His Own Drummer

Remembering flamboyant man about town Verly E. Smith, thought to be Notre Dame’s first Black employee — musician, entrepreneur and trainer for Jack Dempsey and the Four Horsemen

Author: Margaret Fosmoe ’85

 
Verly Smith
 

Verly E. Smith was a flamboyant man who drove big cars, wore stylish hats and enjoyed a good cigar.

He was a part-time trainer for coach Knute Rockne’s football teams from about 1924 to 1927 — historical records indicate he was Notre Dame’s first African American employee — while working other jobs in South Bend and preparing to open his own gymnasium.

Hired to ease the muscle pulls and other injuries of Rockne’s football players, Smith also took on trainer duties for the Irish basketball, track and baseball teams.

Flashy. That’s the word that comes to mind as two of Verly Smith’s grandsons — Bruce Smith, 79, of San Antonio, Texas, and Craig Smith, 72, of St. Charles, Missouri — describe their grandfather.

Bruce was only six years old and Craig wasn’t yet born when Verly Smith died. But while they were growing up, they heard colorful family stories about their grandfather. Their father, Alfred Augustus “Red” Smith, followed in his father’s footsteps as a Notre Dame trainer.

Verly Smith “liked to drive a big car, wear a suit with a vest, wear nice hats and smoke a cigar. He was fun and flamboyant. People liked to gather around him,” Bruce Smith says. The family patriarch also was a well-known man about town and a savvy entrepreneur. His activities and business ventures received regular mention in local newspapers throughout his life and career.

Verly E. Smith was born February 6, 1886, in Attica, a small town near Lafayette, Indiana. Little is known about his childhood. One story told by Smith family descendants says as an infant Verly was given to another family to raise, and another version says he spent his early years in an orphanage and was adopted at about age 7.

George Douglas and Emma (Revels) Smith are the couple who raised him, according to ancestry records. In 1900, the Smith family was living in Lorain, Ohio.

By 1905, Verly Smith — not yet 20 years old — had moved to South Bend. He was listed in the city directory as a musician who was living at a rooming house. Census records indicate he was a drummer.

In September 1909 in South Bend, Smith, 23, married Ethel Lucas, 27. It was a second marriage for the bride, who already had two children, Nellie and Harold. Verly Smith would raise those children as his own, in addition to the five children the couple had together: Verna, Alfred, Dewight, Wilma and Marian.

In 1910, Smith and his family were living at 121 West Colfax Avenue, where Smith operated The Coterie Club, a nightclub and cafe.

The young Smith was doing quite well for himself. The October 1, 1910 Indianapolis Recorder, a Black newspaper that covered statewide news in African-American circles, noted Smith had just purchased a fine Empire automobile made in Indianapolis. “He has the distinction of being the first colored man in the city (of South Bend) to own an automobile,” the newspaper reported.

By 1915, Smith and his growing family had moved to Benton Harbor, Michigan. City directories and his World War I draft card indicate he was hotel proprietor and restaurant owner. By 1920, Smith — then age 34 — also was listed as a masseur at a local bathhouse. Craig Smith says his grandfather ran sports camps in Benton Harbor, drawing customers from Chicago who took passenger ships to resorts on the eastern shores of Lake Michigan.

In later years, Smith was described in news articles as a former trainer for world heavyweight boxing champion Jack Dempsey. Smith’s initial connection with Dempsey isn’t clear, but the two men may have first met in 1920, when Dempsey — heavyweight champion since 1919 — traveled to Benton Harbor to defend his title against challenger Billy Miske. Smith may have been hired by Dempsey as a trainer for the bout.

Drawing a crowd of more than 11,000, Dempsey vs. Miske was the first boxing match broadcast live on the radio. Dempsey knocked out Miske in three rounds, and retained the title for six more years.

 
 
Verly Smith At Nd
Smith at work at Notre Dame

In the early 1920s, Smith was hired as a trainer for the Notre Dame football team. His grandsons don’t know how or when Smith first met Knute Rockne or if it was Rockne who offered the job. Verly Smith was the trainer during the height of Rockne’s coaching career, including 1924 — the season of the Four Horsemen, the famous Irish backfield. His duties gradually expanded to serving as trainer for other Notre Dame teams, too.

There are few references to Smith in the University Archives and he wasn’t listed among the team’s staff in football programs or editions of the Notre Dame Football Review of that era.

By 1926, Smith and his family had moved back to South Bend. Their home was at 1002 Campeau Street, just a few blocks south of the Notre Dame campus. It still stands today.

Smith was a popular figure in town. His role at Notre Dame was widely known and he was frequently mentioned in South Bend Tribune news reports during the 1920s.

During that decade, Smith also variously served as a trainer for the South Bend YMCA basketball league, the South Bend Central and Mishawaka high school football teams, and the Athletics, a baseball team fielded by the Studebaker automobile factory. Local high school players were safe “under the skillful eye of Verly Smith, famous master of bruises and wrenches,” the Tribune reported.

