REGGIE HAYES: Former Bluffton sports journalist Joe Smekens leaves legacy of joy in sports and life
Joe Smekens indirectly taught me two things about sports writing, although the second one wasn’t as much about sports writing as it was about life.
Smekens, who died Saturday at age 74, was the first sportswriter I ever read, and the first I ever met in person.
Smekens spent 45 years at the Bluffton News-Banner, covering many great athletes and great teams in Wells County history. He also covered the teams I played on.
I think Joe would have enjoyed that last line, as the Southern Wells teams I was part of in the late 1970s weren’t exactly legendary. Still, when I’d run into Joe in the years that followed – especially after I ended up in his profession – he’d often mention my Southern Wells days and the pretty solid football team we had in 1979. We’d talk about players of that era, both of us enjoying the reminiscing.
Later, when my son played football and baseball at Norwell, years after Joe’s 2008 retirement, any chance meeting with Joe inevitably resulted in him asking about my son’s teams and games.
That leads me to both things I learned from Joe: 1. Never underestimate the connecting value of high school sports. 2. Be interested and positive with people long after the story ends.
Smekens wrote a book, “Window of Wells County,” a 2013 compilation of his favorite stories, most of them sports-related, that served as a reminder of the big moments and people he covered during his career.
Smekens, born in Bluffton, wrote how he first entered the newspaper business with the family paper route in the 1950s. He joined The News-Banner full-time in 1963.
There are a lot of high school sports in Smekens’ books, from Liberty Center’s 1965 record nine-overtime tournament game (which I had a chance to revisit with retired coach Richard Butt) to Norwell’s 1977 Miss Basketball Teri Rosinski to the 2001 Southern Wells Class A state football champs to Bluffton’s 2002 boys basketball “Bomb Squad.”
Most of the stores in the book are celebratory. They highlight some record, great game or tremendous career. There are opinion pieces, too, and Smekens wasn’t afraid to call out something he thought was wrong. But most of his writing on sports, particularly high school sports, shines a light on the upbeat side.
Smekens praised high school sports, but he also told it like it was. He explained what happened, and then illustrated the why, often through his interviews with the participants.
He understood how big a role high school sports play in people’s lives. Yes, there are many more important milestones and events after high school, but there’s something about that common experience that ties people together. If I brought up a current Bluffton, Norwell or Southern Wells player to Joe, he’d connect the dots to that player’s parents, aunts and uncles.
After his retirement from journalism, Smekens went to work with the Thoma/Rich, Lemler Funeral Home in Bluffton. It was a good fit for Smekens with his natural interest in others, his disarming demeanor and his connections with so many in the community.
Joe always greeted me with a smile, a handshake and an immediate interest in what was new in my life. Sometimes that conversation turned back to the past, and we’d share a few laughs.
Here’s to Joe. He knew how to tell a story. But he also lived that old adage: People will forget what you say, but they’ll never forget how you made them feel.
Whenever I ran into a Joe, I always felt like a winner. I’m sure I’m not alone.
This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Reggie Hayes at firstname.lastname@example.org.