The Canton Central School community will begin the year 2021 on a decidedly somber note after losing one of its most prolific figures.
Longtime teacher, coach, and supporter of Section X Gerald J. “Smil” Smilgin died at his home on Sunday. He was 80.
The Canton Central athletic community began to express its sorrow and share memories Monday after news of Smilgin’s death spread through his vast network of friends and colleagues.
Legendary Canton Central Coach Jerry Hourihan reflected on his relationship with Smilgin Monday morning. Hourihan said he and Smilgin were both hired by the late Abby Molnar in the fall of 1966 at Canton Central and spent years together on Canton’s coaching staff.
“Smil was a most successful JV soccer and girls softball coach,” Hourihan said. “In 1968 our Section needed volunteers to sell tickets at our basketball tournament. Jerry, Roger Dusharm & Pat Casey volunteered, and some 50+ years later they were still doing it.”
“Smil had a special knack to always make you feel at ease and make the best of any situation,” Hourihan continued. “He had many friends from all walks of life.”
Wayne Willette, another colleague and friend of Smilgin’s, expressed his deepest sympathies to Smilgin’s wife, Carol, and the rest of his family in his recollection of the late coach. Willette called Smilgin the big brother he never had, and looked back fondly on their 45 years of friendship.
“Jerry asked me to help out with the JV soccer program,” Willette recalled. “Being a true lover of sports, I jumped at the opportunity I never thought I would have. Jerry and I coached soccer and softball together as well as officiated girls basketball on the high school and collegiate level for many years. We had more laughs, good times and stories that grew over the years.”
“Jerry had a unique way of dealing with athletes, which shows in the respect they showed him,” Willette said. “I’ll never forget during a basketball game with Malone playing Tupper Lake, during a free throw all the girls on the floor and the benches stopped and sang Happy Birthday to Jerry. Just one of many tributes Jerry encountered.”
Anita Francis, a former athlete under the tutelage of Smilgin and a current gym teacher and coach at Canton Central, described Smilgin as a central figure in her athletic career, even mentioning him in her Hall of Fame induction speech at St. Lawrence University and referring to him as a role model and friend.
“How do you put into words the sadness you feel when you lose somebody who has been a part of so many memories, so many laughs and jokes, and even held you tight through a few tears and has shared your tears?” Francis said. “No matter what I knew, I could count on him. From the first time I met him, with a cut-off hockey stick in hand, at the sixth grade Olympics with Mr. Willette until now, I always knew no matter what the odds he would be beating on me!”
“From the softball fields, to college soccer fields all over the state, to a few bars sharing a few too many beers, it didn’t matter the event, or the place, or the group of people, I always got the biggest hug, a kiss on the forehead and felt loved,” Francis added.
Another former student who was heavily influenced by Smilgin is Mike Wentworth, who has since devoted more than 30 years to teaching and coaching at Canton Central. Wentworth remembers Smilgin as a man who offered a memorable lesson in the classroom, was the life of every party for all of his friends, was opportunistic as a coach by teaching life lessons and demanding a competitive spirit, and practiced respect and hard work as an official.
“It seemed like he was at every sporting event at Canton and when you walked by him in the hall the next day you couldn’t wait for him to say something to you about the game from the night before,” Wentworth recollected. “He was the first to playfully bust your chops if you screw up and he was the first to praise you if you had a great night. Even into retirement I would still see him at soccer games and taking tickets at Section X events. He knew everyone’s name and how to bring the best out in a person.”
“In 1989, my college baseball team had a great ending to our season and Smil was one of the first guys to contact me and congratulate me,” Wentworth continued. “His message is one that I will always remember and I try to pass on to student athletes that I work with to this day; ‘Enjoy the Experience!’ I didn’t really understand or appreciate his words at the time but it was something that I will never forget.”
Canton Athletic Director Bill Porter called Smilgin one of the most positively impactful people in his life and said he was grateful to have known him. Calling Smilgin a “big softy with a huge heart,” Porter classified the late bench boss alondside other legendary Canton coaches, including Roger Dusharm, Sue Walts, Wayne Willette, Pat Casey, Lyle Newman, Jerry Hourihan, Neal Riggs, and Dave Bradman.
“To say that they broke the mold when they made Smil would be an inaccurate way to describe him. Guys like Jerry aren’t made from a mold….they are made from scratch!” Porter quipped. “There will never be another like him. He was always the first to offer a firm handshake or hug and always wanted to know how you were doing. His coaching and officiating colleagues were dear to him. He was a member of a brotherhood of like minded people who needed to have a connection to high school athletics well beyond their own coaching/officiating days. This is why he so looked forward to tearing tickets at Maxcy Hall as a member of “The Crew” for years. He loved people and people loved him!”
Lyle Newman, another coaching and teaching colleague and friend of Smilgin, shared his thoughts of the late coach Monday.
“I feel very fortunate to have known Smil as a teacher, colleague, but most of all as a friend,” Newman said. “I enjoyed his classes. He brought history to life with not only his knowledge but his gift for storytelling. Smil was a big reason that I wanted to be a teacher. As a colleague he was a wealth of information and support and most of it I took without a grain of salt as it pertained to either the classroom or the athletic field. As a friend, what more could you ask for? Someone who always made you laugh or see the bright side of things with a Smil story or just words of wisdom. He really was a softy always ready to share a beer, his strong back, a story and laugh, and his caring heart.”
Smilgin will be leaving an unmistakable hole in the hearts and minds of his family, friends and colleagues.
“The countless stories shared through the years will undoubtedly get better as his friends continue to tell them,” Porter said. “As a long tenured coach at Canton Central he inspired, motivated, and educated many student-athletes. His record of undefeated JV teams is too many to count…years worth. He helped to establish a successful soccer legacy at Canton Central which continues to thrive today. We will miss him and will never forget him.”
“Jerry had such a positive influence on so many people whether they be students, athletes, officials other faculty members or family. Being an ex-Marine he also cared deeply for our vets doing whatever he could do to support our brave military civilians,” Willette added. “One of Jerry’s main attributes is his loyalty which he displayed 100 percent of the time. If you were one of the lucky ones to go through CCS when Jerry taught consider yourself lucky to have had the honor of associating with him in some capacity. I consider Jerry one of the best friends I have ever had and feel so blessed that he was part of my life.”
“I am sure that anyone that graduated from Hugh C Williams in the 70’s & 80’s has their own memories and stories about Coach Smilgin,” said Wentworth. “All I can say is that he is a true Golden Bears and Section X legend.”
“I truly believe he was one of the biggest influences in my life,” Francis stated. “The memories I have with him as a coach, teacher and friend and the memories my children have of him will never be forgotten… thanks Smil.”
“Smil was a most loyal friend. So many, many memories. The get togethers after our Hall of Fame ceremony will never be the same without Smil holding court,” Hourihan concluded.
To leave a memory for Smilgin’s family, please visit his Obituary page from Garner Funeral Service by clicking here. This story will be updated when more information about Smilgin’s services are made available.
Images below are compliments of longtime friend Bill Merna.