A visit with Jerry Smoot on his back porch on rural East Kelly Road -- with hummingbirds, eagles and deer all taking their turns entering the picture -- is an engaging trip back into Whatcom County history.
the nearest reference point of conversation is all that Smoot, 78, has done and continues to do, rather out of view, coaching youth sports across about five decades.
Very quickly the name of the late Hub De Jong of Lynden comes up as a co-collaborator with Smoot of the county’s first Cal Ripken (age 12 and under) Baseball Tourney in 1973.
So early was this that the Lynden fairgrounds was still the venue of play for several years. The 48th annual running of the tournament, now named after De Jong, just happened this past June 5-6 at Lynden’s Bender Fields.
At the beginning Smoot was the representative for Bellingham, De Jong for Lynden and Bernie Laverty for Ferndale. Eventually all seven school districts of Whatcom County contributed their summer youth baseball all-stars to an event that gained in strength.
Smoot can remember that players of the Bellingham Ms, then associated with the Seattle Mariners, were on hand to inspire the boys in the tournament and also the Dairy Princess of the Year threw out the first pitch.
But it wasn’t baseball or basketball -- as much as those became his youth coaching passion -- that Smoot was involved in as he attended Bellingham High School and graduated in the class of 1961. He was a swimmer and a gymnast. He has kept a diving pool in his back yard for more than 40 years, and he uses it also as a reward for good effort by the kids he coaches.
Smoot acknowledges that he and his four siblings didn’t have the best of upbringing. They were often in foster homes as his father, Alonzo “Lonnie” Smoot, died at age 42 and his mother, Lois, died at age 41.
“To be honest, I don’t have a lot of fond memories of growing up,” Jerry Smoot said. “We moved four times in Bellingham and always rented. We didn’t have a lot.” Two foster families were great for him, however, he added.
From 1962 through 1966 Smoot served in the U.S. Marines, including a stint of about six months in Vietnam. He was spared being in combat by an assignment in communication whereby he earned security and top-secret clearance as well.
In a military leave back to Bellingham, he agreed to go on a blind date, American boys with Canadian girls, and a lasting match was struck. Jerry has been married to Joan, originally from Abbotsford, B.C., for 54 years now and they have two children, Jay and Jana, and one grandchild.
He went on to a 35-year career with Puget Sound Energy “climbing power poles,” as he summarizes it, and all that exercise certainly helped to keep him fit for keeping up with the kids he has coached -- which stretches across the Mount Baker and Nooksack Valley and Meridian school districts. He passed on various opportunities to be a varsity-level coach. Although it has been largely at the middle school level, his most recent outing was helping the Meridian High School girls basketball program the past two seasons.
“I don’t think the fundamentals are taught enough, how to throw and catch the ball,” he said.
Attesting family stories
Jerry Smoot was willing to be featured after he read an ad soliciting for the Pioneering Families section of the Lynden Tribune and Ferndale Record. This was his quick reply back: “My grandfather had two stills south of Deming on Highway 9 years ago, and both my parents before they had us kids worked for a traveling circus where my mother was a snake charmer. ... Most people don’t believe this, but it is true and in my past family history.”
Indeed most people might not believe that.
One of Smoot’s earliest memories is of attending a traveling circus or carnival when it came to Bellingham. His parents had pull. “We used to get front-row seats because they knew everyone,” he said.
In fact, the trapeze artist soaring down from high up in the tent almost into his face was a little frightening to a young boy.
His dad, in his own time with the circus, had helped set up such tents and likely also supervised rides or took money and other such duties, Smoot said.
His dad told this story to his children: Snakes were part of the show, and a pit for them was dug nearby where workers slept for the night. One night, a snake burned its tail on a warming light and got riled up. It managed to writhe its way out of the pit, and Alonzo Smoot awoke to see the snake at the foot of his cot. He awakened others, and several men manage to get the snake back into the pit.
Jerry Smoot does not remember the name of the company his parents worked for, or how long they did this traveling trade.
He remembers his mother saying that she once saw an elephant get loose from the circus and collapsing the sidewalk it traipsed upon.
As to the moonshine story involving his grandfather, Albert W. Smoot, Jerry Smoot has two attestations to it. This is one: “I remember my dad saying he couldn’t play sports because he had to get home and cut wood for his dad’s stills.”
The generation-earlier Smoot family lived in different spots in the Nooksack River South Fork valley area including the locales of Van Zandt, Clipper and Wickersham.
The second testimonial to his grandfather Albert’s still production, Jerry Smoot heard directly from Leo Sygitowicz, a Clipper resident virtually his whole life (1911-2008), who said, “He had the best moonshine around.” It was a time of Prohibition in the country from January 1919 until December 1933.
Other family history
Jerry’s grandfather, Albert W. Smoot, was 58 years old for the April 1930 Census, which lists him as head of the household, a logger at a logging camp, and living in the Park township at the south end of Lake Whatcom. In the home were his wife, Rose, and five children, the middle one being Alonzo, age 10. Albert was of Scottish ancestry.
Alonzo L. Smoot was born July 4, 1919, in Montana before the family came to Washington, online sources show. His home was Van Zandt when he registered for the military during World War II. He saw service in the Pacific, his son said. Alonzo was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for heroic or meritorious service in a combat zone.
After their days with the circus, by 1941 Alonzo and Lois Smoot had settled in the James Street neighborhood of Bellingham and by 1948 and into the 1950s he worked in various capacities including carman, repairman and watchman for Northern Pacific Railway, according to city directories of the time.
Jerry’s mother Lois was of the Bristol family and she went to Nooksack schools. A treasured heirloom is the “My School Days Autobiography” of Lois, a lace-bound little booket in which classmates wrote sentimental notes and rhymes around 1930-32.
When Lois was about 2 for the 1920 Census, the family lived in Deming and Glenn A. Bristol was a sawyer at a shingle mill. By 1930 father Glenn was widowed and he and his children, including 12-year-old Lois, were living in Anacortes with his parents, F.A. and Lena Bristol, and Glenn was working in a shingle mill there.
Both Alonzo and Lois Smoot are buried in the Nooksack Cemetery, and that is where Jerry and Joan have plots too.
It turned out that Jerry attended many of the grade schools in Bellingham, some still existing and some gone, in the 1940s and ‘50s before coming to Whatcom Middle School about a block away from old Battersby Field in the lettered-streets neighborhood.
“I remember playing in the old stadium at Battersby, hide-and-seek underneath the bleachers and so on,” he said.
He and school-age buddies also tried to explore into the entrance of the old closed coal mine in today’s Birchwood area, but “didn’t get very far.”
He remembers dock remnants of the former Larson lumber mill on Lake Whatcom where Bloedel-Donovan Park is now, and of swimming across from there to Silver Beach.
Jerry and Joan personally hosted many summer players of the Bellingham Ms, young hopefuls from throughout the West. Among the talent he watched in 1987 was a 17-year-old kid named Ken Griffey Jr.
“I remember him playing in Bellingham, hitting home runs over the right field fence. That was when we were the baby Ms.”