West Van sports legend felled by COVID-19 coached for more than 50 years | Squamish Chief

West Van sports legend felled by COVID-19 coached for more than 50 years

90-year-old Mike Smith tried to 'tuck and roll' his way through a deadly pandemic

Mike Smith was a “walk it off” kind of guy.

His wife Nancy Smith recalls him, well into his 70s, breaking right through the floor of a rotted out deck while carrying a 50-pound planter, falling more than eight feet to the bushes and bramble below. 

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He picked himself up, fought his way out from the deck’s underbelly and around to the front of the house where he located his wife. He was covered in dirt and blood and branches and scratches.

“Nancy, I’ve had a bit of a tumble,” he announced. He was still carrying the planter.

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Mike Smith's daughter Megan Frederick and wife Nancy Smith flip through clippings describing the exploits of the teams led by the longtime West Vancouver coach. photo Andy Prest, North Shore News

“He was really a strong guy, and just had boundless energy,” says Nancy. How did he bounce right up, at that age, after a fall like that? There was a phrase that Mike, a well-known coach and teacher on the North Shore, used for such occasions: “tuck and roll.”

His daughter Megan Frederick laughs as she remembers the famous phrase.

“We’d have a fondue dinner and the fondue would catch fire and he’d just pick it up, flames coming up his arms, and he’d just say ‘tuck and roll!’”

Mike almost never got sick or injured, and when he did he would never take medication.

“He would just ‘hunker down,’” says Nancy. “And his response, if you were worried, was he’d say ‘I’m alright. I’m alright, I’m alright, I’m alright.’”

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Mike Smith proudly sports the colours of West Vancouver's Hillside Secondary. He started coaching high school sports while still a university student and didn't stop for the next 50 years. photo Smith family

Walk it off. Tuck and roll. Hunker down. Those guiding principles powered Mike through 90 years of a remarkable life in which he followed passions ranging from rugby to musical theatre to lifeguarding to sign language, all the while providing a strong support system for thousands of students and athletes across the North Shore.

He stuck to his strengths, even when a global pandemic hit.

It seems a little odd to say that someone who died when they were 90 years old is “gone too soon,” but that’s exactly how Mike Smith’s family feels. So strong, so supportive, so resilient all his life, even into his 90s. And then came COVID-19, and the way his family tells it, he hit this challenge the way he tackled every other one in his life. This, however, was finally an affliction that wouldn't allow him to just walk it off.

A passion for coaching

It’s tough to find true Vancouverites – it seems almost everyone around here came from somewhere else – but you can’t get any more true blue Vancouver than Mike Smith. Born in Vancouver in 1930, he grew up swimming and playing football and rugby for Kitsilano High and then the University of British Columbia. At age 14 he worked in a logging camp on Vancouver Island, while other summer jobs included driving a taxi around Vancouver and working on a whaling ship off the coasts of Japan and Russia.

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As a young man Mike Smith (second from right) braved the open ocean on a whaling ship in the North Pacific. photo Smith family

Safer summer employment came from his swimming expertise, as Mike worked as a lifeguard at Ambleside Pool and at beaches across Vancouver. It was while lifeguarding at Spanish Banks that he met Marlene Wright and it was “love at first sight.” They married and had three kids: sons David and Paddy and daughter Megan. Mike and Marlene were married 35 years, until Marlene’s death in 1991. In 1994 Mike married Nancy (Herman) Parker, and they lived together in West Vancouver for 25 years.

Mike’s teaching career began at Vancouver’s Jericho Hill School for the Deaf where he learned sign language as well as lip reading, a skill he claimed helped him as a coach later in life. He moved over to West Vancouver’s Ecole Pauline Johnson in 1956, the start of a North Shore teaching career that included a long stint at Hillside Secondary, where he became vice-principal, and later at West Van Secondary where he taught until retirement. A common thread through it all was his passion for coaching.

