Quotes, Thoughts and Comments About Denny
I have vivid memories of Big Den from four different periods in my life. The first is from when I was 8 or 9 years old and we would have big birthday parties for my brother Dennis, cousin Kelly and Big Den, who all share the same birthday. I recall thinking how cool it was that all of them, especially Big Den, were so excited to be sharing their birthday and party.
The next memory is the Saturday morning telephone calls from Big Den while I was at Villanova. The calls generally came pretty early, so I did more listening than talking. He always had the latest scoop from Kankakee County and wanted to know about things happening with me. I didn’t appreciate those calls then as much as I do now looking back.
Third, I have vivid memories of working at HomeStar with Den. Den really, really enjoyed working in a community bank; he always said “you’ll never work another day in your life if you love what you do.” He particularly enjoyed meeting with clients who were looking for help with their investments. He loved helping young couples start their retirement fund, working with parents to fund their children’s education and ensuring older couples had the right investment mix to ensure they enjoyed their retirement. He just loved talking to them, learning their story and helping them. I also recall that whenever we would go to lunch at some of his favorite local restaurants (Homestead, 1875, the Kankakee Country Club) he would always take the seat facing the door so he could see who was coming and going and be sure he could talk to everyone.
Most recently, once Den was not well, I would visit him, sometime by myself and sometimes with Nikki and the kids. These visits were generally not long but I could tell how much they meant to Den; it was a chance for Den to connect with his family. One visit in particular is especially memorable for me - on Sunday April 15, 2007 all of us went to see Den as a group and told him about the creation and mission of the Dennis J. Smith Legacy Foundation (a picture from this day is on the Foundation web site). Den was stunned and honored, I think. It turns out that this was the last time all of us were together with Den and I consider it a fitting final tribute to him.
There is no doubt about Denny’s love for Notre Dame football and sports in general. You never wanted to bet against Denny in sports trivia, since he was always tuned-in to sports radio shows at night. One particular evening Lou Holtz was the guest on a Chicago sports radio program. Denny called in to ask Lou a question and Lou answered and then Denny concluded by telling Lou “Coach, I wanted you to know that I live on Holtz Drive in Manteno, Illinois." Lou didn't miss a beat and said, "Son, you must live in low-income housing.” Denny couldn't stop laughing when he told this story.
This is my 2nd favorite story about Denny. I can't repeat my favorite.
I only got to sit down once with Denny and speak with him. He was helping Cara and I with some financial advice. We were still young and had no clue about saving accounts let alone retirement funds. Denny was kind enough to take time away from his busy day and discuss with us our options for the future. I had never spoken with or met Denny before that day. He gave very sound advice but never asked for anything in return--to pretty much a stranger. I walked away with a lasting impression and lesson from Denny: give everything, expect nothing!
Denny made me realize that every day is a new day and we should embrace it. He always had a smile on his face and a cheerful voice that made staff members and customers feel welcome. Professionalism, generosity and sincere care about others are some of Denny's traits that I so admired.
I was part of a group of several staff members who worked directly with Denny over the years and also helped Jill. We all became good friends over the years--Jill called us "Denny's Angels". The Christmas before he passed away, Denny and Jill held a Christmas party at their home for us. It was an evening to sit and talk one on one with Denny in his living room and reflect on the past, present and future--there were lots of tears and lots of laughs. I will always cherish the memories from that evening.
I first met Denny Smith when he and I were students at Bishop McNamara Catholic High School. During those times, schools were highly stratified by class. As I was in the class of ’68 and Denny was in the class of ’69, we were acquainted, but not close friends. His Junior season Denny was selected as our starting quarterback. Along with all the hours we spent in practice, as one of our senior captains I spent innumerable hours scheming and planning with Denny, on how we might improve our team. Looking back, many of our brilliant insights turned out to be trivial, non-actionable or in some cases simply wrong headed. But we became fast friends. A quarterback has a curious relationship with his offensive line. In the best situations there is a mutual respect and trust. In truly exceptional situations there is a type of bonding that is difficult to describe but breeds a personal closeness that does not diminish with time. A quarterback and his offensive line really do function as one. Denny’s situation was truly exceptional.
During college Denny and I both went our separate ways, would see each other socially on big holidays but did not keep in close touch. It was not until we both came back to Kankakee that we started seeing one another again on a regular basis. We discovered that we still shared an interest in sport but we also had developed an interest in young people and education. Again Denny and I spent hours in conversation, but unlike our discussions in high school, our thoughts led to more positive actions. We talked a good deal about three concepts; access, effort and excellence. Denny believed that people deserved equality of access to educational opportunities and worked tirelessly to make this a reality. He believed, no matter the endeavor, effort was the key element in success. Denny also believed that one should constantly strive for excellence in all things and that excellence was possible for everyone. As Denny successfully moved through his career he never lost the passion he had for these ideas.
During Denny’s long illness his enthusiasm, balance and good humor never wavered. I think of him often and like to believe that he would be proud of the many friends who carry forward his legacy. As a member of this diverse group, I was particularly honored to be the second recipient of the Caring for the Community award given in Denny’s name. Receiving an award in memory of a good friend readily leads to a certain amount of reflection. This reflection has reenergized me to continue working in areas that Denny so passionately believed. Again, I think Denny would be proud.
