The impact of one: Bernal E. Smith Sr.

Bernal E. Smith Sr. and Bernal Smith II
“Do the right things, the right way, everyday!” was an unspoken but well exercised and demonstrated mantra of my father, Bernal E Smith Sr. “Do the right things, the right way, everyday!” was an unspoken but well exercised and demonstrated mantra of my father, Bernal E Smith Sr. Even during his battle with colon cancer for nearly the past two years, he maintained that focus and stayed intent on passing it on to others, continuing to work for a better life for his family, his church and the community.

Bernal E. Smith Sr. with his son, Bernal E. Smith II, President/ Publisher of the Tri-State Defender.

Refusing to give up on life and its possibilities, he had just recently announced his plans for retirement after a 43-year-career as a leader with Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Memphis. He never lost sight of the opportunities of life and his responsibility to use his gifts and talents to make the lives of others better.

 My father lost his battle with colon cancer on Friday morning, January 21. Since then, I’ve been reflecting on what he meant to me and to so many others. There has been an overwhelming outpouring of love and support from people throughout the Greater Memphis community and around the country. Countless people whose lives he touched in some meaningful way have expressed gratitude for having known him, worked with him or having been mentored by him.

Dan Conaway, owner of, captured the essence of his impact when he said, “No one ... no one ... has meant more to more kids in the Boys and Girls Clubs than Bernal. They were always his singular focus, the measure of our success was their progress, their lives the proof of our worth to society. By that measure and by any other I know Bernal Smith might just be the most successful person I’ve ever had the pleasure to know.”

Over the weekend, Dr. Reginald Porter of Metropolitan Baptist Church shared this very poignant thought with me: “As a college student in the late sixties, early seventies, I went to work with your dad and spent a lot of time with him over the years since that point, and in all that time EVERYTHING he did or said while in my presence I could share with you right now. Not one thing that he did or said would I be embarrassed or ashamed to share with you right now.” That spoke to the heart of the man I knew, transparent, full of integrity; what you saw is what you got. He was a true model of consistency, honesty and realness. He always kept it real before “keeping it real” was the cool thing to do.   

Taken in summary, the overwhelming theme of the myriad expressions shared about my father is that he was a mentor and a role model and, more simply put, that he cared. As I reflect on our community and the condition of things – educational disparities, economic challenges, poverty, youth crime and violence and certainly the issue of teenage pregnancy – it seems that the common missing factor is the absence of people (men in particular) that truly care, that are committed, that keep it real and have the consistent integrity to say, “I am a role model and you can count on what I do and say.”

Bernal E. Smith Sr. never had to cheer about his work. He quietly went about the tasks of shaping young lives and developing leaders who understood both how to make good decisions and the importance of doing so. Working in communities such as Dixie Homes, LeMoyne Gardens and Klondike, he understood the challenges faced by young people. He resonated with them because he could relate. He had high expectations for them, provided stern discipline and most assuredly loved them, always moving with their best interests at heart.

Today in Memphis City Schools, 74 percent of the children live in single-family households headed by women. According to the 2010 Shelby County Head Start Community Assessment, well over half (61 percent) of the births to Shelby County residents (or 9,223 births) occurred outside of wedlock in 2008. This represents an increase of approximately 800 out-of-wedlock births per year between 2004 and 2008 (7,600 vs. 9,223 out-of-wedlock births). Even more disturbing was that 82 percent of black births were out-of-wedlock births compared to 33 percent of the white births in 2008, with both numbers above national averages.

Obviously we are at a crisis stage, a point that cries out for men to be men amongst men. Fathers and father figures are missing in our homes and throughout our communities, especially in the African-American community, and now more than ever we need real men such as my father was to stand tall and lead. We need more men that accept the responsibility for the decisions they make and for making sure that younger generations understand the importance of “putting forth their best and not settling for less,” that “each decision you make determines your fate,” that “you have to be a man and stand on your own two feet,” and “if you play now you’ll suffer later,” that “a hard head makes a soft behind,” and “that some of the same things that make you laugh will make you cry.”  These tidbits of wisdom and so many more offered by my father, along with his consistent actions, helped shape me and so many other young people into productive adults.

With his passing, we lost a part of the solution to the challenges we face. It is true that only a man can teach a boy how to become man. My father was a man, a father to so many, transitioning so many boys into men through Goodwill, Dixie Homes and Vollentine/Buckman Boys Clubs or wherever he happened to spend some time. His life stands as an example not only of the possibilities but of the blue print of what can happen when ONE decides to make a difference, an example of what happens when ONE gives selflessly that others have a better life, when ONE understands what young people see is what they’ll ultimately be.

 It is my hope that the void created by my father’s passing becomes coupled with an understanding of the needs of the community to stir in other MEN, as it has in me, a renewed passion – or a newborn interest for some – to follow the example that he set. With renewed passion, it is my challenge to MEN, particularly African-American MEN, to take up the mantle of mentoring, of loving, caring and leading so that young people in our community might have a brighter future because of you. Exercise the power of ONE that you have today, for tomorrow is certainly not promised.

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