Mike kept mementos from old teams, books in his basement full of rosters and plays and practice plans. On a recent sunny summer afternoon Nancy and Megan sat flipping through the pages of an album filled with team photos. There’s the Jericho Hill basketball team, 1952. In that photo Mike looks like a strapping young student himself. There’s Pauline Johnson gymnastics, 1956. There’s the first ever Hillside rugby team, 1957-'58. There’s the year Hillside junior rugby won the prestigious Province Cup, 1961. The pics go on for decades. There’s Hillside senior basketball, 1981, with Mike sporting a natty cardigan.

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Coaches Gary Sinclair (left) and Mike Smith guided the first-ever rugby team at Hillside Secondary when the school opened in 1957-'58. photo Smith family

At West Van Secondary he helped form the school’s first-ever girls rugby team. Long after retiring as a teacher he stuck around the field, helping coach wherever he was needed.

In 2001, Mike became the first ever coach recognized for 50 years of service by the North Shore Secondary Schools Athletics Association. He was there when the NSSSAA was formed in 1958, acting as the association’s first secretary-treasurer while his friend and Hillside co-coach Gary Sinclair served as the first president, a role Mike later filled as well.

He was head of grounds and equipment for the annual North Shore track and field meet, which used to be held on the cinder track at Empire Stadium where all the lanes had to be lined out with whiting. Mike was always there, always ready.

Bill McKitrick, who coached and taught alongside Mike for decades, was just 23 when he first met him. He was assigned to Hillside as a student teacher, and the first face he saw when he walked through the door was Mike Smith.

“Mike was in the foyer, so I introduced myself to him and he said ‘I think I’m going to be your sponsor teacher,” McKitrick recalls. “He sort of took me under his wing right away. That was quite reassuring.”

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Mike Smith is right in the middle of this photo featuring coaches who were there for the first 20 years of the North Shore Secondary Schools Athletics Association. photo Len Corben

McKitrick remembers Mike as a man of incredible youthful energy. He was surprised one day to hear Mike grumbling about “getting too old” to take another swim test to renew his lifeguarding certification.

“I said ‘what do you mean? How old are you?’ He told me he was 43. Well, I thought he was 30.”

Mike never lost that vigorous enthusiasm for coaching, and hundreds of young athletes were enriched by that, says McKitrick.

“He was a real straight shooter, looking out for the best interest of the students and the school always,” he says. “The teams that he coached were always strong teams, and I don’t mean like they were super athletes or anything like that. They were well coached, the students respected their opposition. He was not one to pat himself on the back or build himself up or blow his own horn. … It was all about the team and representing the school well. I think the kids learned a lot from that.”

His standard attire, which he often wore even while acting as vice-principal, was pure sporty goodness: running shorts, whistle, clipboard in hand and pencil behind the ear.

“He was very good as a coach – I learned a lot from him,” says McKitrick. “He was very much a team member, and he expected that basically from everyone that was in the athletic department. And it was a great athletic department – everyone just got along really well. … I just watched how he dealt with the department, how he dealt with colleagues, how he dealt with students. It was not necessarily out of a textbook – just things you learn as a young teacher, a young coach, and you try to model that.”

Musicals and marathons

There was much more to Mike than just coaching though. He sang in all the school musicals and was a lifetime subscriber to the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. A childhood stamp collection inspired him to become a geography teacher. He was the catcher on the school slo-pitch team and later took up marathon running, breaking off on epic training runs with his little terrier Sadie, who often tuckered out and would be scooped up and carried much of the way home.

He was 64 when he married Nancy.

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Mike Smith in costume for Fiddler on the Roof. The beard, of course, was real. photo Smith family

“I knew him mainly as a history and geography teacher, a music lover and a constant reader,” she says. “He was a great travelling companion because he was interested in everything and he had so much energy.”

He and Nancy tended their fabulous backyard garden well into his 80s, and just last fall, though he was suffering from Lewy body dementia, which can affect a person's thinking, movement, behaviour and mood, he was still singing with the Londoners, a multi-generational choir that often would entertain seniors in care homes.

A fall put him into Lions Gate Hospital earlier this year while the pandemic was still a frightening mystery that was far from figured out. He caught COVID-19 there, on the hospital’s fourth floor.

