By BOB REDD
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
McDowell County was a bustling place during the childhood of Ergie Smith. Born in Switchback and raised in Keystone, Smith learned from an early age the importance of education, athletics, sports and family, and has throughout his adult life worked to assist the youth in being the best they can be in whatever they do in their lives.
Smith said he had a lot of fun in high school with teachers who were great examples, and athletic teams that allowed him to showcase his God-given talents. He recalled how games were between the black schools that played each other in southern West Virginia and Southwest Virginia.
“Every time we played a game, the school that hosted would have a social and the home economics department would take the team, feed them and everything. It was somewhat like a gala,” Smith recalled. “Sometimes it wasn't so gala if you got whipped, but it was a lot of fun.”
Smith recounted that during his days at Kimball High School he had some great teachers who all took interest in his development and not just in the particular classes they taught.
“They really prepared us, not only academically, but in life,” Smith said. “If you didn't do what was right, they'd be all on your case, buddy, and they didn't wait. Speaking correct grammar, it didn't have to be an English teacher that got on me, it would be the math teacher, or the social studies teacher, even the phys ed teacher. That's what it was like.”
Smith gave credence to teachers he had in the 1930s and 40s including the late Henry Winkfield and Bus Thompson, but the one that stuck with him the most was a math teacher by the name of Margaret Booth.
“She was a great math teacher,” Smith recounted. “I really think as far as math, I can do that with anybody and she's the reason why. She gave us those little formulas and she was the most impressionable to me.”
Smith earned All-America honors as a football player at Bluefield State, but he got his start with organized sports at Kimball High School. Prior to going to Kimball he'd played local pick-up games with the older guys and they played whatever was in season and once in high school he was active in athletics.
“I played every sport that came up,” Smith recounted. “When football was in, I played football. When basketball was in, I played basketball. When baseball was in, I played baseball. In the spring I might play baseball and run track.”
He told a story of how players got their positions on the football team.
“If you ran fast, they put you in the backfield. If you were slow, they put you on the line. At my time, when I ran I always beat everybody, so they put me in the backfield,” Smith said. “I didn't know how to harness that speed. When I got ready to make cuts I would slip and fall and Mr. Winkfield, told me, 'When you get ready to cut, you plant your outside foot and if you do that, that pressure will hold you up there until you can make that cut.'
“I kind of perfected that so I could make those cuts at full speed and it helped make me successful. I was not a little boy either, I weighed about 190 pounds in high school, so I had the physical and natural stuff to go, I just needed somebody to help me perfect what I had.”
Smith's parents separated when he was a junior in high school and at that time he felt a responsibility to care for his family.
“When I finished school I thought I had an obligation. I had a sister who was younger than I, she hadn't even finished high school,” Smith remembered. “I needed to help out at home, so I went into the mines and worked two years over in Bishop, Va. My second year working my mom said to me, 'I think I can make ends meet here.' She didn't get to finish the sentence asking me if I still wanted to go to college and I jumped up and flew to Bluefield State.”
Following his graduation from Bluefield State, Smith returned to Bishop where he again worked in the mines. He recalled a conversation he had with a family member after talking with officials at Gary District High School about a potential job and his decision to remain in the mines where the money was greater.
“My aunt said to me, 'Did you go to school to be a miner? That doesn't make sense,” Smith said his aunt told him. “If I were going to be a miner, I could have just kept those four years and not wasted my time up there.”
It was 1953 and Smith took the job at Gary District, the all-black school, one of four at the time, in McDowell County. He worked with long-time, legendary coach James A. Wilkerson.
“Coach Wilkerson was a gem,” Smith said. “I don't know if you would have heard of me as a coach if it hadn't been for Coach Wilkerson. He gave me the opportunity to coach. He let me actually get out there and coach and after he saw I could handle it, he kept adding, giving me a little more responsibility and authority, and allowed me to do those things. I will always be thankful to him for making my career as a coach what it is, what it was.”
In those days coaches at the black school coached every sport at every level, so Smith and Wilkerson were in charge of Bulldog teams at the junior high and high school levels. The coaching duo had some good football teams at GDHS, but it was their basketball squads that made news.
In 1962 the Bulldogs became the first all-black school to play in the West Virginia state basketball tournament, making it to the Class AA final game before falling to Lenore. Smith was not an assistant, but co-coach with Wilkerson, a title he and Wilkerson would share until the end of the 1965 school year when the GDHS doors closed.
“I handled all the coaching as such and Coach loved to do the paperwork, so we worked things out so Coach took care of all the eligibility, grades and those kind of things,” Smith said. “I just did the stuff on the floor and on the field. It was perfect. I loved doing it like that and he loved it.”
Gary District made another run to the state tournament and again made history in 1965, becoming the first all-black school to win a state championship in competition with white schools in West Virginia. GDHS beat Fairview to win the Class A basketball title in Morgantown. That would be Smith's final coaching effort for some time.
