Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Shelbert Smith and T-ball honored

It’s probably just as well that the James A. McKee Association’s Founders Award for Distinguished Community Service was awarded posthumously to L. Shelbert Smith at the group’s annual ceremony on January 14th.

“He would have been a little embarrassed to receive the award,” admitted his son, Lynn, who accepted it on his father’s behalf. “It’s one of those things where he wasn’t about the award. He wasn’t doing things to be seen, he was doing things from the heart.”

“In fact, he didn’t want a funeral service when he passed because he didn’t want a lot of speeches made,” said Frances Smith of her husband who died on September 29, 2008.

Each year the James A. McKee Association (formerly known as the Men’s Group) puts out a call for nominations from the community to recognize a group or individual for extraordinary service to the community.

In her nomination letter, Rachel McKinley cited all the many ways in which Shelbert was invested in the town. “He was on the board of the [Community] Children’s Center. I’d be picking up my kids and I’d see Shelbert there filling in for a teacher, playing with the toddlers. He was on the school board levy committee and he’d always call to ask if he could put a sign in my yard to vote for the levy.”

In addition to his 32 years as a chemistry professor at Central State University, Shelbert was also a board member of Friends Care Center and Greene Inc., board member and president of the YS Senior Center, and charter member of the James A. McKee Association.

“We don’t usually give an award to anyone within our own organization,” said JAM member Ron Schmidt, explaining that the posthumous award seemed appropriate in light of the nominee’s lifetime of service to the community, “especially to the school system.”

“He tutored at the high school from the time he retired which was in 1991,” said Frances. “Every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday he was at the high school. In fact, he was scheduled to be at the high school to help a student at 11:30 on the morning that he suffered a stroke. He didn’t recover from that stroke.”

Polo Chaikwang remembers the kindness and playfulness of the man who tutored him in math for several months last year when he was a junior at Yellow Springs High School.

“He really understood kids and he understood the learning process,” said Chaikwang, now a senior, who wrote a letter to the YS News shortly after Shelbert’s death, expressing appreciation for his teacher and friend. Chaikwang described his tutor as calm, collected, and confident about what he was teaching.

“He could naturally produce this kind of comfortable learning environment. There were always a couple of different tutors in the room and he would make jokes with them and crack me up. Everyone got along with him.”

The second Distinguished Community Service Award went to the Perry League, Yellow Springs’ T-ball program for kids, ages 2 to 9, which has been in existence for 38 years.

When he inherited the coordinator role 24 years ago, Jimmy Chesire explained in a recent interview, the basic philosophy was already there.

“It’s not competitive,” he emphasized, “it’s for girls and boys, and it’s open to all races, colors, and creeds.”

For those who have not yet witnessed its unadulterated charm, the Perry League is very different from traditional T-ball programs that are run more like a miniature Little League.

“[In traditional T-ball], the children will wear real uniforms, they’ll keep score, the kids will get three outs and switch sides,” explained Chesire. “My experience is that if you do that kind of structured stuff, a lot of children will have their feelings hurt on a regular basis. I think that’s just ridiculous and a waste of time. So we don’t do any of that.”

Whether Chesire is dispensing Scooby-Doo band-aids to microscopic injuries, sitting in a muddy outfield in mid-play making mud pies and mud angels with other mud-loving moppets, instructing volunteers to learn — and liberally use — each child’s name, or poetically summarizing the evening’s sweetness for the YS News, it’s clear to everyone in the ballpark that the “T” in T-ball stands for Tenderness.

“My approach is to be as loving, as tender, and as silly as possible,” he said.

The league provides a community-building forum that celebrates the children and their families, said veteran volunteer of 15 years, Chris Murphy. “And frankly, if it was all about baseball, I wouldn’t be doing it.”

“There’s a thousand strikes in T-ball,” said Chesire explaining the “no runs, no hits, no outs” diamond doctrine. “I tell the children, ‘You get to swing until you hit it. We can spend all night with you at the plate. Take your time.’ I practice an extreme form of patience and I try to make sure that nobody gets their feelings hurt.”

The nominating letter for the award came from Perry League supporter, Ed Davis. According to Murphy, the letter described how participants look forward to Friday when no one will be yelling at them or telling them they did something wrong (“like what they’re going to experience later!” he added, referring to the competitive and often cut-throat environment of other sports programs). The organizers will often hear from an adult who did not have a positive experience with sports and was turned off at an early age because of it.

“A lot of people would get into sports if there was this kind of acceptance,” said Chesire.

In addition to Tenderness, the “T” in T-ball also stands for Tao.

“There’s an idea in Taoism that there’s a force at work in nature and if we trust that force and get out of the way, it takes care of business,” he said. At the beginning of each season, Chesire will ask for a dozen adults from the stands to help him out. “Six to 10 of those people will come every week, make sure tenderness and lovingness is going on, and make sure kids are allowed to play in the dirt.”

Shelbert Smith’s daughter, Tami, has been one of those people.

“She has great love in her heart and great enthusiasm for the kids,” he said. “She gets out in the dirt and is rooting and cheering and clapping. She’s the perfect T-ball mom.”

This summer will be Chesire’s 25th year and he plans to make it his last. Putting his faith in T-ball Taoism, he is confident that an appropriate replacement will step up to the plate.

“Chances are it will be as loving and sweet as it has been with me and if we’re lucky, even more so.”

Founders Award recipients each receive an engraved plaque, which is on display in the lobby of the John Bryan Community Center.

Originally published in the Yellow Springs News.

Susan Gartner is a freelance writer and photographer for the News.