Southern People

Part Two of Three Parts

Coach Jimmy—Speak Memory

1933–1998

(Author’s Note: I played football for Coach Jimmy Smith for four years. He was one of those unforgettable characters who fought his own demons, in time prevailing. To know him was to love him.)

When Daddy got sober in 1979 I was in the eighth grade and though I held on to some resentment I saw a different side of Daddy during my final years at home. We had great times fishing, going to ballgames, or sitting on the porch talking. —Nicky Smith

The road was long and hard, close to 30 years. Thank goodness he made his way back. Thank goodness he walked out of the darkness. Randy told me how his dad began the long walk back to a place called abstinence.

“Bobby Rachels Senior, a brick mason, got Daddy interested in raccoon hunting again, and that began Daddy’s road to sobriety,” said Randy.

After he recovered, Coach Smith talked to members of Alcoholics Anonymous, helping others to shake the guilt, loneliness, and hopelessness from their souls. In a way, he became famous, a rescuer of kindred spirits.

“As his road to sobriety became a little more solid and well paved,” said Randy, “different AA organizations flew him all over the country to speak. Alaska and California were after him quite frequently, and there were even several trips to Canada. He had lunch and dinner with Suzanne Somers, a child of an alcoholic, and one of his good friends was the actor who played Mr. Olson on Little House on the Prairie.”

Coach became an ambassador of sorts.

“Walker Norman’s sister, Jan, is a flight attendant for Delta,” said Randy. “Even though her accent is not quite as thick as mine, people often ask her where she’s from. When she tells them Lincolnton, several have asked if she knew Jimmy Smith. They tell her how he helped them recover from alcoholism.”

He was famous and a real ambassador. Back in the 1990s, I worked as the corporate editor for a global software provider. One of my assignments meant interviewing a man with a golden baritone voice, Joe McGarity.

“Where you from, Tom?” asked Joe in a voice fit for the silver screen.

“I’m from Lincolnton, Georgia.”

“Jimmy Smith,” boomed Joe. He said Coach’s name so loud, people turned to see what was up. There was no mistaking the excitement in his voice. Joe and Jimmy, you see, had traveled together testifying for Alcoholics Anonymous. They were veterans of a war, a very personal war, and they were survivors. We spent the next half hour reminiscing about a special man we had met on life roads with different destinations.

“Where you from?” If you’re like Joe McGarity and me you always ask where someone is from. For me, knowing where a person hails from is fundamental. Our biography begins in a place called home. Randy gets that question too. For him the answer didn’t come as easily as it might for you or me. Stories about his Dad were out there. At meetings and in radio interviews, Coach Smith readily shared the troubles drinking caused him, and then, of course, there were the episodes themselves.

“There’s no such word as ‘worser,’” said Coach Smith, “unless you are a drunk. If you are a drunk, your disease gets worser, and worser, and worser.” In a radio interview, Coach Smith shared a few of his “worser” moments.

“I used to wake up in jail and not know what jail I was in, what town I was in, what state I was in. That was the most frightening feeling in the world. I got out of jail one morning at 8 a.m. and was back in jail by 2 p.m. I once swapped my boat, trailer, and motor for a case of beer. I gave up my shoes for some moonshine.”

Stories like that got around, and Randy would get that question. “Where you from?”

“People, upon hearing I’m from Lincolnton, ask if I know Jimmy Smith,” said Randy. “I used to grimace and say, ‘I’m afraid I do.’ Now, I smile and say, ‘I’m afraid I do.’ ”

I’m glad that grimace changed to a smile. For many children of alcoholics, it never does. In his memoir, “Childhood: Biography Of A Place,” Georgia writer Harry Crews describes how life was with an alcoholic father. He remembers waking up to cursing and the sound of breaking furniture. “Daddy had come home drunk again. It was like living in a nightmare,” wrote Crews. “Just like a nightmare.”

I’ve never known an alcoholic. At least I don’t think I have. And I for sure have never lived with one, but the nightmare must be real. Coach Jimmy was not that kind of an alcoholic though. He was loved and well remembered and an influence on others.

Some found him to be a guiding light. My sister, Brenda, did. “Coach Smith was an inspiration to me. He was my basketball coach, and it was while having him as a teacher and coach that I knew I, too, would become a P.E. teacher and coach.”

Twelve years after Brenda graduated from Lincolnton High, she returned as a P.E. teacher and coach, but then the truth about Coach Smith began to seep out.

“Several years later when I started teaching Health I learned of the real Coach Jimmy Smith. I witnessed his grit and honesty, his confidence, his strength, and his vulnerability.”

Brenda said he had an amazing ability to be candid and inspiring. “He came to my Health classes and told of his struggle with alcoholism. I can hear his voice now. He always started off with the same sentence. ‘I am Jimmy Smith, and I am a sober alcoholic.’

“I always thought how brave he was to put his story out there. I’m sure many students were affected by his message, a message heard by many throughout the United States. His story helped so many who struggled just like him.”