In June 1926, while still working at Notre Dame, Smith opened an office downtown in the LaSalle Hotel Annex and offered athletic training and massages to local businessmen. “His attention is not needed at the university during the summer months,” the newspaper reported.

Later that year, he opened a commercial gymnasium at 228 S. Michigan Street. Local businessmen would stop by to exercise, relax in steam baths, smoke cigars and get rubdowns for their aching muscles. It was advertised as the Verly Smith Health and Body Building Institute.

Rockne endorsed Smith and his new venture. The Notre Dame trainer “knows his business very thoroughly and I believe that any business man who will give him a little time will find it very, very much worth while. … I have looked over Mr. Smith’s establishment and I recommend it very highly to anyone who is interested in health,” Rockne wrote in a 1926 letter that survives in the University Archives.

Four Horsemen Liniment Sb Tribune
South Bend Tribune

Smith left his job at Notre Dame by fall 1928. During the Great Depression, he began making and selling a product called Four Horsemen Liniment, an ointment to relieve pain caused by sprains and sore muscles.

“During the time I was at Notre Dame as trainer,” Smith told the South Bend Tribune in 1932, “I perfected the formula. It was a further improvement on one I had discovered and used successfully while trainer in Jack Dempsey’s camp. It was in regular use during the height of Notre Dame’s victorious regime under Knute Rockne.”

“Used and endorsed by the Four Horsemen of Notre Dame” read a statement on the blue and gold label, which featured a drawing of Notre Dame’s famous foursome. Four Horsemen Liniment vintage bottles still occasionally show up on eBay and other online auction sites.

Verly Smith liked to gamble at times. Family lore is that he agreed to a bet with a man, offering the licensing rights to the Four Horsemen Liniment as his part of the wager — and lost, Craig Smith says. While Verly Smith no longer had the rights to Four Horsemen Liniment, he continued to make and sell the product but didn’t use that name.

Verly Smith also was active in Black affairs, leading a committee that planned an annual “emancipation celebration” for area African Americans held at Berrien Springs, Michigan, for several summers in the mid-1930s, the South Bend Tribune reported.

Son Alfred Augustus “Red” Smith, born in 1912, was an outstanding football player. (His reddish hair earned him that nickname.) An Indiana all-state high school player, he later played for Wilberforce University and West Virginia State College, and in the 1930s for the Brown Bombers, a professional football team based in New York. The Bombers were considered the most important all-Black football team of that era, when segregation still ruled in professional sports and much of society.

Alfred Smith worked as a trainer for the Notre Dame football, basketball and track teams in the late 1940s to mid-1950s, during the years of head coaches Frank Leahy and Terry Brennan. “He learned his training techniques from his dad,” Bruce Smith says. Alfred Smith also was head football coach during the 1950s at South Bend Central Catholic High School and a trainer for professional boxer Archie Moore, the world light-heavyweight champion. Alfred Smith died in 1990.

Bruce Smith says both his father and grandfather were paid by Notre Dame in cash, and were not on the regular University payroll. It’s not clear why, but the grandsons theorize that in those days some University officials were uneasy about the idea of having Black employees on the athletics payroll.

“They were very dedicated to Notre Dame,” Bruce Smith says of his father and grandfather. They each enjoyed working with talented student-athletes, and they knew the work they performed as trainers was important, he says.

Verly Smith And Family Circa 1916
The Smith family, circa 1916

The Smith family is connected by marriage to another early Notre Dame African-American worker, William H. Alexander Sr. Alexander is believed to have been the University’s first full-time, longtime Black employee. He worked at Notre Dame from 1934 until 1962, as a residence hall porter and later as the campus mailman.

Alfred Smith’s daughter, Gwendolyn Patricia Smith, married John Alexander, one of William H. Alexander’s sons. Gwendolyn Patricia (Smith) Alexander died in 2000.

Verly Smith’s wife, Ethel, died in 1938. By 1940, Verly Smith, a widower, was living in Niles, Michigan, and still selling the liniment.

“TRAINED THE ‘FOUR HORSEMEN’” read a headline above a photo of Verly Smith in the July 20, 1940 edition of the Chicago Defender, a Black newspaper. The paper reported Smith’s connection to Rockne, the Four Horsemen and Dempsey. “Today, Smith lives in Niles, Mich. He is engaged in the marketing of his own liniment.”

Later in 1940, Smith moved to Culver, Indiana. In August 1943, he married again, to Alma John Floyd. Together they ran a health farm and poultry business. He also worked as a trainer at nearby Culver Military Academy.

The flashy trainer of the Rockne era passed away suddenly in May 1948.

“Verly E. Smith, who was trainer of football teams at Notre Dame in the days of Knute Rockne and the Four Horsemen, died of a heart attack in his home in Culver, Ind., on May 3, at the age of 61,” the Notre Dame Alumnus reported in its August 1948 issue. “At one time a trainer for Jack Dempsey, he was affiliated with Culver Military Academy after leaving Notre Dame, and in the later years of his life devoted much of his time to his health farm in Culver.”

Verly Smith was laid to rest at the Masonic Cemetery in Culver.


Margaret Fosmoe is an associate editor of this magazine.