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'He wrote about people'

UPDATED: George Smith, Anniston Star columnist and editor, dies at 84

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George Smith Book

George Smith signs his latest book at the Anniston-Calhoun County Public Library in November. 

George Smith, the longtime Anniston Star sports editor and columnist, died Tuesday night of a heart attack, according to his family. He was 84.

“George was what I’d call a people writer,” said veteran sports reporter Clyde Bolton. “He wrote about people. He believed that people wanted to read about people.”

For 42 years, Smith penned a regular Star column that celebrated the change of the seasons and the coming of summer produce, shared jokes overheard at churches and restaurants, and lifted up local residents for attention and praise from their neighbors.

It was, for Smith, a second journalistic life. He began work as a copy boy at The Star in 1955, rose to the position of sports editor by 1959 and remained in charge of The Star’s sports coverage until 1977, when he began his regular feature column.

The column turned Smith into a local celebrity and one of the most-loved figures in the community. As a sports reporter, he had only the fame — not the love.

“I guess the Auburn people thought George was biased for Alabama, and the Alabama people thought he was biased for Auburn,” Bolton said. “If fan isn’t short for fanatic, it ought to be.”

Smith wasn’t an alumnus of either college. Bolton — who started work in The Star’s circulation department at the same time Smith started in the newsroom — said the two had much in common. They were country boys who went to Jacksonville State but didn’t graduate, then found themselves covering football for newspapers.

“We used to say we didn’t bring much to the table but talent and the ability to work hard,” Bolton said.

Hard work was the secret ingredient of Smith’s column, which appeared at least once a week, and usually more than once a week, from 1977 until last week. Before the Internet, Smith seemed to know what made a story viral — worth cutting out and pasting to the fridge.

Columns often came in small bites, sections of two or three paragraphs. Notable quotes and one liners — picked up off the Internet or overheard from a friend — were sprinkled throughout.

His beat was the universe, as seen from a church pew or back yard or drive-through window in Saks. There was play-by-play of presidential debates (“I still don’t like or trust either of them”) memories of long-lost pleasures (“A hot baloney sandwich at Doc’s Cafe in Ohatchee”) and shout-outs to do-gooders Smith met at random (“I DON’T know Nathan’s last name but he works at Best Buy in Oxford and he’s an asset to that store.”) Every Wednesday, he profiled a “top teen” at a local high school, urging them to “take a bow.”

Trying to pick favorites from the thousands of features columns that George Smith wrote over the past 40 years is like trying to pick your fav…

Smith’s reminiscences weren’t written entirely from memory. Bill Hagler, well known locally as the weatherman at Anniston’s former CBS affiliate, TV40, was one of the many people Smith would touch base with to check his facts — confirming the site of a long-gone building or the name of an old business.

“Both of us were old enough to remember things from years ago,” Hagler said. “That’s always a good conversation-starter.”

Hagler said that conversation-starter was a key to the success of the column.

“He wrote about down-home things that people could relate to,” Hagler said.

Nearly anyone who came into contact with Smith was liable to be immortalized in print. Joe Hays the tomato man.Ken Easterling, bringer of Chilton County peaches.  Thelma Pinkston, teacher of kids’ Sunday school classes. He left local fame the way other people leave tips.

“If he had a good clerk in the store, that would be in his column,” said Rev. Truman Norred, Smith’s pastor for 13 years at Blue Mountain Baptist Church. “When people see their names in the paper, it makes them feel good.”

Norred himself was a regular character in Smith’s columns, ribbing Smith and swapping gentle insults. Norred said Smith pressured him often to keep sermons under 15 minutes, making a point of holding up 10 fingers and then five in church, before the sermon started. Both men were part of a group that ate lunch together every Sunday afternoon. Both had to write a homily, of sorts, multiple times per week — though Smith was at liberty to reminisce about learning to curse, drinking beer underage or skinny-dipping.

“He would say, ‘Pastor, I’m a dirty old sports writer, and you’re a man of the cloth, I’ve got the advantage,’” he said.

The Star in recent years published two collections of those columns, 2016’s “Ties That Bind” and “Roads” in 2018.

A generation of local residents grew up on Smith’s column, with little memory of his earlier career as a competitive and often wily sports reporter. He traveled the South for The Star covering collegiate sports, and Smith was present for the start of NASCAR racing in Talladega.

Russell Bramham, current director of public relations for Talladega Superspeedway, said Smith was the first to break the news of the Professional Driver Association’s boycott of the first Talladega race in 1969.

"Multiple big time drivers, including Richard Petty, decided to pull out of the inaugural race because of how the track affected their tires," Branham said.

When Smith found out about the boycott, Branham said, he was at the racetrack, which had only one telephone.

“He told me when he found out about the walkout, he had to casually go to the phone as if nothing happened,” Branham said. “He said he called The Star and basically dictated the story to them over phone and they were able to get it out in time for Sunday's race.”

Bolton recalls sharing a room with Smith in Baton Rouge for the 1976 basketball playoff game between the Crimson Tide and the Indiana Hoosiers. Alabama lost 74-69.

Bolton and Smith wrote for different papers. Both were stumped, unable to write a “lede,” the first paragraph of the story.

“The hardest thing in the world to write is a great game,” he said. “Give me a football game that’s 35-0, and that’s not problem. It’s simple.”

Bolton said Smith came up with a way to take some of the pressure off. Smith would write the lede of Bolton’s story, and Bolton would write Smith’s.

Bolton’s words appeared in The Star the next day, and Smith’s lede appeared in the Birmingham News.

“He said I got the short end of the stick,” Bolton said.

Smith is survived by his wife Agnes Vice Smith; son Barry Smith; three grandsons and three great-granddaughters. He was preceded in death by a son, Roger Clay Smith, who died in 1983 at age 21 of phlebitis. Roger had been a journalism student at the University of Alabama at the time.

Visitation will be held Friday from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. at Chapel Hill Funeral Home in Saks. Funeral services will be held Saturday at 1 p.m., also at Chapel Hill.

Daily Home staff writer Laci Braswell contributed reporting.

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.