His own drummer | Stories | Notre Dame magazine
Verly E. Smith was a flamboyant man who drove big cars, wore stylish hats, and enjoyed a good cigar.
He was part-time coach for coach Knute Rockne’s soccer teams from about 1924 to 1927 – historical records show he was the first African-American employee of Notre Dame – while he had other jobs in South Bend and was preparing to open his own high school.
Smith was hired to relieve the strained muscles and other injuries suffered by Rocknes football players and also coached the Irish basketball, track and field and baseball teams.
Noticeable. That’s the word that comes to mind when two of Verly Smith’s grandchildren – Bruce Smith, 79, from San Antonio, Texas, and Craig Smith, 72, from St. Charles, Missouri – describe their grandfather.
Bruce was only six years old and Craig wasn’t born when Verly Smith died. But when they grew up, they heard colorful family stories about their grandfather. Her father, Alfred Augustus “Red” Smith, followed in his father’s footsteps as a Notre Dame coach.
Verly Smith “loved driving a big car, wearing a suit and vest, wearing nice hats and smoking a cigar. He was fun and flamboyant. People liked to gather around him, ”says Bruce Smith. The family patriarch was also a well-known man in town and an accomplished businessman. His activities and business ventures were regularly featured in local newspapers throughout his life and career.
Verly E. Smith was born on February 6, 1886 in Attica, a small town near Lafayette, Indiana. Little is known about his childhood. One story told by descendants of the Smith family says that Verly was raised to another family as a toddler, and another version says that he spent his early years in an orphanage and was adopted around the age of 7.
According to pedigree charts, George Douglas and Emma (Revels) Smith are the couple who raised him. In 1900 the Smith family lived in Lorain, Ohio.
In 1905 Verly Smith – not yet 20 years old – had moved to South Bend. He was listed in the city register as a musician who lived in a dormitory. Census records show he was a drummer.
In September 1909, Smith, 23, in South Bend married Ethel Lucas, 27. It was a second marriage for the bride, who already had two children, Nellie and Harold. Verly Smith would raise these children as his own, in addition to the five children the couple had together: Verna, Alfred, Dewight, Wilma, and Marian.
In 1910, Smith and his family lived at 121 West Colfax Avenue, where Smith ran the Coterie Club, a nightclub and coffee shop.
Young Smith was doing just fine. October 1, 1910 Indianapolis recorder, a black newspaper reporting nationwide news in African American circles, found that Smith had just bought a fine Empire car from Indianapolis. “He has the privilege of being the first black guy in town (of South Bend) to own a car,” the newspaper reported.
In 1915, Smith and his growing family moved to Benton Harbor, Michigan. City directories and his World War I draft card indicate that he was a hotel and restaurant owner. By 1920, Smith – then 34 years old – was also listed as a massage therapist at a local bathhouse. Craig Smith says his grandfather ran sports camps in Benton Harbor and attracted Chicago customers who took passenger ships to resorts on the east bank of Lake Michigan.
In later years Smith was described in news articles as the former heavyweight coach of world boxing champion Jack Dempsey. Smith’s initial connection with Dempsey is not clear, but the two men may have first met in 1920 when Dempsey – heavyweight champion since 1919 – traveled to Benton Harbor to defend his title against challenger Billy Miske. Smith may have been hired by Dempsey to coach the fight.
With over 11,000 viewers, Dempsey vs. Miske was the first boxing match to be broadcast live on the radio. Dempsey knocked out Miske in three rounds and held the title for another six years.
In the early 1920s, Smith was hired as a coach for the Notre Dame soccer team. His grandchildren don’t know how or when Smith met Knute Rockne, or if Rockne offered the job. Verly Smith was the coach at the height of Rockne’s coaching career, including 1924 – the season of the Four Horsemen, the famous Irish backcourt. His duties were gradually expanded as a coach for other Notre Dame teams.
There is little evidence of Smith in the university archives and he has been featured on football programs or issues that are not among the team’s staff Notre Dame Football Review this era.
In 1926 Smith and his family had returned to South Bend. Her home was at 1002 Campeau Street, just a few blocks south of the Notre Dame campus. It still stands today.
Smith was a popular figure in town. His role in Notre Dame was well known and he was frequently featured in South Bend grandstand News reports in the 1920s.
During that decade, Smith also coached the South Bend YMCA Basketball League, South Bend Central and Mishawaka High School Football Teams, and the Athletics, a baseball team deployed by the Studebaker Automobile Factory. Local high school players were safe “under the skillful eyes of Verly Smith, the famous bruise-and-wrench master” tribune reported.
In June 1926, while still working in Notre Dame, Smith opened a downtown office in the LaSalle Hotel Annex, offering physical education and massages to local businesspeople. “His attention is not in demand at the university in the summer months,” reported the newspaper.
