British Columbia

Michael Smith died of COVID-19. This is why his family wants you to know his story

Michael Smith wasn’t famous but he was spotted so frequently by former students on the North Shore who would call out, ‘Mr. Smith!’ that he might as well have been. 

Michael Smith, 90, was well known on the North Shore as a teacher, coach, athlete and family man

Michael Smith, centre, coaching West Vancouver's Hillside Secondary School Senior Men's Rugby Team during the 1970-71 season. (Submitted by family)

Michael Smith wasn't movie-star famous, but his career as a teacher and coach made him so recognizable on the North Shore that former students spotted him frequently and called out, 'Mr. Smith!'  

His widow, Nancy Smith, says he was even recognized once on the Tube in London, England.

"It was a couple of girls from the women's rugby team," she said, laughing. "We'd never been in England before."

Smith, 90, found joy in everything and everyone from rugby to theatre and teammates to choirmates.

He died April 2 after contracting COVID-19 at Lions Gate Hospital in North Vancouver. 

Megan Frederick walks down the aisle arm-in-arm with her father, Michael Smith, on her wedding day. (Submitted by family)

'The General'

Smith was born in Vancouver and attended Kitsilano Secondary School, excelling academically, in musical theatre and sports.

He went on to the University of British Columbia where he competed in rugby, football and swimming and spent his summers working overseas on a whaling ship.

His daughter, Megan Frederick, says her questions about the stormy seas off Japan's coast were usually steered toward Smith's softball team at the whaling station.

"Nobody could beat them," Frederick said. "I never really did hear much about whaling."

In 1956, Smith married Marlene Wright, had three children and became a teacher, coach and vice-principal in West Vancouver, living up to his strict-but-fair reputation in the classroom and living room.

"He ran the house like a coach and they called him the General," Frederick said.

"He'd sign his cards to my mom, 'Love, the General.'"

Mike and Marlene, who passed away in 1991, made their home a gathering place for friends before and after sports tournaments and concerts.

Michael Smith's first love was rugby, but also enjoyed long-distance running and completed three marathons, including the Greater Victoria Marathon. (Submitted by Family)

Family man

Mike ran marathons, took rugby teams to tournaments all over the world, sang in a choir and put on school plays and musicals.

He took his dog Sadie on runs over the Lions Gate Bridge to Stanley Park, where he'd stop to watch a rugby match and then run home.

Frederick says he'd often carry Sadie home for much of the return trip.

"Sadie weighed about 12 pounds, but dad would come home after carrying her, talking about how she weighed a hundred pounds," Frederick said.

"I was like 'Dad, you can always hop on a bus.' "

Megan and Nancy say Mike took Sadie everywhere long before pets were allowed in places like banks and liquor stores. He even smuggled Sadie into a play once, where she growled occasionally, confusing actors and ushers who couldn't see her in the dark. 

Nancy's face lights up when she mentions the 25 years she was married to Michael, whom she met when he coached her son's basketball team and fell in love with years later when a neighbour reintroduced them. 

"He was a lovely husband," she said.

A family photo of Mike Smith. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Dark days

Smith continued long-distance running well into his 80s, but in his later years was diagnosed with Lewy body dementia, which can affect a person's thinking, movement, behaviour and mood.

He suffered a fall and wound up in Lions Gate Hospital where he contracted COVID-19.

"I know it sounds funny to say about a 90-year-old man, but you're shocked that he died," Nancy said.

"Mike was so full of life all the time, so enthusiastic to the end."

Nancy Smith, who lost her husband to COVID-19 in April, is pictured with her step-daughter, Megan Frederick, as they remember their loved one outside his home in West Vancouver. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Happy memories

Instead of talking about what Nancy calls 'the dark days' leading up to Smith's death, she prefers to discuss Sadie the dog, Smith's love of rugby shirts and shorts (even on fancy occasions) and the elaborate sand castles he built with his grandchildren.

They're stories that didn't quite make her husband famous, but he was certainly well known on the North Shore and was admired as something far more important than a celebrity.

He was a teacher and coach who preached discipline in the classroom and sportsmanship on the pitch, even in a rough game like rugby.

He was a no-nonsense dad who melted when he walked his daughter down the aisle on her wedding day.

He was a loving husband. He was the General. He was Mr. Smith.

To hear Michael Smith's family remember his life on CBC's The Early Edition, tap the audio link below:

You might say that Mike Smith was a bit of a Renaissance Man. He was a lifeguard, teacher, vice-principal, rugby and basketball coach, marathon runner, and choir singer. He loved music, golf, the Vancouver Symphony, and making his famous ginger cookies. Mike died due to complications from COVID-19 at Lions Gate Hospital on April 2. He would have turned 90 on May 20. His wife Nancy Smith and daughter Megan Frederick want to make sure Mike is remembered as more than another victim of the pandemic. 7:30
Michael Smith, 90, died April 2, 2020 in North Vancouver after contracting COVID-19. (Submitted by family)

CBC Vancouver's Impact Team investigates and reports on stories that impact people in their local community and strives to hold individuals, institutions and organizations to account. If you have a story for us, email impact@cbc.ca.

If you have a COVID-19-related story we should pursue that affects British Columbians, please email us at impact@cbc.ca.  

About the Author

Jesse Johnston worked in private radio from 2004 to 2014 in Vancouver, Red Deer and Calgary. He spent the next five years based out of Surrey (his hometown) as CBC's South of the Fraser reporter until he joined the Impact Team in 2019. Jesse is a two-time recipient of the RTDNA Dave Rogers Award for Best Short Radio Feature. He loves radio, running and dogs. He also loves the Detroit Lions, but if you follow him on Twitter, you already knew that. @Jesse_Johnston

With files from Paisley Woodward

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