Yes the rescuer is remembered fondly, and some memories of the man will bring a big smile to your face. My college roommate, Garnett Wallace, has one such memory.

“Everyone has a Coach Smith story,” said Garnett who was a football equipment manager in ’61 and ’62 along with Sidney Smith, Don Crozier, and Joe Sturkey. “The equipment room was in the coaches office. There was one old desk in there for the coaches to use. At some point, we managers were going through the drawers and found a candy bar. We cut it in three pieces and had a snack. A few days later, Coach Smith began asking who ate his candy bar and soon had us admitting to the crime. His punishment? We had to run 500 yards of ‘stop and go.’

“After practice one day, we lined up near the gym and Coach Smith began blowing his whistle. We went down and came back for what we thought was the first two hundred yards of our punishment. Coach Smith stopped us and said we were loafing through the first 100 yards and would have to redo them! So, for a 25-cent bar of chocolate, we ended up doing 600 yards of stop and go!”

Garnett said the team enjoyed watching every minute of it and he adds a thought that won’t surprise you. “Had to love the man.”

Cathy Sue Ashmore remembers the man. “When I was a cheerleader, I came to school with a run in my hose. Coach Smith saw it and told me that no cheerleader from Lincolnton High School was going to have torn hose. He took me to Wengrow’s and bought me a new pair of hose. I loved him from that day on. He was and is one of my heroes.”

He was loved. You’ll find a dedication on page four of my senior year Panorama, the yearbook as we called it. The two people mentioned there touched my life in different but permanent ways. June Kelly steered me toward writing and Coach Smith taught me to play football, a sport that has beautifully enriched my life. I read the dedication just now some 44 years after the yearbook was published.

“Jimmy Smith, our beloved coach, is dedicated to improving every student’s physical development. Coach Smith, with his never-ending smile and easygoing manner, is noted for his problem-solving ability.”

It took a while but thank God he solved the biggest problem in his and his family’s life. He finally got to a place where things got not “worser,” but better, and better, and better, and despite his flaws, despite the jails and hospitals and disappointments, people loved him.

On the facing page across from that dedication, you’ll find three photographs. Smiling, he stands next to a car. In another photo, he’s holding one of his coon dogs. In the third photo, Coach Smith is young and vibrant, a 34-year-old man sitting on the sofa with sons Nicky and Randy and wife, Joan, at 144 Dallas Street. The family is together.

Yes, he recovered. Thanks goodness he made his way back. Thank goodness he walked into daylight. “I am Jimmy Smith, and I am a sober alcoholic.”

In one of his talks, he said something that struck me: how hard it was to be raised as the son of a doctor. His mother wouldn’t even let him wear blue jeans like the other boys. He had to wear knickers, and he talked about how he grew up carrying a lot of guilt, that he always felt burdened, and that as the son of an alcoholic himself, he vowed he’d never grow up to be like his dad. And then he said, “I didn’t grow up to be like dad. I was many times worse than he was.”

In his memoir, “Speak Memory,” Vladimir Nabokov wrote an impressionistic journey recalling unvarnished truths from his childhood. Of his memoir, Nabokov said, “It’s an attempt to unravel and trace back all the tangled threads of one’s personality.”

If only we could all do that. If only we could untangle the knots and stretch the string of life straight and true. Maybe we’d understand what makes us tick. Maybe we’d understand what made Coach Jimmy tick too, and maybe, just maybe, we all just might tick a little better.

A special thanks to Garnett Wallace for photography and the Smith family for their permission to write about my coach and friend.

Part One: Coach Jimmy

Part Three: “Coach Jimmy, Coach Cake Bake,” concludes our visit with one of Lincoln County’s enduring icons.

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Tom Poland

Tom Poland, A Southern Writer – Tom Poland is the author of twelve books and more than 1,000 magazine features. A Southern writer, his work has appeared in magazines throughout the South. Tom grew up in Lincoln County, Georgia, where four wonderful English teachers gave him a love for language. People first came to know Tom’s work in South Carolina Wildlife magazine, where he wrote features and served as managing editor.Tom’s written over 1,000 columns and features and seven traditionally published books. Among his recent books are Classic Carolina Road Trips From Columbia, Georgialina, A Southland, As We Knew It, and his and Robert Clark’s latest volume of Reflections of South Carolina. Swamp Gravy, Georgia’s Official Folk Life Drama, staged his play, Solid Ground in 2011 and 2012.He writes a weekly column for newspapers and journals in Georgia and South Carolina about the South, its people, traditions, lifestyle, and changing culture and speaks often to groups across South Carolina and Georgia.Tom earned a BA in Journalism and a Masters in Media at the University of Georgia. He lives in Columbia, South Carolina where he writes about Georgialina—his name for eastern Georgia and South Carolina. Visit my website at www.tompoland.net Email me at [email protected]