The first one was in the former Barksdale police station, a mounted police station complete with a stable and cells. Kids playing horse replaced the horses. Cells became offices, and the squad room turned into a classroom. A pool table took the place of the sergeant’s desk, kids doing homework replaced cops doing paperwork, and those with nowhere to go and nothing better to do found both and themselves in the first Boys Club.
Others would follow. In abandoned churches and schools. In old YMCAs. In the projects. On troubled corners and challenged streets. Old sanctuaries became new gyms and those gyms became new sanctuaries. New purpose was found, new life discovered for structures and people.
These places aren’t made from just bricks and mortar, from wood and steel. They are made from sterner stuff.
They are made from Bernal Smith.
Lawyers and doctors, social workers and scientists, corporate shooting stars and NBA shooting guards, teachers and preachers, linemen and fashion line designers, successful men and women with the humblest of Memphis childhoods, the least of prospects, the dimmest of hopes have returned over the years from all over the world to share their stories with club kids.
They came because Bernal Smith asked them, and because he was in every one of those stories.
For 43 years, he was the father where there wasn’t one, the positive role model where there wasn’t one, the alternative to the streets, the corners and the alleys when there was no one at home, or the wrong ones at home. I met him when we were both young men. He looked at me, and said, like he had said and would say to thousands, “Come over here and let me show you how we do this.” Then he taught me how to make hobo stew. Over the next four decades he would teach me about selflessness and commitment. He would show me how to see the promise in a kid’s eyes the first time he saw a sky full of stars over a lake, the first time she saw her name on an award. He would do that not by lecturing or drawing attention to him but, just like that hobo stew, by example.
When Bernal Smith was there, it was never about him. And he was always there.
Now there are six Boys & Girls Clubs here, plus a Technical Training Center and Camp Phoenix, serving something like 7,000 young people. In Bernal’s eyes, the measure of the clubs’ success would never be size and scope, but rather the progress of each of those children, their lives the proof of our worth to society.
By that lasting and meaningful measure, he might just be the most successful person I’ve ever had the pleasure to know.
My friend died last week and they tell me they’re going to name one of the clubs after him. That won’t be his honor. That will be ours.
I’m a Memphian, and I knew Bernal Smith.
Dan Conaway is a lifelong Memphian, longtime adman and aspiring local character in a city known for them. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.