When George Smith died around supper time Thursday night in West Hartford, a group of retired guys who had worked together in The Courant's sports department for some 30-35 years mourned his passing and recalled certain personal memories of the man they sometimes called "The Captain.'' That was the rank he held when he served with the U.S. Army in Vietnam when the war was hot.
Smith, who was 76, loved the military almost as much as he loved his family, his job, boxing and running. In retirement he wrote and had published four meticulously researched books about various World War II battles and one about Vietnam. A fifth book had been finished and was about ready for the editors when George came down with Lewy Body Dementia. He entered the Hebrew Home and Hospital some three years and four months ago, and as the end approached, he was under hospice care, unable to speak and hardly able to move.
"But he got to see and enjoy his grandsons,'' said true-blue Mary Ellen Smith, who visited her husband just about every day during his long ordeal. Daughter Anna Shostak visited as often as possible, too, with the little boys, Henry and Owen George, in tow. Their little brother, Brendan William, born on Sept. 25 last year, was too new for many visits, but at least George got to see him before he died.
Smith used to call his daughter "the nicest human being I've ever known. Prettiest, too.'' On automobile rides to various games or events to which we were both assigned, he would speak of her frequently.
I have a great memory of a local golf tournament he was covering, at Tumble Brook CC. I happened to drop by. George had been given a golf cart so he could scoot from hole to hole to check on the matches. He pulled up near the 18th green and there was beautiful blond Anna, then in high school, in the shotgun seat beside him. I thought, "I see what you mean, George.''
Veteran readers will recognize the names of our Courant sports department group — Tom Hine, Woody Anderson, Al Simonds, Bruce Berlet, Terry Price, Smitty, Tom Yantz and Bohdan Kolinsky. Bo died, far too young, in 2003. Yantz is still going strong in the sports department.
We were pretty much overworked and underpaid, but all of us had a certain pride in our work and in the fact that The Courant was the largest and best newspaper in the state. Most of us could do any job and turn in a respectable account of any event we were called upon to do. The Captain, who like me, retired in 1995, had the UConn football assignment for several years, and riding to Storrs with him in his used but beautiful Cadillac is a good memory. He loved that car. "It's me,'' he said, kidding. We talked and laughed a million laughs on those trips, and usually, when our work was done, we'd meet again at Kenney's on Capitol Avenue to discuss the game over beers. Kenney's, now called the Red Rock but still owned by the same family, was a popular Courant meeting place at that time. I'm assuming it still is.
George enjoyed whatever beat he happened to have, and did them all equally well. But boxing was by far his favorite. He knew the sweet science and how to break it down so well that after retiring as a sports writer, he became an award-winning boxing judge.
Mary Ellen and George married in June, 1976. They had met at a party at the home of Tom Condon, a columnist who became an editorial writer for The Courant, now retired. It was the start of something terrific.
The Captain's in a good place now. I envision the healthy George Smith, visiting with Bo, running every day (they must have plenty of room for runners up there), working on a new book, shooting around in his NEW Cadillac, dropping in at a heavenly Kenney's (Um-um, ain't the beer cold!) and doing reconnaissance for the rest of us sports department guys when we get ready to move.
And of course, watching over Mary Ellen, Anna, Ben and those handsome grand-boys. I guess that's his most important job, now.
Owen Canfield is a former sports editor and columnist at The Courant