Later that year he opened a commercial high school at 228 S. Michigan Street. Local business people stopped by to play sports, relax in steam rooms, smoke cigars, and rub sore muscles. It was advertised as the Verly Smith Health and Body Building Institute.
Rockne supported Smith and his new company. The Notre Dame coach “knows his business very well and I believe that any businessman who gives him a little time will find it very, very rewarding. … I have visited Mr. Smith’s facility and can warmly recommend it to anyone with an interest in health, ”Rockne wrote in 1926 in a letter preserved in the university archives.
Smith quit his job at Notre Dame in the fall of 1928. During the Great Depression, he started making and selling a product called Four Horsemen Liniment, an ointment used to relieve pain caused by sprains and sore muscles.
“During that time I was a coach at Notre Dame,” Smith told the South Bend grandstand 1932: “I have perfected the formula. It was another improvement over one I’d discovered and successfully used as a coach at Jack Dempsey’s camp. It was in regular use during the height of the victorious Notre Dame regime under Knute Rockne. “
“Used and endorsed by the four riders of Notre Dame” was a statement on the blue and gold label, which featured a drawing of Notre Dame’s famous foursome. Four vintage Horsemen Liniment bottles still occasionally appear on eBay and other online auction sites.
Verly Smith liked to play sometimes. Family lore has it that he agreed to a bet with a man and offered the licensing rights to the Four Horsemen Liniment as his part of the bet – and lost, says Craig Smith. While Verly Smith no longer had the rights to Four Horsemen Liniment, he continued to manufacture and sell the product but did not use that name.
Verly Smith was also active in black affairs, chairing a committee that planned an annual “emancipation celebration” for local African Americans for several summers in Berrien Springs, Michigan, in the mid-1930s South Bend grandstand reported.
Son Alfred Augustus “Red” Smith, born in 1912, was an outstanding football player. (His reddish hair earned him the nickname.) As a high school player in Indiana, he later played for Wilberforce University and West Virginia State College, and in the 1930s for the Brown Bombers, a professional soccer team based in New York. The Bombers were considered the most important all-black football team of this era, when racial segregation still prevailed in professional sport and in much of society.
Alfred Smith coached the football, basketball and track and field teams of Notre Dame from the late 1940s to the mid 1950s, with Frank Leahy and Terry Brennan’s head coaches during the years. “He learned his training techniques from his father,” says Bruce Smith. Alfred Smith was also the chief soccer coach at South Bend Central Catholic High School and coached professional boxer Archie Moore, the world light heavyweight champion, in the 1950s. Alfred Smith died in 1990.
Bruce Smith says both his father and grandfather were paid in cash by Notre Dame and were not on the university’s regular payroll. It’s not clear why, but the grandchildren theorize that some university officials these days have had concerns about having black employees on the athletics payroll.
“They were very close to Notre Dame,” Bruce Smith says of his father and grandfather. They all enjoyed working with talented student-athletes and they knew the work they did as coaches was important, he says.
The Smith family is linked by marriage to another African American early Notre Dame worker. William H. Alexander Sr. It is believed that Alexander was the university’s first full-time long-time black employee. From 1934 to 1962 he worked in Notre Dame as a dormitory porter and later as a campus postman.
Alfred Smith’s daughter, Gwendolyn Patricia Smith, married John Alexander, one of the sons of William H. Alexander. Gwendolyn Patricia (Smith) Alexander died in 2000.
Verly Smith’s wife, Ethel, died in 1938. In 1940, Verly Smith, a widower, lived in Niles, Michigan, and was still selling the liniment.
“TRAINED THE FOUR RIDERS” read the headline above a photo of Verly Smith in the July 20, 1940 issue of Chicago Defender, a black newspaper. The paper reported on Smith’s connection with Rockne, the Four Horsemen, and Dempsey. “Smith now lives in Niles, Michigan. He is busy marketing his own liniment. “
Later in 1940, Smith moved to Culver, Indiana. In August 1943, he remarried Alma John Floyd. Together they ran a health farm and a poultry business. He also worked as a trainer at the nearby Culver Military Academy.
The eye-catching trainer of the Rockne era suddenly passed away in May 1948.
“Verly E. Smith, who coached Notre Dame soccer teams in the days of Knute Rockne and the Four Horsemen, died of a heart attack on May 3, aged 61, at his home in Culver, Indiana. ” the Notre Dame alumnus reported in its August 1948 edition. “He was once the coach of Jack Dempsey, was a member of the Culver Military Academy after leaving Notre Dame and devoted much of his time to his health farm in Culver in the later years of his life.”
Verly Smith was buried in the Masonic Cemetery in Culver.
Margaret Fosmoe is co-editor of this magazine.