On a cold December evening, the Bloom Carroll boys basketball team gets ready to head down to Logan, Ohio where they will take on the Chieftains for a non-league contest. As the players and cheerleading squad prepare to board the bus, the doors open, allowing one man to get on first.
Sporting a purple varsity jacket, to go with his purple button-up polo, Donnie Bair climbs onto the bus with a gleaming, wide smile. If one didn’t know who he was, all it would take is a quick glance at the many pins scattered around his jacket and shirt that proclaim him as “Bloom Carroll’s #1 Fan.”
“I like your shoes, Donnie,” the bus driver yells to him as he steps onto the bus with bright yellow shoes, to accent the rest of his Bulldog gear.
“Thanks, I just got them. They’re brand new!” Bair says feverishly, with his usual short answer.
As he settles into his seat, he stares out the window, ready for the night’s game. He’s thinking of rebounds, points, and how he’s going to sneak in a dance or two at an away game. When the game is over, win or lose, he’ll repeat this cycle for the rest of the season, traveling with the team and going to every home game just as he has since he was 15 years old.
The life of Bair is best described as a puzzle. Not one that keeps someone guessing, flipping over pieces to pray that they fit, but one that fits together no matter what. Bair’s puzzle is unique; there’re pieces that have made the picture whole for more than 40 years, pieces that have only been around for a short amount of time, and pieces that fit when they need to.
Bair has been in the town of Carroll for his whole life, from when he was born in 1950 until now, as he approaches his 68th birthday. When Bair was only 24 years old, his father, Clarence, passed away unexpectedly in 1974. Eight years later, his mother, Goldie, was tragically killed in a home fire, leaving Bair without a place to stay. Because Bair was deemed medically incompetent by doctors, meaning that he was not legally qualified or capable of performing certain tasks due to mental and physical conditions, it was important that he find a legal guardian.
In stepped Fern White, who lived near Bair when his house burned down. For years, she kept legal guardianship of Bair before she passed away at the age of 92. From then, the guardianship of Bair bounced around to a few people, before ultimately landing with Rena Kilby in 2010. This arrangement was to nobody’s surprise, as Bair had been a part of Kilby’s life for many years.
When Bair lived with White, Kilby was their neighbor, becoming familiar with the loving attitude of Bair while she would help drive him to and from work, since he was unable to legally obtain a driver’s license. As years passed, Bair became part of Kilby’s family, spending time in their house for holidays and eventually living with them full-time in the late 80s to early 90s. When Kilby gave birth to her three children, Lindsey, Lorraine and Doc, Bair was right there for every single birth, signified by the baby pictures of each child that hide in his tattered wallet.
“He’s always at our Christmas every year and for Thanksgiving,” Kilby says. “We’ve always taken him in and it’s been great. He’s like an older brother to my three kids.”
Through his many years of bouncing guardianship and different living situations, one thing that never wavered was his pride for Bloom-Carroll. Since he fell in love with the Bulldogs at the age of 15, Bair claims that he has only missed one game through all of the main sports: his mother’s funeral.
“I got married in June of 2014 when the boys baseball team was playing in the state championship,” Lorraine Kilby, the middle sibling says. “I wanted Donnie to be my ring bearer. So, he comes and walks down the aisle and then immediately bolts out of there to go to the game because he couldn’t miss it. That’s who Donnie is.”
Despite his love for baseball and football, Bair has a special affinity toward the basketball team. In 2007, the same year that he was awarded an honorary diploma from the school, Bair became part of a tradition for the seniors on the basketball team. As many traditions go, the origins are murky. No one can pinpoint who first started it, but Bair began to be picked up and driven to the games by a senior on the team. Since he was not allowed to get a license, Bair usually walked to the games or would have someone in town pick him up. As the years went on, and the senior class was filled with fresh faces, the tradition continued.
In 2011-2012 season, AJ Ireland was playing his senior year at Bloom-Carroll when he began driving Bair back and forth to games and practices. Although he had known Bair for quite some time, their relationship could never be described as close. Through the many car rides from Bair’s apartment that sits across the street from Shirky’s Pizza Zone, where he works from time to time, all the way to the school, Ireland and Bair bonded over sports and life.
Both are Packers fans, they admit groggily as they reflect on the season-crippling injury of Aaron Rodgers. Both enjoy basketball, even live for it. And since Ireland has come back to join the Bulldogs coaching staff since he graduated from Marietta College, both have learned from each other even more as the rides continue.
“I’ve never seen anyone so dedicated before in their life,” Ireland says. “My last game as a Bulldog was hard. I don’t think anyone took it as hard as Donnie, even me. It’s like he’s out there on the floor when you’re competing and you know he has your back no matter what.”
For Bair, his answers are shorter, but never misguided.
“I learned how to be a good guy,” Bair says. “He’s a really good coach, so I learn some basketball.”
While he watches the games, Bair keeps stats of points totaled by each player, handwritten on pieces of paper and filed into a satchel he carries to every game. Among his stat sheets that date back all the way to 1965, Bair’s apartment gives way to old newspaper clippings, district and regional medals that he has earned as an honorary member of the team, along with many Bloom-Carroll banners and decorations.
“Not only does he keep stats, he helps the referees make calls,” Ireland jokes as Bair bursts into laughter, knowing that he can get rambunctious and give the refs a hard time every now and then.
While at home games, Bair has been given the moniker “The Dancing Bair” as he often breaks into dances throughout the game, entertaining the crowd during timeouts and stoppage of play. If watched closely, it becomes apparent Bair knows exactly what he is doing; he is a showman and performs best with all eyes on him. Bair even has his own locker in the boys’ locker room where he keeps his purple hat, sunglasses and other accessories for the night’s contest, resembling that of a performer’s green room.
“Everybody knows Donnie Bair,” Ireland says. “Even when I was in college, I would tell people that I’m from Carroll, and they would immediately ask if I know The Dancing Bair. I would tell them I’m best friends with him and we hang out all the time and they wouldn’t believe it!”
As Bair’s 68th birthday approaches, which conveniently falls on a boys basketball game against Canal Winchester, Kilby has begun setting in motion the process of getting a bench made in his honor, preferably on the grounds of the school.
“If you don’t know him and his situation, it’s hard to understand,” Kilby says. “Other fans may look at him as some guy that just yells a lot. But in reality, he means so much to this town and has become a pillar of the community, so we always stick up for him. If Donnie ever needs anything, someone is always stepping up to help out.”
The puzzle that makes up "The Dancing Bair’s" life consists of nearly everyone town. This is easily evidenced by the early morning breakfast escapades to Roots Restaurant with former basketball coach Tom Petty. It is further solidified by the yearly trips to pick out a real Christmas tree with Michelle, a friend who lives in town. More importantly, the Kilby family and the friendship of AJ Ireland showcase the conglomerate of community members that come together for Bair. But as one steps back to examine the whole picture, it becomes clear the puzzle is not of Bloom Carroll’s biggest fan, but of the small town itself. And in the midst of all the pieces, fitting together in all sorts of ways, the centerpiece becomes clear—Donnie Bair.