Canzano: Wait for college football season brings us together
Walt and Beth Smith have a story to share.
I received a letter in the mail a couple of weeks ago from a reader who prints out my column every morning and shares it around her senior-living center.
Beth Smith is 91.
Her husband, Walt, is 94.
They live in a small apartment in The Dalles, eat cereal for breakfast and drive a silver Honda Accord. I reached Beth and Walt on the phone last week, thanked her for reading, and came away from the conversation thinking they could teach the rest of us a thing or two.
“We’re such dull people,” Beth said, “I don’t know why anyone would care.”
Interesting people often say things such as that.
Beth spent the first 13 years of her life in Honolulu. She remembers the Dec. 7, 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor that precipitated our country’s entry to World War II.
She stood in the front yard of her parents house, staring at puffs of black smoke in the sky and listening to the sound of explosions, wondering if the world was ending.
At one point, a plane in the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service appeared low in the sky. It buzzed right over the top of Beth’s head and had a rising sun painted on the wing. The aircraft was so close to the ground as it passed that Beth looked up and saw the pilot looking back at her.
“He looked down at me and grinned,” she said.
Her family moved to the mainland not long after. She ended up at the University of Oregon, where she studied Liberal Arts, joined a sorority, and attended Ducks’ football games. She remembers the legendary Norm Van Brocklin playing quarterback.
One afternoon, a sorority sister asked if Beth might tag along on a double date with a guy she’d met. Turns out, Walt was the “blind” date. It was his car, so he and Beth took the front two seats. Their friends got the back. The two couples drove to a dance hall that was located outside of Eugene by a reservoir.
“None of us was 21,” Beth remembers. “We just sat and listened to the music. We didn’t drink any beer, except in the car. That was the time the Tennessee Waltz was popular so we danced to it.”
Walt and Beth fell in love, graduated college, and got married a couple of years later in a tiny Methodist church in Georgia. Walt had an English degree and was in the ROTC program. He was stationed in a few different locations over the years.
“That all seems so long ago,” he said.
You may wonder why I’m writing today about the Smith family. Partly because I’m fascinated by people. Also, because I think we need to hear good, positive, uplifting stories. Also, because Beth and Walt told me they can’t wait for the start of the Oregon football season.
Bo Nix is back at quarterback for the Ducks. Coach Dan Lanning has mined the transfer portal to fortify his defense. UO hired a new offensive coordinator, Will Stein, and there’s high expectations for the season.
“We always went to the Oregon games,” Beth said. “It’s just what we did.”
After his military service, Walt became an English teacher at The Dalles High School where he taught for 36 years. Together, they raised four children.
Said Beth: “Those were good years.”
They’ve been married 72 years. When I heard that, I asked Beth what advice she’d give to other couples. She didn’t hesitate.
“That’s easy — laugh a lot.”
There’s a pile of life coaches out there who make a living telling people to focus on gratitude. To not waste time with negative thinking. To quit worrying or centering your thoughts on things you don’t have or can’t control. In an hour of conversation with Beth and Walt last week, what I heard was gratitude.
“We watch Jeopardy on television every night and I go to Bible class once a week,” Beth said. “And you know what, when I go to Fred Meyer I always say a little prayer before I leave. I say ‘It sure would be nice to find a good parking spot up front.’ And you know what? Every time, I get a good parking spot.
For 25 years, Walt’s morning routine included a daily three-mile walk. He used to love to read, too. Ernest Hemingway was his favorite. A few years ago, Walt started using a walker to get around. And his vision has deteriorated to the point where he can’t read well anymore.
“I still move OK with the walker. I’m grateful for that,” he said. “And my wife reads your sports column to me.”
I like Walt and Beth’s story. After talking with them, I tucked my notes away and told them I’d write their story one day. Today is that day. And it turns out they left out some of the best parts.
I reached one of their four children, a daughter named Kathy. She lives in Portland and works as the practice manager for a medical clinic. She told me tradition was always big in the Smith household.
“My dad would kiss my mom ‘goodbye’ every day before leaving for work,” Kathy said.
Presents were opened on Christmas morning, not Christmas eve. The family consumed lots of fruit in the summer. Dad worked part-time at a fruit stand. And once a month, on the school district’s payday, the Smith family would celebrate with a meal out.
“They say we never had much money,” Kathy said, “but we never noticed. We always had school clothes and food on the table. Once a month when my dad got paid, we got to go to Arctic Circle for hamburgers and milkshakes. We all were so excited.”
The start of the college football regular season is still a few months away. But Beth and Walt told me they’re looking forward to the Oregon spring football game (April 29). They’ll watch it on television and then count the days to the season opener against Portland State on Sept. 2.
“My favorite is football,” Beth said. “I look forward to college football season. I go and scream at the TV and lose my voice, but it’s always worth it.”
It’s going to be a hell of a college football season.
The Pac-12 has a line of gifted quarterbacks. The talent might be the best in conference history. I expect five teams will be ranked in the Top 25 in Week 1, including Oregon and Oregon State.
USC has the returning Heisman Trophy winner. Washington’s Michael Penix Jr. is going to be a star in the NFL someday. And Utah has quarterback Cam Rising back and is aiming for a third-straight Pac-12 title.
“I scream and shout so much during games that I sometimes have to go to the other room and watch on the other TV,” Beth said. “Walt can hear me going crazy in there.”
One of the beautiful things about sports is its ability to bring people together. Players play for each other. Coaches always say stuff like that. Whether they know it or not, they also play for people like Beth and Walt.
Thanks to all who read, comment, subscribe and share this independent endeavor with friends and families. If you’re not already a “paid” subscriber with access to all my content, please consider a subscription or a gift subscription for someone else:
Beautiful. Just beautiful. Stories like this are more than worth the subscription. Thank you.
This is the way John. I feel like you are at your best when you use sports as a Trojan horse of sorts (see what I did there) to tell meaningful human stories. This is one of your better ones. Legacy stuff, truly. Well done, Sir.