McDowell County schools integrated at the beginning of the 1965-66 school year and Smith was not offered a position at Gary High School. He left education and worked for seven years at the Council of Southern Mountains.
His return to the court in the 1972-73 season, as head coach of the Gary Coaldiggers, again brought headlines as he led the Coaldiggers to the West Virginia Class AA state basketball championship. Smith coached at Gary High until it closed in 1978. He was then named head basketball coach at Mount View High School when that school opened, a consolidation of Gary and Welch High Schools, and remained there until he retired in the late '80s.
Smith instilled the values of teamwork, family and education into his players at Gary District, Gary High, and Mount View, for nearly 40 years, and looking at his former players, he is proud of their accomplishments.
“I've seen many of my former players have success in their lives, in their jobs, going to school, with their families and how they relate to each other, even how they dress,” Smith said. “They tell me now that they used to watch me, how I would dress, and so as they got a little older they said, 'We're going to dress like Coach Smith.'”
“We made sure that we did things that made them have pride, because I figured as you got pride in one area of your life, you will exemplify it in other areas. We tried to make sure that they looked good as a team. We made sure our uniforms were good.
“We demanded that you give all you've got, that you never let anybody whip you. They might beat you, but it wasn't because you gave up, it was because they were just better than you. I see those kind of things exhibited all the time in their lives.”
While he was coaching basketball at GHS in the early '70s, Smith was also umpiring baseball.
“My son, Keith, was playing Little League baseball in Welch,” Smith said. “I looked out there and people who were calling the games didn't know anything about the game. I got together with about five, or six guys and I said, 'Listen, why don't we get out here, get us some uniforms, learn the rules and be here every day and call the games and make it better for our kids?' They were interested and said okay, and so we did.”
That start was the beginning of another career for Smith. He became a stellar baseball umpire, working high school, American Legion, college and professional baseball games. His shining moments in umpiring came working the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa., and the Big League World Series in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.
“We had a pretty good little crew going there,” Smith said. “Somebody saw us calling and the next thing I knew I was at the state tournament, then finally I went to a regional tournament in Florida and they liked me there, so they recommended me to go to the World Series in Williamsport.
“It was a lot of fun. When you go to these World Series and you see these kids from Japan, Taiwan, Europe, Mexico and meet their fans, it's an amazing experience that you would never go through unless you were involved in something like this. It was really educational for me, as well as enjoyment.”
Smith was also a football official and called games as recently as two seasons ago at the high school level.
“I got into that and I really enjoyed it, football,” Smith said. “It was a lot of fun. It was more fun because you've got a five-man crew; they eventually went to a six-man crew. You traveled together, you ate together after the games. In baseball, a lot of time I was doing it by myself. It was really more fun calling football than it was calling baseball.”
Smith continues his involvement in baseball, serving as one of the directors of the Coppinger Invitational Tournament held each spring at Bluefield's Bowen Field. Among his duties at the event are coordinating the umpires.
Following his retirement from the school system, Smith ran for and served on the McDowell County Board of Education.
“Being a teacher, a coach, I knew there were a lot of things that the board could do to help make things better for students, so I decided I wanted to try to do that. I ran, but had some problems there.”
The election would make its way to the West Virginia Supreme Court, and the ruling was in Smith's favor after a sitting board member moved to the district in which Smith lived prior to the election and argued that he, not Smith should represent the district.
“I think about the stuff that they've done down in that county and that continues to be done. Hopefully my fighting and battling, and in most cases winning, will be helpful to people coming behind me,” Smith said. “They've done some wicked stuff down there.”
A proud alumnus of Bluefield State, Smith is a regular at men and women's basketball games at Ned Shott Gymnasium. Former BSC women's coach Gary Brown played for Smith at Gary High and was Smith's assistant for more than a decade at Mount View.
Smith hopes for better days on the court for the Big Blues and thinks the programs will continue to improve but it's going to take a concerted effort.
“Alumni needs to work and help, but then the administration has got to step up, to the plate, big time,” Smith commented.
The coach's most recent honor was bestowed upon him in January when he was presented the 'Living the Dream Award' by the West Virginia Martin Luther King Jr., Commission.
“That was a real surprise to me,” Smith said. “I am real appreciative of the award. I went to Washington this summer and I got to see the Martin Luther King Memorial. Great. It was a great experience.”
Smith and his late wife Helen are the parents of two children, Keith and Alexis Michelle, better known as “Shelly.” Keith a former head football coach at Roanoke's William Fleming High School, now lives in Charlotte, and Shelly lives in Northern California.
Asked how he would like to be remembered, Smith paused for a moment then responded.
“One is that I stood up for whatever I thought was right. Secondly, that you can always count on my word. If I tell you something, I'm definitely going to do it. If I am not going to do it, I'm going to try my best to let you know why I can't do it,” Smith said.
“I see young people as our future and I want them to remember me, that I made an impact on the youth and that the youth will do great things in the future. If they can remember those three things about me, I'd be happy.”