Some of my best memories of Denny are hearing the excitement in his voice when he would talk to close friends/family about Notre Dame, the stock market and God, not necessarily in that order. I will never forget how Denny always looked dressed for success. I rarely remember him in anything less than a 2-piece suit. He was a true gentleman, who understood investments, both emotionally and financially. Denny always displayed a level of professionalism, integrity, knowledge and honesty. He was a true mentor to us all. Denny encouraged me to do my best and always made me feel that he had my best interest at heart.
When I look back over the time I knew Denny, the main thing I enjoyed was our conversations. We generally talked about sports and family. His family meant so much to him. He always asked about my wife and my step-kids. He genuinely wanted to know how they are doing.
Denny taught me a lot about Notre Dame and its history. Some fond memories of my time with Denny were going to Notre Dame football games. One of the most memorable games was in 2001 just after September 11. Notre Dame was playing Michigan State and both marching bands went out onto the field together and played together before the game and at halftime. What a moving and emotional time! I was glad I was able to share that with Denny.
Denny let me be myself. My wife often said how different the two of us were. Despite our very different personalities, Denny always let me be myself and seemed to get a lot of enjoyment from it. He never seemed to get bored with my stories about the restaurant world. In fact, I think he really got a kick out of them.
Some of my fondest memories are going to visit him during his last days. I always stopped to pick up a butterscotch shake for him from Dairy Queen. Once I arrived, we would sit and watch old movies together.
I consider my life so positively impacted from knowing Denny. To have known him has enriched my life and my outlook on so many things.
I met my friend Denny for the first time in November 1981 as I interviewed for a job at Manteno State Bank. Watching Denny over the years I admired him for his dedication and his positive attitude. He taught me to count every day as a blessing and always look beyond the clouds.
I have so many fond memories of Uncle Den from when I was young - staying overnight at his house with cousin Squeak, generous tips after mowing "most" of his lawn, long visits at the Bank, and the holidays with he and Uncle Jimmy are but a few that I hold most dear. And of course, once I left Manteno, the weekly telephone check in was always a great way to keep track of the family, learn the latest happenings in Kankakee, catch up on McNamara sports, and get the inside scoop on ND football.
But when I think of my youth and Uncle Den, what most readily comes to mind were the trips to Notre Dame for Irish basketball games. These trips were not simply drives over to South Bend but major cultural events ~ cultural events that always followed a familiar pattern. Uncle Den would pick me up immediately after school with Karl Keller riding shot gun and Hall and Oates in the tape deck. Not sure why Hall and Oates, but to this day if I hear the song "Private Eyes" I think of those trips. (Thank God they eventually invented the walkman.) We would arrive at Notre Dame in time for a campus tour that invariably ended at the bookstore - a new shirt always his treat. Dinner was a quick affair - typically a bite at the Huddle - because we needed to be in the seats with our programs in time to watch warm-ups. Uncle Den would point out the best players and coaches from both teams and make sure I had all the pertinent information. In those days, the games themselves were honestly incredibly exciting for me but still they were hardly the highlight - the highlight was simply the experience of being on a trip with my Uncle Den.
Now that experience did not end with the game's final buzzer. Not when you were with Uncle Den - there were people that you needed to meet. Uncle Den would position us outside the Notre Dame locker room and patiently wait for the Notre Dame players to make their way out. It did not matter how long the players might shower, they could not outlast Uncle Den. It was it this point that you realized the program was only partly bought to convey information but its real purpose was to secure autographs. And if you were a little too tired or a little too shy on that night to ask for an autograph, Uncle Den had it covered. Paxson, Tripucka, Woolridge, Dolan, Kempton, Rivers - none was too tall, too fast or too wily to escape Uncle Den's efforts. While I have regretfully lost those programs over the years, the memories remain etched fresh in my mind.
At this point, the trips usually ended for me as I would crawl in to the backseat and quickly fall fast asleep. But Denny ever cautious usually thought it best to let traffic clear out, which he and Karl normally chose to do at Senior Bar. You will have to ask Karl about that portion of our trips. As for me, to this day, I cannot glimpse an ND hoops game without a little smile and a thought of Uncle Den.
A tear came to my eyes just thinking about Denny and the kindness that he always showed, particularly when I was new to HomeStar. He really didn't know me, nor was I in a position to be particularly important to him (in my eyes, that is, since I didn't report to him, etc). He was in charge of Investments, and I was the new Branch Manager in Bradley. He came into the Bradley office each month for the Board Meeting, and every single time, he came over to my desk to ask how I was doing and if there was anything he could do to help me. I was very touched by the fact that he even spoke to me, let alone the sincerity in his voice and his offer to help.
That simple gesture made a lasting impression on me. I feel so privileged that I had the opportunity to work with him, and just wish it could have gone on longer.
Denny was one of a kind. He absolutely adored his alma mater, Notre Dame, and as I guess with those things that were important to him in life, he was willing to sacrifice greatly to give back to Notre Dame. His loyalty, generosity and goodness knew no bounds. He advocated for his nieces and nephews to be a part of Notre Dame like no other. He was tenacious - zealous but polite - in getting done what he really wanted. Denny was a guy you wanted to have in your fox hole if the going got tough. Yet, in the end, his love of God and others serve as his most defining characteristic.
I think he is still watching over all who he loved and is tenaciously advocating on our behalf. I will never forget the long line of coworkers at the bank who stood outside to watch Denny's funeral procession pass by. The look of anguish on their faces is etched in my memory. We all lost a great friend and advocate in Denny, but he showed us the way to live our lives and, in the end, how to face adversity.