i read the email and felt numb, all over numb.
Then i was confused because i could not figure out how much of the hurt was because i had not done what i had promised myself to do.
Forrest Crockett Carr had sent me the email. It was the obituary of one James Allan Smith prefaced with Crockett’s note, “One of the best ‘town boys.'”
Every one i have known looked up to Jimmy Smith. He, John Sweatt, and Kent Russ took care of me at Heights and beyond. Jimmy and Kent were instrumental in getting me to pledge Kappa Sigma at Vanderbilt where i forged some of the strongest friendships i’ve ever had and many remaining so today.
Jimmy was just flat something special. At Heights, he played on the last golf team (1958, i believe). He exuded cool, which was a difficult thing to do in the school’s military uniform. Jimmy and Leonard Bradley are the only two guys i remember who could pull that off. And Jimmy excelled. In everything. Graduating my freshman year, he was the 1959 class salutatorian.
Then Jimmy and Kent Russ went to Vanderbilt. Three years later i followed. The summer before i matriculated, Jimmy invited me to a Kappa Sigma summer party. It was not pretty. i drank rum and coke for the first (and last) time, drank more, and blew lunch somewhere. It should have given me a clue, but it didn’t. When classes began, there was no question what i would pledge, and to this day, i’m glad Jimmy and Kent influenced my being a Kappa Sigma pledge. My closeness to my brothers remains strong and good.
Both of them watched over me that freshman year and tried to help me as much as possible, but i was on an inevitable course to failure. Even as my grades slid and my acumen for calculus vanished, i still thought i could do everything, including partying hard, sleeping late, skipping classes and still bring my grades up. It didn’t happen, but it wasn’t because of Jimmy and Kent.
At Vandy, everyone knew Jimmy as one of the coolest guys around. His favorite phrase was addressing everyone he liked as “fat man.” It became such a deal, he was known as “Fat Man,” and that was a cool thing. He impressed me in everything he did. He was an immaculate dresser, never overdressed, never underdressed. And just as he did in his Heights uniform, he made everything look cool.
Jimmy hung out often as The Sportsman Club to the west of the Parthenon in Centennial Park across West End from Vanderbilt. The cool guys hung out there. Of course.
In the spring, Jimmy invited me and another freshman (i think it was Cy Fraser) over to his apartment, where we drank scotch. i was not a scotch drinker, but Jimmy drank scotch so i thought it was cool and drank it that night. Then he put on a record. The artist remains one of my all time favorites.
It was Mose Allison singing on all the tracks of “Mose Allison Sings.” i listened with awe. I fancied myself a blues fan, and obviously, Mose has some of that in his songs, but it was different, jazz, cool, just like the Fat Man. i later learned it was also the first album where Mose was allowed to sing on all of the tracks. Jimmy knew. He was that cool.
Jimmy left for Virginia law school after that year, and i never saw him again. Through my Lebanon, Heights, and Vandy contacts, i kept loose track of him, and knew he had become a prominent labor and contract attorney in Atlanta. i also learned through either John Sweatt or Earl Major or both, Jimmy had lost his vision in his later years.
The Fat Man was an inspiration to me. i always wanted to be like him. He was the coolest, but he also was one of the most genuine friends i ever had. After learning he was in Atlanta, i vowed to get his contact information, call, and even planned how i would go spend an afternoon or a dinner with him. i’m sure if i had, i would have more memories of how cool, intelligent, genuine, and funny he was.
But i was thwarted in my initial efforts to contact him, usually being called away from my quest for some immediate crisis. The item on my checklist kept getting pushed down the page.
i am terribly sorry i was not more tenacious. i hurt from his loss because he meant so much to me. i hurt even more because i did not spend more time with him.
i guess what i’m really trying to say is: if you have a friend who is special to you but with whom you haven’t communicated in a long time, don’t put it off. Find them, call them, visit them.
If you do, i don’t think you will hurt as much as i am hurting right now.
Rest in peace, Fat Man.