“Mike, oh my God, he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time,” says Nancy. There’s still anger, confusion, sadness in her voice as she describes what happened to her husband. After he was diagnosed, he was moved to a care home and then bounced right back to Lions Gate a few days later. Through it all, the family was banned from physically visiting him due to COVID-19 restrictions. Megan’s last contact with her dad was as he was being loaded into an ambulance for his final trip to the hospital.

“I called out to him, and he stopped and looked for [me]. I was keeping my distance, so I said ‘I'm over here, dad.’ And then I go, ‘can you hear me?’ And he nods.”

The family says he was not admitted into the intensive care unit when he was taken back to the hospital, instead quickly sent to palliative care. They fought for more urgent care for him, but to no avail. Mike was deemed to be unresponsive. Looking back now, Megan and Nancy say they know what Mike was trying to do as COVID-19 was shutting his body down.

Walk it off.

Tuck and roll.

Hunker down.

“All of his strength and determination really worked against him, kept him silent and not taking medication and just in survival mode,” says Nancy, adding that convalescing was never Mike’s style. “He never was in bed. Never. … He wasn’t going to survive in bed with an oxygen tube in his nose.”

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Mike Smith with grandson Nick. photo Smith family

The restrictions of COVID-19 made everything infinitely harder for the family.

“What was so tough was dealing with all these doctors and not being able to be there in person,” says Megan.

“Everyone was in a complete panic mode,” adds Nancy. “It’s just really unfortunate that that happened to him.”

Mike died April 2, 2020. Ninety years of extraordinary life, ended by COVID-19.

“It was very sad that it was the virus that took him,” says Megan. “It didn’t seem appropriate. In his life, nothing kept him down in bed.”

Mike Smith leaves behind eight grandchildren, a great-granddaughter, and countless other friends and family members. COVID-19 restrictions have also denied the family a chance to hold a proper memorial service for Mike.

The family has taken great comfort, however, from comments left on an online obituary page for Mike. The comments come from students and teaching colleagues, coaches and friends, neighbours, choir members, and even an old lifeguard from the 1950s.

“Mr. Smith was an important part of my formative years as a kid growing up in West Van,” writes a former student. “He taught me to swim at age five and instilled a sense of self-confidence that I could do what, at that time, I thought was impossible.”

There are dozens of comments [see below for more], all adding together to colour in a picture of a man who touched many lives.

The family has set up the Mike Smith Memorial Scholarship Fund through the West Vancouver Foundation. The post-secondary scholarship will go to a graduating student in the West Vancouver public school system who “demonstrates enthusiastic participation in school athletics, including good sportsmanship and service to school.”

It’s a fitting legacy for a fine man, says Nancy.

“Mike never hesitated to help other people,” she says.

“He had the time for anybody, no matter the skill,” adds Megan. “If you were willing to put the work in and be a good teammate, there was always room for you on the team.”

Click here for more information on the Mike Smith Memorial Scholarship Fund.

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Mike Smith coaches his senior boys rugby team at Hillside Secondary during the 1970-'71 season. photo Smith family

Mike Smith remembered

Here is a selection of comments, edited by the North Shore News, left on Mike Smith’s online obituary page:

“Not tall in stature but had a giant presence,” writes a student. “I can still see him hustling down the hall with clipboard in hand and a whistle around his neck!”

“Will miss his bright smile and twinkly blue eyes, he always cheered up a rainy day,” writes a choir mate. “He was much loved by everyone. He always threatened to sing rugby songs but was never allowed to.”

“I worked with Mike in the '50s as a lifeguard,” writes an old friend. “He had the Vancouver Sun delivered to old Locarno Bath House and heaven help ANYONE who touched it before him!”

“He was one of the nicest guys I ever met,” writes a fellow coach. “Always positive always smiling. He loved being out in the field which explains why he did it for over 50 years. Mike’s contribution to youth is enormous and he inspired us all.”

“He was my homeroom teacher in Grade 9 and I have two vivid memories of him,” another student writes. “First of all, he had such fine perfect handwriting, which didn’t seem to go with his big physique. The second was a class assignment to complete a job study, and mine became my lifelong occupation.”

“Mr. Smith was my VP in the early ‘80s,” writes another student. “He got me back on track and believed in me when I didn’t. He was a great leader and cared. Rest In Peace, sir.”

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