Tom Smith was the kind of man who wanted to leave things better than he found them. I never heard him say that, but then I never heard him say much of anything about himself, his career as a professional basketball player, as a professional baseball player, as a Washington state Hall of Fame basketball coach.
Humble as he was rugged, Tom Smith rarely talked about himself.
He was much more interested in you, or what he'd just read in the newspaper, heard on the radio, seen on TV or learned from strangers he chatted up.
"Say, Bud, what do you know about these desalination plants in California?"
Until that moment, I hadn't known there was such a thing.
For the past 30 years, when we talked, almost invariably, he'd ask about my younger sister. He had met her once – in 1989. She was a schoolteacher. That counted with Tom.
I'm reminded of a story I heard when Tom was inducted into the W.F. West High School Hall of Fame in 2016, the inaugural class, along with his good friend and assistant coach Rod Giske. A speaker that day said he became a teacher because of Tom, and his kids became teachers, and his kids' kids became teachers. Of all the wonderful things I heard that day, that was most powerful. Imagine how many lives he touched. Follow the ripples out to sea.
I met Tom in 1985, early November, the first harvest at the Christmas tree farm that Tom had planted seven years earlier. I was invited by his daughter, Jake, my future wife. As a sportswriter coming off a year on the Major League Baseball beat and all that entails -- late nights, frequent travel, a steady diet of bad food and unrelenting stress -- to spend a week on a Christmas tree farm sounded refreshing and healthy.
We arrived on a Sunday night and were up at the crack of dawn Monday. A few hundred trees had been felled the previous day by Tom and his sons Greg and Tim. Now the job was to drag those trees out of the field and onto the dirt road where they would be baled.
It had rained overnight. The trees were heavy with water. I was struggling to drag one out to the road, huffing and puffing, when I looked up to see Tom striding effortlessly through the field, a tree on each of his broad shoulders.
He was 62 years old, more than twice my age.
He was that kind of man -- a man's man from another time. The strong silent type. Gary Cooper. John Wayne. With his big family and his big farm, he was Ben Cartwright on the Ponderosa, although Peggy was the real boss.
Tom was the kind of man who wouldn’t stop if he happened to hit his thumb while hammering nails. He’d just keep going, never breaking stride. Never a whimper, never a word -- curse or otherwise. Come to think of it, I don't think I ever heard Tom curse. He wasn't just a man, he was a gentleman.
I'm pretty sure the Tom I knew had mellowed. I'd bet his kids heard him raise his voice, and I'd bet a lot more that his players did. There's a photo of Tom addressing his team during a timeout in the 1960 state championship game. In that moment, Bobby Knight had nothing on Tom.
The Bearcats were getting beat. They'd come out flat and Sumner was taking it to them, throttling them as soundly as Tom was now. He called timeout. He let them have it. And as the horn sounded, calling them back to the floor, one of the players summoned the voice to make a suggestion.
"We should go back to the press," he said.
A full-court press had been the Bearcats' trademark all season. They ran teams off the floor with it. It's how they reached the tournament, how they won their first two games in the tournament, how they had reached the championship game.
But Tom had gone away from the press for this game. On the advice of some other coaches he respected, he had pulled the plug on the press. Sumner had a point guard, a ball-handling wizard who could break any press. That was the word.
Now, just as he had considered the advice of those coaches, he considered the suggestion of his players.
"All right," he told the boys, "let's press 'em."
The Bearcats ran ‘em off the floor. By halftime, they had the lead. At the final horn,, they were state champs. Chehalis 70, Sumner 56.
At the Hall of Fame ceremony at W.F. West in 2016, one of the speakers told a story about a kid named Orin Smith. It might have been Orin himself who told the story.
Orin was the top scorer on the state championship team, and a bright kid, but he wasn't planning to attend college. When Tom got wind of that, Orin’s life got a course correction. The deadline for college admissions tests had passed, but Tom found a way for Orin to test.
Orin Smith went to college.
Orin Smith went on to become the No. 2 man at a little company called Starbucks.
Another story: In 2001, to celebrate the anniversary of the state championship, Orin gathered the team for a weekend in Palm Desert, California. Amid the laughter and reminiscences, someone noticed that Coach had gone missing. They found him in his room. He was homesick. In 65 years of marriage, rarely had Tom and Peggy spent a night apart.
It's strange to be referring to him as Tom. I never called him that. He was always Coach. And yet, of all the things he was – Father, Friend, Teacher, Coach, Man among men – I think of him first as a Husband.
Tom never stopped seeing Peggy the way he first saw her, as the homecoming queen whose attention he felt so lucky to get, whose affection he felt so blessed to win. The only time I saw Tom cry was when it became clear he no longer could live in the house on Logan Hill. Tom's health required care that Peggy could not provide.
Where would they go? Would they live apart? It was a wrenching decision for them. The social worker asked what Tom wanted, and he burst into tears..
"I just want to be with my wife," he said.
The Grim Reaper came for him so many times these last several years. Each time Tom fought him off. If I could draw, the story of these past 10 years could be told in a single-panel cartoon.
Tom standing in the center of a boxing ring, his right arm raised, as humbly as can be, a hint of a smile on his face -- that Cheshire cat smile -- and a twinkle in his eyes. On a stool in his corner of the ring, the Grim Reaper slumped in exhaustion,, barely able to hold his scythe, the white towel of surrender at his feet,.
The Grim Reaper has never lost, will never lose, But he didn’t beat Tom. Instead, he made him an offer, an offer he couldn’t refuse, an offer he wouldn’t refuse, an offer he didn’t hesitate to accept: A ticket to eternity with his beloved Peggy.
Coach left this world on Oct. 31 at age 98, eight months after Peggy. Amid a worldwide pandemic and a political divide that threatens this country, it's hard to say things are better than they were in 1923 when Tom was born. But Tom Smith did his part. For 98 years, he did what he could to make things better. Of that, there is no question.
Rest in peace, Coach.
Bud Geracie is the Executive Sports Editor for the Bay Area News Group, a chain of California newspapers that includes the Mercury News in San Jose and the East Bay Times of Oakland.