James Banks as a Portland school committee candidate in 1996.  Staff file photo by John Ewing

James Banks, a longtime Portland school board member credited with saving the Portland Exposition Building, died Tuesday after a bout with cancer. He was 80.

The Portland City Council voted on Feb. 3 to rename the building the James A. Banks Sr. Exposition Building.

Mr. Banks leaves behind a legacy of service and dedication to the city.

He was a member of the Portland School Board from 1979 to 1984, and again from 1990 to 2002, serving three stints as chairman. He served on committees to build the city’s ice arena, upgrade the Portland High School baseball field, now Hadlock Field; and to install lights at Deering Memorial Field and restore lights at Portland High School Stadium, now Fitzpatrick Stadium.

Close to 40 years ago, then-City Manager Tim Honey proposed selling or demolishing the Expo because it was running an ongoing deficit, which came in at $89,000 in 1980, according to the Portland Evening Express.

The Expo was saved when Banks proposed shifting responsibility for it to the school board and making it the primary space for Portland school athletics and activities. By 1986, more than $200,000 in improvements were made to the building, including a new gym floor, locker rooms and concession areas.

Banks also served on building committees for the city’s elementary, middle and high schools.

Banks was remembered Thursday as a dedicated public servant and tireless advocate for Portland schools and the city’s youth.

Portland City Councilor Nick Mavodones reflected on the council’s decision to name the Portland Expo after him.

“Jim has done an incredible number of things for students and teachers in Portland,” Mavodones said. “He was a real mentor for people who served with him on the school board. He really taught everyone that the decisions you made always had to be streamed through the lens of what’s best for teaching and learning.”

Banks was a member of the Maine State School Board Association from 1993 to 2002, and was appointed by former Gov. John Baldacci to the State Board of Education, where he served from 2007 to 2013, including a stint as vice chairman and chairman of the board from 2011-2012.

During his tenure, he served as chairman of the Maine Charter School Commission, which paved the way for Maine’s first public charter schools.

Banks was a vocal advocate for education and athletic opportunities for Portland’s youth.

A nearly life-long resident of Portland, Banks was a 1957 graduate of Cheverus High School. He served four years in the Air Force and later worked for the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office. He went on to study at the University of Southern Maine and earned a degree in criminal justice in 1977.

Banks worked for the Maine Department of Public Safety, Bureau of Liquor Enforcement from 1968 through 2000. He retired with the rank of sergeant.

He was married to Cora Banks for 50 years. She died in 2014.

Jeffrey Banks, the youngest of their four sons, reflected Thursday on his father’s devotion to family and community.

“It was always about the kids,” his son said. “I admired his ability to give to others. It was probably his biggest strength. He did for others, like constantly, without even thought.”

Banks had been a member of the Portland Kiwanis Club since 1982. Some highlights of his service include being a delegate at 25 international Kiwanis conventions and 30 New England Kiwanis conventions.

Recently, Banks was recognized with the prestigious Cheverus High School Magis Award, and his family will accept it in his honor on April 2.
Sen. Justin Alfond wrote a letter in support of Banks receiving it, in which he highlighted Banks’ commitment to education, family and the community.

“Jim has also played a prominent role in shaping the City of Portland,” Alfond wrote. “He’s been a leader in numerous civic initiatives by supporting the Portland Sea Dogs, the Portland Expo and the Portland Ice Arena. Portland would not be the community it is today without the strong advocacy that Jim and so many others played.”

Banks was diagnosed with cancer in May 2016. For the past year, he battled stage IV esophageal cancer. His sister, Cathy Harrington of Windham, said he beat cancer once and was determined to beat it again.

“I’ll miss his companionship and being with him in Florida and him here with me in Windham,” she said.

Jeffrey Banks, a teacher at Mary Lyon Pilot High School in Brighton, Mass, reflected Thursday on one of the last conversations he had with his father.

“I said, ‘I want you to be proud of my decisions and my life,’ ” his son recalled. “He put his hand on my cheek, and then my head and said, ‘Son, I am so proud of you and I’m so proud of the work you’ve done as a teacher.’ ”

A full obituary is expected to appear in the Maine Sunday Telegram.

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