Two Eastern Iowa icons left us last week. I never relish writing about people who have died, but I also regret not acknowledging the contributions of giants in our sports world.
The two men are George Wine and Al Smith. They came from different backgrounds and did different work. But their common ground was achieving excellence and having an impact on others in this part of the world. Each touched me personally.
Wine was the University of Iowa sports information director from 1968 to 1993, a span of time in which he saw great changes and worked with countless interesting coaches. Wine, who died at age 81, was a North English native and U of I graduate after serving in the Air Force.
He was a one-man SID operation when he was hired at Iowa. Ray Nagel was the football coach, Ralph Miller the men’s basketball coach. Wine succeeded Eric Wilson as Iowa’s second SID (his license plate read “2ND SID’’), and Wine brought on board the school’s third and fourth SID in now-retired Phil Haddy and current SID Steve Roe.
It was probably in about 1981 that I got to know Wine well. I became involved in the Iowa football beat for The Gazette that year. Wine had known some of the other beat guys for many years, but he welcomed a 25-year-old rookie as if I had been covering the Hawkeyes for years.
If nothing else, Wine was a fountain of information about Iowa athletics. Over his career, he had worked with many notable coaches – Miller, Dan Gable, Hayden Fry, Kirk Ferentz, C. Vivian Stringer, Tom Davis and others. Fry actually credited Wine with helping turn the football program around in terms of helping the head coach with psychological approaches to fans and media.
More than that, Wine’s career spanned an era that went from typewriters to laptops, and land lines to cell phones. And he was a journalist in his own right, penning two books, including Fry’s autobiography “High Porch Picnic.’’ He wrote online columns until nearly his last day.
In the last few years before his death, I enjoyed being invited to lunches with Wine, legendary announcers Ron Gonder and Bob Brooks, Haddy and long-time U of I booster and contributor Chuck Edwards. The conversations that ensued were priceless and I listened more than contributed. They would chew on current events but also reminisce about times shared at the university.
(By the way, I would recommend another personal tribute to Wine written by Bob Brooks at this MSR site).
AL SMITH WAS A CHICAGO native who made a huge impact on athletics in Cedar Rapids, in both the amateur and professional ranks.
Smith was so unassuming that it wasn’t until years after I had met him that I discovered he had enjoyed a professional baseball career. He was a teammate of the great Rocky Colavito in 1952 for the Cedar Rapids Indians. Smith played only four minor league seasons before retiring.
My relationship with Al largely was when he served as sports director of the Cedar Rapids Recreation Commission. He used to conduct elementary school contests like the football “Punt, Pass and Kick,’’ and the basketball “Goal Shooting Contest.’’ He would go around to all the schools, score each individual and pass out trophies and ribbons to the winners.
Back in the 1960s, it was a thrill to be one of the winners. You would even follow each school’s results in the newspaper, and compare your scores to those who won at other schools.
I can’t imagine another local person who has given more to youth sports than Al Smith. He created many avenues by which he would get young people involved in sports, either through competition or finding ways to provide equipment and opportunities.
Of course, Smith was a long-time member of the Board of Directors of the Cedar Rapids Baseball Club. He volunteered his time not only with the board, but with other programs that promoted youth activity. He was busy very nearly until the day he died at age 80.
His impact was so great that I should imagine you could create a couple all-Metro teams of boys and girls that he in some way provided an opportunity. And then some.
Hats off to George Wine and Al Smith, two giants in Eastern Iowa sports.
(Mark Dukes is former sports editor of the Cedar Rapid Gazette. He is co-host of The Gym Class radio show weekdays from 3-4 p.m. on KGYM-AM 1600 and FM-106.3.)
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