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At Long Last
At long last
Just six days from 15 years after he passed, 15 days from 86 years since his birth and almost 60 years after he led Burley High to a perfect season where his team not only went undefeated, but never surrendered a point, Robert Smith is a member of the Virginia High School Hall of Fame, a joint operation between the Virginia High School League and the Virginia High School Coaches Association. On Monday evening, the late Smith who died in 1997, got his proper and formal recognition at a banquet held in Charlottesville.
“All I would say is that this is long overdue,” said former player Bernard Nelson. “Because those who knew this man respected this man. You never had a doubt for who he was or what he stood for. You can mention his name whereever you are. Coach Smith, he was the coach that you could always depend on no matter what. He was always going to tell you what you needed to hear. He told you what was right. And he’d never tell you anything that he wouldn’t have done himself. That’s what I respect about him more than anything else.”
In a room filled with former players and Burley alumni, many of whom were dressed in kelly green sport jackets with a school patch, Smith’s reception was a warm welcome for a community that’s waited all too long for this HOF induction.
“This is amazing and I never thought this about (our 1956 run) until it was mentioned tonight, the most anyone can ever do is tie us,” said William Redd, who played for Smith starting in 1955. “Coach Smith was a hard man, but a family man. He was driven. Since he had four girls and not a son, I think he related to us on the team. We lost one game in the three years I played for him. He said something I’ll never forget about it, ‘As a coach I’ve taught you how to win, but never taught you how to lose.’ There was a fight after the game (against Maggie Walker) and it was between the fans. But he said ‘If you’re any kind of player, you’ll be here on Monday morning,” and we won 28 games in a row after that.”
Jimmy Hollins, the chairman of the Burley Varsity Club, a non-profit organization that’s helped to reinvigorate the memory of the former high school now turned middle school, accepted the award on Smith’s behalf. In a written statement on the program and read during the ceremony, Hollins was both sincere and succinct.
“Although he passed away in 1997, he remains an icon in the Albemarle/Charlottesville black community,” Hollins wrote. “His positive influence to student-athletes during these challenging times is immeasurable but his memory and powerful impact will always linger.”
Since Burley is no longer a high school, the process for getting Smith in was no easy task. Hollins approached Albemarle athletic director Deb Tyson last year with the problem his alma mater had and Tyson took it upon herself to submit a nomination on Smith's behalf.
“He came by one day to say hello and talked to me about Coach Smith and I sat, listened and I was overwhelmed,” Tyson said. “What Coach Smith did for the community, in a day before integration where you don’t here much about it and that’s a really sad thing, I could not get the paper work in fast enough and get this rolling. It was so overdue.”
Robert Smith was born in 1916 in Patterson, NJ and came to first to Jefferson High in Charlottesville in 1945 where he coached football, basketball and baseball. There he discovered future NFL Hall of Fame talent Roosevelt Brown, then a member of the of the Jefferson band who he convinced to join the football team. In 1951, Smith become the first athletic director at Burley and was named the coach of all the school’s sports. He lead the Bears to a 28-game winning streak between 1955 and 1958 including the magical 1956 season.
Hollins and the Burley Varsity Club will now move forward to try and get more overdue recognition for former coaches and players both at Burley and Jefferson, and if possible for other schools no longer with high school standings and records that are all but lost. In the last few years the Burley Varsity Club has donated and filled the current middle school with a trophy case and trophies. It’s been able to get a historic landmark designation for the school. It’s also accomplished turning a portion of Rose Hill Drive where the school sits into Jackson P. Burley Drive.
To read more about Burley and its Varsity Club, or to help the organization out, visit their website by clicking here.