At camp, the playing field was level, and Banner started to learn how to channel his competitiveness, to begin gaining control of himself. What he learned from the two men who owned Skylemar, he says, might have made camp more important, even, than his own family. Though Joe has trouble defining why.
One evening this summer, Banner and his wife Helaine — relaxed in their living room in Haverford, where the back windows look down into a peanut-shaped pool and where Joe spends many sleepless nights mulling some Eagles crisis as he stares into his gargantuan aquarium of exotic freshwater fish — try to uncork the essence of Joe’s youth.
“There’s never going to be any criticism of Joe at camp,” Helaine explains, as if it’s a place still present in his life. “It has to do with Herb Blumenfeld, the owner who’s still alive, especially. He’s such a warm, sensitive person. Yet he’s a fierce competitor.”
Helaine’s a very small woman with dark hair and a smile so preternaturally large that it swallows her eyes, and she lets us rest on that thought for a moment because it’s an important dichotomy: both gentle and tough. She is describing her husband.
Joe’s a little embarrassed: “Her version of my toughness is that I just fool everybody.”
“Really, he’s not that tough,” she agrees, laughing. “I am way tougher.”
“But then I use that,” Joe says. “If the guy on the other end of a negotiation thinks I’m tough, it’s very helpful.”
In fact, toughness, confidence — he always had them, despite his stature. Joe was 15 when he met Jeff Lurie, a fellow Bostonian a year and a half older, through a mutual friend (and Camp Skylemar bunkmate). Joe and Jeff immediately connected over watching sports. And they both held an improbable idea about where they wanted to end up: Jeff would own a professional sports team. Joe would run one. After college, Jeff moved to California and got into the movie business; over the years, they’d keep in touch, sometimes meet up on vacations.
Always, they talked sports.
Joe went to Denison University in Ohio, where he majored in economics; senior year, he interned at WCAU radio here in Philly. Post-college, Banner wrote to NFL teams looking for entrée to that dream job — predictably, no teams invited him in. When a deal to buy a camp in Maine with a friend fell through, Banner started a retail men’s businesswear company with his father. Joe’s tough side — the one that has no trouble controlling a bottom line — -expanded the business into outlets in several cities; Banner secured a healthy nest egg when they sold the company in 1992. It was time to flex a softer muscle.
Pushing 40, still single, Banner decided he wanted to create a nonprofit volunteer organization. He was advised to go see two Harvard Law grads who were brainstorming City Year, a national service organization of young adults working as full-time tutors in challenged urban schools.