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