Proud to be (very distantly) related to Dean

Published 11:20 pm Saturday, April 4, 2015

My dad, Dan W. Smith, long-time head of the local meat packing company that makes Old Tar Heel Sausage and the hot dogs Bill’s sells, told me when I came home from John Small School early on and remarked that there were a lot of people named “Smith” that Adam and Eve were also Smiths, but once they sinned, they had to change their last name.(:>) Dean Smith was obviously one of those who came from a family of non-sinners, or at least folks who taught their son: “You should never be proud of doing the right thing. You should just do the right thing.”

He not only succeeded in the highly competitive world of ACC and NCAA basketball but in the game of life, meriting an outpouring of praise unlike we’ve seen for a man who was basically a glorified version of Choppy Wagner or Bill Sweel for those of us who grew up in post-WWII Washington. The man chose to be a college basketball coach, a vocation back in the ‘50s that was akin to being maybe a preacher or school principal or small business owner. It did not offer the prospect of great riches — that was reserved for those who became doctors, lawyers, or got that new-fangled degree, an MBA, or who had the good fortune to belong to a family that owned a business you’d be happy to spend your life running. Dean not only made it big in basketball, but in life. We’ve heard often lately how he helped desegregate The Pines Restaurant and most of the rest of them in Chapel Hill by going with his friend and pastor Robert Seymour, of the young Olin T. Binkley Memorial Baptist Church, along with an African-American student and ordering a meal. That took courage for the pastor and the young assistant coach to the fabled but flawed Frank McGwire. Instead of losing his job, it made an impression on Bill Friday. William Aycock quickly hired Smith to succeed McGwire when he vacated UNC to coach Wilt the Stilt in the pros before eventually coming back to that other Carolina. I watched in fascination as a Duke student as Coach Smith labored under the restrictions earned by UNC & NCSU for player failures, mainly imposed by State & Carolina alumnus Friday. And after another State alum, Vic Bubas, took Duke to new heights in basketball, Smith eventually surpassed him, and went on to become legendary and iconic.

I wrote one letter to Dean Smith after he along with many others signed a letter published in the newspapers calling on President Reagan to back off the nuclear build up he was trumpeting. Rev. Seymour said at Dean’s farewell gathering that his parishioner received sacks of mail lambasting him for that; I’m glad mine was one that praised him for his Christian courage. Years after he’d retired as coach, my wife, a Carolina graduate, and I were at a dinner for leaders of Duke and Carolina and learned to our delight at the end of the evening that Coach Smith was seated directly behind us. We beamed and greeted him and had a memorable, delightful conversation for several minutes in which we told him of my letter and of our admiration for him as a beacon of Christian hope and thanked him for living a good, long life devoted to “doing the right thing.” He gave us that winning smile that most of us, whoever we pulled for, came to love. May his tribe increase.

Charles M. Smith is a Washington native and resident, retired United Methodist minister in the North Carolina Conference, and a Duke University Trustee Emeritus.