Phil Smith, 87; longtime JCC physical education director


Phil Smith, longtime director of health and physical education at the Jewish Community Center, remembered as one who both shaped and saved lives during his long career, died Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2009, at the Gatesworth in University City. He was 87. The cause of death was complications from congestive heart failure, according to his family.

“Phil Smith — while that name is so common, no one ever asked me which one,” said grandson Josh Levey last week, one of many family members, colleagues and friends who recalled Mr. Smith’s many accomplishments. He was described as a “hero” by Rabbi Howard Kaplansky of United Hebrew Congregation, who officiated at Mr. Smith’s funeral on Thursday, Oct. 15, where the entire main section of the sanctuary was filled.

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“Phil Smith was a shaper,” Rabbi Kaplansky said. “He was not only a shaper of bodies but of the lives of people he coached and mentored. He was a gutta neshama, a good soul. He was a mensch, not in a trite way, but as one who was always considerate of others, a complete person to whom others looked as a teacher and friend.

“Phil was also a life-saver–literally,” Rabbi Kaplansky added. “He rescued many people in distress in the JCC pool; he could administer CPR while the ambulance was on the way for someone who was stricken. He also saved lives by putting people on the right path…Phil understood that in sports or games the goal is not winning, but in playing the game. That’s where victory lies.”

Ken Weintraub, former professional president of the JCC and current senior development officer at the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, recalled, “My education and practice were greatly enhanced by observing Phil’s wonderful capacity to build relationships, make people feel comfortable and most importantly, incentivizing them to ‘get engaged’ with everybody from the smallest program to an agency leadership position.

In 1998, Mr. Smith was inducted to the St. Louis Jewish Sports Hall of Fame, which is currently housed in the new Staenberg Family Complex of the JCC.

Phil Smith was born Sept. 2, 1922, and grew up in St. Louis. He graduated from Soldan High School in 1940, where he was captain of the swimming and football teams and earned a full scholarship to swim at Texas A & M University. After World War II broke out, he interrupted his education, enlisting in 1943 in the Army Air Corps. He was a navigator-bombardier with the 575th Bomber Squadron and flew 33 combat missions in Europe.

On his return to St. Louis, Mr. Smith earned undergraduate and graduate degrees at Washington University. At the JCC, Mr. Smith, among many accomplishments, developed the Senior Olympics program, which is one of the most successful in the long history of the agency. In 1976, he co-authored a book on how to play handball called Sports Illustrated Handball. He also coached some of the nation’s top racquetball players, including Marty Hogan and Steve Serot.

Mr. Smith’s career at the JCC spanned 32 years. He retired in 1985. He designed fitness centers here and in other communities in the United States and in Israel. One of his designs is at the Gatesworth, which his son David developed and co-owns.

Funeral services were held last Thursday, Oct. 15 at United Hebrew Congregation. Burial was at Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery in Chesterfield.

Survivors include his wife, Geraldine “Gerry” Smith; a daughter, Cheryl (Louis D.) Levey of Town and Country; two sons, David A. Smith of University City and Dr. Steven M. Smith of College Station, Texas; two sisters, Betty Rose (the late Gerald) Greenberg of Creve Coeur and Linda Smith of Clayton; seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

Memorial contributions may be made to the Phil Smith Aquatic Fund at the JCC, 2 Millstone Campus Drive, Creve Coeur, Mo. 63146, or to a charity of choice.