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From Left Field

January 31, 2013

By BOB SHRALUKA
    Vi Smith was so far ahead of her time it was like Alexander Graham Bell using a smart phone; like Genghis Kahn using drones for his conquests.
    Vi played basketball and ran track with the guys ... and was one of, if not THE, best of the bunch. She bowled against the guys ... and often won. She did it long before girls were allowed to sweat and on into the time when they could sweat on an athletic field so long as the guys got to win.
    And here's one for you: She was once a friend of many of the veteran players on the Fort Wayne Pistons basketball team. That's FORT WAYNE Pistons of the N-B-A.
    This amazing woman died a couple of weeks back at the age of 94, a little more than six years after her husband, Dave, had passed on. They had some 65 years together, as friendly and warm a couple as one could find on the planet.
    From an early age Vi was involved in sports and became one of the best athletes to come out of Kirkland High School, graduating in 1937.
    "I don't think she ever played basketball in high school with the boys (team)," son Ron, a retired Bellmont teacher, said this week. "But she did in track. And in the seventh and eighth grades, she was the starting center for the boys basketball teams."
    Athletic ability ran in the family.
    "Two of her (younger) brothers were county scoring champs (in basketball), Ron remembered. "Uncle Dwight (Arnold) was the first; he scored around 10 a game in the days when everyone took set shots. Then Uncle Carl was the county scoring champ in 1941. He averaged about 20 a game. That was when the game was changing; he had a sweet jump shot."
    As she continued to play basketball with women's teams, Vi became acquainted with the Pistons. The pros played at the North Side High gym — no kidding! — until the Memorial Coliseum was opened in the fall of 1952.
    "My mother used to play in preliminary games before the Pistons games at the Coliseum," Ron said. "They had industrial league teams play. One of my best memories of those days was a photo of her dressing in the locker room at the Coliseum and she was pregnant with me; my older brother Dave is there holding a basketall."
    A  few years after graduating from Kirkland, Vi got into bowling. Like other sports in which she competed, she became one of the best around here — men and women.
    "She was a fantastic bowler," Ron said. "I remember one time we went to Berne to bowl on a Sunday. I had a great day; we bowled six games and my low score was around 180; everyhing else was over 200. And she beat me every time!" he laughed.
    Vi was the first women elected to the local Bowling Hall of Fame. The late Bill Tutewiler was the first man.
    "The two of them and a pro — I  think it was Billy Welu — had an exhibition one time when Mies' (bowling alley) was downtown, where MR Planners is today,," Ron said. "She had the lowest score, but it was around a 260 average; that was some fantastic bowling."
    This was in the halcyon days of bowling and on another occasion Vi went up against the best the area had to offer. "They called it the Polio Sweepstakes, or something like that," Ron recalled. "She had not only the best spot (with handicap), but the best actual. Unheard of!"
    Vi also was a standout softball player, so the emerging questions are these: Did she have any thoughts of playing in the All American Girls Professional Baseball League, the one made famous by the movie "The League of Their Own"? Did the Fort Wayne Daisies ever call? 
    "You know, I always wondered about that," Ron answered. "She sure was good enough. But she never talked about it. I think it may have been because she and my dad got married just before he shipped out (WW II)" and so she never gave it a shot.
    Women playing baseball — yes, they played baseball, not softball — was right up Vi's alley (pun intended). But Vi Smith didn't have to play baseball; she still left an enormous legacy. One that will always carry the label "pioneer."
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