Corey Wright couldn't help but feel ashamed the first time Halifax teacher Wade Smith paid him a visit at the Springhill Institution in Nova Scotia.

Smith, an esteemed educator who died Friday of stomach cancer, had taught Wright at St. Patrick's High School.

Now, here was Wright, serving a 15-year sentence for manslaughter and face to face with his former mentor.

"There was a little bit of shame and humility because, you know, he watched me grow up," recalled Wright, 34.

"He was telling me in the classroom how I have potential and 'Don't let the system get ahold of you because if they can put you back in chains they would.' It wasn't until I seen him that all this came back."

A man who cared

Wright, who has since been released from prison, credits Smith with helping him develop a sense of self-worth when he was at his lowest.

"I'm not saying like he's the all Messiah and everything — he was just a man," said Wright. "But he cared and sometimes that's all it takes is for somebody to care when you're in a dark place."

Smith was highly regarded in his roles as a teacher, coach and principal of Citadel High School. He excelled in basketball and had recently been named head coach of the Canada Games U-17 boys basketball team.

The 50-year-old married father of two sons was remembered in his obituary as a man "with a thirst for continuing education" who lived by a simple rule: "You get up every day and go to work and make a difference in someone's life."

Meaningful visits  

Wright said Smith was a source of support during his time at Springhill.

Smith and a colleague, Citadel High teacher Malik Adams, would visit Wright and other inmates and try to change their views of the world and themselves.

Smith's absence will be felt among those still serving time, said Wright.

"I can't even describe the loss," he said. "It's too big."

Smith never judged

Wright was sent to prison after pleading guilty to the death of American sailor Damon Crooks in 2006. Crooks was fatally stabbed in a brawl outside of a downtown Halifax bar.

"I don't know if I would be the same person if he wouldn't have came into my life." - Corey Wright

According to an agreed statement of facts, it appeared Crooks was trying to break up the dispute when he was stabbed. Wright got caught up in the fight and when his jacket was pulled over his head, he took out a pocketknife and started swinging.

Smith didn't come to the prison to cast judgment, said Wright. 

"He wasn't the type to say, 'Oh see, I told ya! Look at where you're at!'" said Wright.

"He just came up to me and he embraced me and said, 'I'm just here to pick you guys up, man, that's all.' He was great."

'I just can't believe he's gone'

Smith would also teach the inmates about their African heritage.  

Wright said it worked, at least for him. He developed an understanding of his inner self and his culture, he said.

Since his release from prison, Wright has landed a job in Nova Scotia and has managed to turn his life around — which he said is partly thanks to his former teacher.

"I just can't believe he's gone," said Wright. 

"I don't know if I would be the same person if he wouldn't have came into my life."

With files from CBC Radio's Mainstreet