First Team for Colorado and Nebraska by the National Baseball Congress Semi-Pro Organization. He continued his semi-pro baseball career, playing for the Grand Junction Eagles from 1955 thru 1957. In 1956, at the age of 36, Fanning was selected 2nd Team Semi-Pro All-American, hitting .400 in the tournament and getting the only Eagles hit off 1955 World Series hero and MVP Johnny Podres. In 1955 Podres led the Brooklyn Dodgers with two wins to the World Series victory over the New York Yankees. (Podres was drafted in the Army in 1956 and was serving his military obligation by playing for the Alpine, TX Cowboys semi-pro baseball team.) As stellar as his athletic career was, his coaching career was even more impressive. Fanning was considered a student of the game, a walking rule book, and one of the best game-day strategist. In 1954, Fanning took over the helm of the Grand Junction Tigers baseball team. In 1959 his OTA (Little League Baseball team, 13 and 14 year olds) won the Colorado State Championship. He retired after 35 years compiling a high school record of 467-172 with 21 state playoff appearances, three state championships (1961, 1962 and 1976) and six second place finishes. His State Championship Teams in 1961 and 1962 combined to win 43 consecutive games in the State and his 1961 team went undefeated. He was the first Colorado Baseball coach to reach 400 victories in a career. The honors Fanning has received as a coach are numerous. He was named Southwestern Baseball Coach of the Year 19 times and was selected Colorado Baseball Coach of the Year four times, 1961, 1962, 1976 and 1983. Twice he was named National High School Athletic Association District Baseball Coach of the Year, 1978 and 1984 and was the district's nominee for the National High School Baseball Coach of the Year in 1978 and 1984. He was twice named District Baseball Coach of the Year by the American Association of College Coaches, 1976 and 1984. In 1984, Fanning was the first coach from Colorado to be named National High School Baseball Coach Of The Year, being selected over 15,699 other high school baseball coaches throughout the United States. He was inducted into the Colorado High School Coaches Hall of Fame in 1986. In 1989, the Grand Junction High School Baseball Field "FANNING FIELD" was named in his honor. In 1993 he was presented the Inaugural Colorado High School Baseball Coaches Association "Mr. Baseball Award". He was inducted into the Colorado High School Activities Association Hall of Fame in 1994. In 1997, Fanning threw one more pitch, the ceremonial first pitch at the inaugural "Fanning Classic", an annual high school baseball tournament held in Mesa County. In 1998, the National High School Sports Hall of Fame opened it doors to Fanning, a bitter sweet honor as his wife of 56 years passed away on the night of the induction. True to his love for his wife, Bill missed the ceremony and drove all night to be at her side. In 2002 Fanning was inducted into the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame. In 2005 he was Inducted into JUCO's Inaugural Home Run Alley. In 2010 he was a member of the Inaugural Colorado Dugout Club Hall of Fame. The State Baseball champions of 1962 held their 50th reunion this past year with several members of the team making it to Fanning's house for one more hurrah. All were impressed with his sharp mind and incredible ability to recall names and details from the past 50 plus years. As a student of the game, Fanning invented the fake pick off play - fake to third pick at first - and used it in the 1960 baseball playoffs. It was through endless studying of the rulebook that he devised this play. When first used in the 1960 playoffs, everyone, (umpires, fans, and the opposing team) missed the play except Fanning's team. A stickler for fundamentals, Fanning's teams were fundamentally sound and did not beat themselves, an attribute his teams carried into every game they played and the reason the Tigers won so many low scoring games. He has never received the credit from sport writers, coaches or others for coming up with the play. If playing and coaching weren't enough, Fanning was also well-known around the state as an official, having spent 39 years umpiring baseball, 37 years officiating football and 32 years as a basketball official. Fanning officiated 14 state football championships, umpired two state baseball championships and was selected to work in seven state basketball tournaments. He also umpired in 13 consecutive National Junior College Baseball Tournaments and worked for 15 years in the RMAC as a baseball, football and basketball official. In 1969, he was selected by the Alaska Goldpanners to be their chief umpire. The Goldpanners were a perennial fixture at the Semi-Pro Baseball Tournament in Wichita, KS and hired Fanning as their chief umpire for their games in Fairbanks. This summer job led to Fanning's famous self deprecating moniker "When you want the best forget the rest - get Fanning". In 1987, he was inducted into the Colorado Football Officials Association Hall of Fame. While coaching was his passion, teaching was his calling. Coach taught World History for 35 years at GJHS and influenced as many students in the classroom as athletes in the ball park. Numerous students have written or called over the years to express their thanks to the coach for influencing their lives. A typical example was from a student in 1958 who wrote "I know you don't remember me but you were my history teacher in 1958 and you changed my life. I was kind of a nerdy kid without much motivation or direction. Most of the time in high school I was on auto pilot, just enough to get by but not enough to excel. The one real exception was your class. I found it fun and stimulating.... I was recently selected to receive the Governor's Award for Excellence in Teaching.... Thank you Mr. Fanning. A job excellently done on your part has enriched my life." "Coach was more concerned about us as people than as athletes, he was not concerned about self gratification but the success of those he mentored," a typical comment regarding Coach's life by his ex-students/athletes. In 2009 Mr./Coach Fanning was the inaugural recipient of the Grand Junction High School's Distinguished Educator Award. Coach was preceded in death by his wife, Val, on July 1, 1998. He is survived by his son, William T Fanning Jr. (Jana) of Longmont; daughter, Diane Najera (Frank) of Arvada; grandson, William T. Fanning III (Jennifer) of Longmont; granddaughter, Jayme Evans (Mike) of Port Townsend, WA; great-grandchildren, Marc and Ashley Evans; a sister, Marge Magner of Pittsfield, MA, and numerous nieces and nephews. Funeral arrangements are being handled by Callahan-Edfast, 2515 Patterson Road Grand Junction, CO 81505. Viewing is scheduled from 3 - 5:45p.m. on Thursday, February 14th with a Rosary to immediately follow at 6:00 p.m. A funeral Mass will be held at Friday at 1:00 p.m. at St. Joseph's Catholic Church, 330 White Ave. Grand Junction, CO. In lieu of flowers, the Coach would appreciate a couple of prayers on his behalf or, if you choose, donations to either of these two great organizations: Catholic Outreach 245 S. 1st Street, Grand Junction, CO 81501 or Hospice and Pallative Care of Western Colorado 3090 N. 12th Unit B Grand Junction, CO 81506.
Published in The Daily Sentinel on Feb. 12, 2013
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