Remembering Gary and Tony Smith


Though ordinary in appearance, he was no ordinary man. Gary Smith was an exemplary teacher and coach who lived compassion everyday in his classroom and on his athletic fields. He had charisma, was articulate, and held a deep-seated belief in the potential of every student.  He reached out to the least as well as the best of students, knowing that the children who are hardest to love are often the ones who need love the most. He counseled them, made them laugh, guided them to their best achievemnents, expectd them to think and taught them to have integrity.

Many times he went out of his way for his students: he fed them, even when his family didn't have enough; he bought them track shoes when their parents couldn't or wouldn't; he met them at 5 AM on the street corner to see them off to the army; he was the Best Man in their weddings; he listened to them when they were in jail; he took them into his home when they needed a place to stay.

In 1998, Gary died at the age of 53.  When he was diagnosed with cancer and later when he succumbed, he and his family recieved hundreds of cards, letters, and phone calls from students, former students, parents, friends, and colleagues - some from  other continents, some who had been his student as many as thirty years earlier.  Approximately 800 people attended his memorial service. Students painted signs and hung them along the whole length of the fence in front of the athletic field; they lit candles, wrote private notes, and gave back their varsity letters. Why? Because there was magic in Gary Smith and he used it to change young lives. His influence had reached across  the world, decades, and generations.  His students and former students loved him, mourned him, and were extending his influence into their futures.  One woman wrote, "When I was in the 7th grade, feeling very ugly and and pretty worthless ... you reached in and picked me  up by the soul."

Tony Smith believed all people really are created equal. He reflected deeply on how he regarded all the people he encountered. For instance, he identified with laborers because he believed in hard, honest work. He also believed that everything we need already exists and felt no compulsion to buy things new. Therefore, he wore only work clothes or secondhand clothes. How someone looked on the outside was of very little importance to Tony. He cared more about the human being inside.

He was interested in oppressed populations, so he spent three months in Northern Ireland during the conflict  and later visited Cuba. He was interested in migrant workers, so he worked in the Iowa cornfields. He interviewed people in nursing homes and on front porches in Iowa to study hand-me-down folk songs. He was interest in working men and women, so he maple-syrupted in Vermont for a season and stayed on after to get to know his colleagues better. He was interested in poor kids in Indianola Mississippi, so he substitute taught in the public schools there.

Eventually Tony found his place in the world, among ordinary people in downtown Baltimore.  He came to know the homeless people in his neighborhood and even admonished the young ones to 'go back home."  Because he cared about the children and teens in Baltimore who couldn't learn in the narrow ways that our schools expect, he became a teacher of severely learning-disabled kids - at The Baltimore Lab School and later the Jemicy School.  He valued all of the his students: the one who dirtied his pants every time he was asked to write something; the autistic basketball players who couldn't understand  why to pass the ball to someone else; the boy who discovered his was an athlete but could never bring himself to wear shorts in cross country meets.

A stutterer who communicated modestly, hesitantly, and softly, Tony drafted and presented an advocacy paper to his school. He brought about philosophical and methodological changes that embraced multi-sensory teaching strategies and reached a broader range of students.  In the spring of 2008, Tony requested that the most challenging students be placed in his class the next year.

During a phone conversation, Tony told the following story. He was walking on Broadway Avenue in Baltimore when a drunken man passed out in the middle of the busy street. Tony went to him, and with the help of another passerby, dragged the man to the sidewalk. The man awoke, looked up and said, "Thank you man, you saved my life."

Only a few weeks later, Tony was killed in a traffic accident. This time it was he who lay in the street. He was twenty nine years old. His  life was not none of quantity but one of quality because he lived his belief that all people are important and created equal.