Another Kansan Named Smith

I’m in Wichita, KS for another week of research on my biography of W. Eugene Smith and a series of events with the Ulrich Museum of Art.  While in nearby Emporia yesterday to speak to the outstanding photographer Larry Schwarm‘s bi-weekly forum of 160 art students at Emporia State University, I sought and found the childhood homes of Dean Smith, the immortal retired basketball coach.  According to the yearly city directories at the Lyon County Historical Museum and Archives, Coach Smith lived with his family (parents Alfred and Vesta) at 1106 Washington St. from his birth in 1931 through 1937.  They moved a block away to 1217 Washington St. in 1938 and lived there until 1947 when his father got a new job in Topeka, KS and they moved.  (For Dean Smith’s achievements with racial integration as a high school junior and senior in Topeka, check out Richard Lapchick’s fascinating piece from earlier this year).  Below are my snapshots of the two houses and neighborhood where Coach Smith spent his first sixteen years.  There was a light snow all day.

1106 Washington St.  Emporia, KS.

1106 Washington St. Emporia, KS. November 16, 2011.

1106 Washington St.  Emporia, KS.

1106 Washington St. Emporia, KS.

The intersection between the two childhood homes of Dean Smith.

The intersection between the two childhood homes of Coach Smith.


1217 Washington St. Emporia, KS. November 16, 2011.

1217 Washington St. (right).  Emporia, KS.

1217 Washington St. (right). Emporia, KS.

1106 Washington St.  Emporia.

1106 Washington St. Emporia.

The picture above has a closer view of the basketball goal behind the house.  Do the owners or tenants of this house know it was the home of Coach Smith?  In my experience doing this kind of work, it’s doubtful that they know.  But they might.  The house at 1217 Washington looks to me to have had a stucco makeover since it was built but the original structure may have been maintained.

Here are two snapshots of downtown Emporia yesterday.

Downtown Emporia.  November 16, 2011.

Downtown Emporia. November 16, 2011.

Downtown Emporia.  November 16, 2011.  1pm.

Downtown Emporia. November 16, 2011. 1pm.

Somebody needs to spend 5 to 10 years researching a book on Coach Smith.  That’s what the best literary biographies require and he deserves that level of attention.  What he did to become famous is part of the public record, but for each 2-hour practice or 2-hour basketball game, how many other hours did he spend doing things that really define who he is?  The social and spiritual progressivism and how it informed his coaching, his daily life; that’s where the story is.  It requires extensive oral history interviews.  For each icon there’d be twenty obscure figures to interview and the latter would be treated in the same manner as the former.  That’s how Coach Smith would want it done.  That’s how good research is done.  Three or four or five hundred interviews would be require, maybe more.

I never signed up to spend fifteen years researching W. Eugene Smith.  It all started with a freelance magazine article and it grew incrementally from year to year.  If I may be so presumptuous, Coach Smith is one of the figures that I’d sign up to spend many years researching (Joseph Mitchell, Sonny Clark, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Bernard Malamud, Zoot Sims, Donald Ross, Marcia Davenport, Willa Cather, and John Berger are a few other names I just jotted on my breakfast napkin, people I’m thinking about a lot these days, for various reasons).

Recently I wrote a 2000-word piece that may serve as the prologue for my upcoming Eugene Smith biography for Farrar, Straus and Giroux.  I’ve had prologues on my brain.  My prologue for a book on Coach Dean Smith might be about me, as a student at UNC-Chapel Hill circa 1986, walking behind Carmichael Auditorium on my way to class one day.  I noticed a big black sedan (I think it was BMW) pulling into a prime parking spot.  I watched Coach Smith get out of the car and walk into Carmichael.  I walked over to his car and looked inside.  The front floorboard on the passenger’s side was covered in about six inches of cigarette butts.  I thought, this is Coach Smith:  He’s too socially aware to throw his cigarette butts out the window, so he piles them up inside his car.  The backseat floorboards were covered in about four inches of golf balls and tees and assorted trash.

When I told a photographer this anecdote yesterday at Emporia State University, she thought for a minute and responded, “He must not have had many passengers.”

Saints often have to go at it alone.

-Sam Stephenson

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