Thank you, Mr. Smith

The final resting place of Walter Wellesley Smith, in Stamford, Connecticut. (Photo by John Nash)

The final resting place of Walter Wellesley Smith, in Stamford, Connecticut. (Photo by John Nash)

The man who gave us thousands upon thousands of words over his own lifetime only needed one to signify his eternal resting place.

“Smith”

That’s all that was carved into the front of Walter Wellesley Smith’s tombstone. No fancy epitaph. No clever or witty phrasing about being gone.

Just his last name. Nothing more.

S-M-I-T-H — Five letters adorning a plain gray marble stone, sitting silently underneath a tiny tree, in the middle of a country cemetery in the backwoods of Stamford, Conn.

On Sunday morning, I went in search of Mr. Smith’s grave to say, simply, “Thank you.”

It might seem a tad peculiar, I suppose, to want to say thank you to a man you never met, to somebody who, in fact, never even knew I existed.

But for the past 30 years, my life has been majorly affected by some of Mr. Smith’s words, which were passed down to me by another writer I respect greatly, shortly after I entered the field of journalism.

Walter Smith, you see, was better known as Red Smith and from the mid-1940s to the mid-1970s he was one of the greatest sportswriters who ever sat down at a keyboard to tell stories.

I like to think I was born to be a writer, especially one geared toward the world of sports. I love sports and I love to write, and I’ve been blessed to be able to combine the two loves of my life and find a professional career that prevents me from having to hold down a real job.

I like to think Mr. Smith was of similar mind and fate.

He was born in Green Bay, Wisc., and I suppose if you’re not going to grow up to be a Green Bay Packers football player then you might as well grow up to be a sportswriter. Smith also went to the University of Notre Dame and, again, I suppose if you’re not going to grow up to play for the Fighting Irish, you might as well grow up and at least write about them.

Red Smith, hard at work, covering horse racing. (Photo courtesy of the NYRA).

Red Smith, hard at work, covering horse racing. (Photo courtesy of the NYRA).

Mr. Smith was fortunate enough to do just that and so much more. He worked for the Milwaukee Sentinel, the St. Louis Star-Times and Philadelphia Record before finding a home in New  York City. In 1945, he started writing a column for the New York Herald Tribune. By 1971, he joined the staff of the New York Times, where he went on to win a Pulitzer Prize.

Imagine that? A sportswriter winning a Pulitzer.

He has written columns, stories and books — but it was a simple list that changed my life forever.

“Red Smith’s Top 10 List For Sportswriters” was its title.

It’s been my bible for the three decades I’ve been fortunate enough to tell my stories about the people I’ve had the honor and pleasure of getting to know over my career.

Recently, in an e-mail conversation I had with a new-found writer friend — if I can call her that — I wanted to quote Mr. Smith accurately, so I turned to Google.

I found the quote — “Writing is easy. You just open a vein and bleed” — but I also found a fact that surprised me.

Mr. Smith — who was living in New Canaan at the time of his death in 1982 — was buried at the Long Ridge Union Cemetery in Stamford.

I knew what I had to do.

I had to say “Thank you” because without that list I can’t say what direction my career might have taken.

So, I went off on a journey to pay Mr. Smith a visit this morning.

It had rained a bit over night and the grass was still damp, but the sun was out as I strolled around the cemetery, looking for his name.

It was a perfect day for a baseball game, or a horse race, or for some fly-fishing — all of which Mr. Smith enjoyed greatly.

Then I saw found him.

“Smith.”

I walked around to the back of the headstone and found more information carved into the granite, confirming this was the burial plot of Walter Wellesley “Red” Smith and his first wife, Catherine, who passed away in 1967.

And, as I patted the top of his simply-inscribed gravestone I said my “Thank you” knowing I will carry forth his advice for as long as I can put words on a screen and have people who want read them.

Remembering Blackie

The author with "Blackie" - the dog that wasn't really his dog.

The author with “Blackie” – the dog that wasn’t really his dog.

It was the eyes that grabbed me, that look from within as if it was thinking, “Hey, I know you … do you remember me? … Do ya pal?”

The little boy in me rose up from my past before I could stop him, plowing through the piles of memories he had been buried under for what, 40 years? Maybe even longer?

It was Blackie, sitting there in front of me, giving me that look that only a dog ready to play can give a human being. Fetch. Sit. Roll over. Belly rub.

It was Blackie.

Wasn’t it?

No.

Blackie would be more than 280 years right old now, and that’s in dog of years of course, but all of a sudden — in the exact instant of a memory exploding from the past, there I was, running around my front yard, stick in hand, throwing it, picking it up, wiping off the slobber of dog saliva and throwing it again.

Blackie was my first dog. Only he wasn’t my dog.

He was just a dog, a rambunctious black lab, who from time to time when I was a young boy would show up in my yard ready to play. I’d look out of the window of our country home, see him running around and I’d be out the door looking for something to throw.

Maybe I’d be bored and was sent outside to play and he would show up, bringing excitement and energy to my day.

How old was I? Five? Six? Maybe eight?

I remember the house vividly — it’s the first house I truly remember living in, the house I grew up in. I remember my bedroom, with the attic door that scared the hell out of me. I remember the stairs, leading up to the second floor. I remember the yellow colors of the dining room, which were once splattered with my blood after I cut my thumb and instead of covering it to stop the bleeding, I shook my paw wildly as a way to deal with the pain.

And, I remember Blackie — the dog that wasn’t mine, but was all mine just the same.

You know what I just realized? Blackie wasn’t his name. That was the name I had given him because he was all black. He could have been a Fido, or a Rover. Maybe he was a Spike or a Charlie.

All I knew back then was he was Blackie and I loved that dog and I’m pretty sure he loved me, even though he had an owner somewhere else in the neighborhood.

He would never lay at my feet, and I’d never have to kick him out of my bed so I could sleep. He would never eat my shoes and, thank goodness, I never had to clean up his shit.

I had the best part of having a dog. I got to play with him.

I don’t remember when Blackie stopped showing up at the house where I grew up. Perhaps he got too old. Perhaps he stopped getting off his leash. Perhaps I stopped looking out the window.

Over time, Blackie was forgotten, just another memory filed away, ready to be pulled out when triggered.

That’s what happened on Tuesday morning during my morning walk for coffee.

The dog was sitting on the corner with his owner, a black lab tethered to a leash. How many black labs have I seen over the last 40 years? Dozens, perhaps?

Only this dog looked me in the eye and I swear to Dog he recognized me.

Blackie.

He recognized me and I want to swear up and down I recognized him.

Instead, I’ll just admit that I remember him.

He wasn’t my dog, but he was … and for that, the little boy in me is so thankful that a memory is still so vivid and so real.