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Matthies Mug

Steve Matthies

Some adjectives are used in such a flippant manner they almost mean nothing, like hackneyed cliches — great, idol, hero, special.

When it comes to talking about Lafayette (Lafe) Smith, they become meaningful.

The affable, gentle giant lost a year-long battle with medical issues last week, and wrestling, Bonanza wrestling especially, lost a true hero, a great man, an idol for many. It has been said everyone can be replaced.

In this case, that perception could easily be challenged.

“He was a cantankerous old fart, but I loved that guy,” Kenny Holmes, who took over as head wrestling coach when Smith opted to slow down a little a few years ago. Smith still served as the Antlers assistant coach.

There is no way Smith would leave the sport for which he left such an indelible impression.

“He had a heart for kids, a heart for the community and, obviously, for country,” Holmes said of a Purple Heart winner and Medal of Honor winner. “I think highly of that man.”

Those sentiments were echoed over-and-over when members of the wrestling community talked about the 74-year-old Smith.

“He sure loved that program,” former Mazama head coach and wrestling official Scott Teeples said. “He was just a great guy. Very dedicated. He just liked kids.”

Holmes noted it was not unusual for Smith to take a small bus and head to places like Bly to bring young people into Bonanza to participate in sports, basketball players as well as wrestlers.

Scott Watters was the wrestling coach at Bonanza when Smith arrived.

When Watters left, Smith took over and, for four decades, clearly was the face of Bonanza wrestling.

“He was just a remarkable man. He helped build character, especially with wrestlers and through the 4H club,” current Bonanza head coach Steve Tenold said. “He cared about everyone. What he did, he gave it his all, and proved that in the community.

“I only knew him for about 15 years, but that was plenty of time to know what a good man he was,” Tenold said, and noted Smith would ensure any young person who wanted to wrestle would get the chance, and would make sure there were meets to compete in.

Smith was one of the first area coaches to accept girls into the program.

That worked well as Smith, and his wife, Peggy, helped Cheryl New become the first girl to ever compete in the Oregon School Activities Association state championships. Had she not been extremely ill at the time, New likely also would have been the first girl to win a state meet match.

New would go on to college, overcome more than a few personal hurdles, and gain both a bachelor’s and master’s degree.

He coached state champions.

He saw his own son, Raymon, return to Bonanza as a coach at Echo to win the Antlers Invitational tournament a couple of years ago.

This past year, Smith saw his granddaughter Breanna, become an official state place winner in girls wrestling.

Smith reportedly said he only had one regret as he knew his life was nearing an end — that he would not be able to watch his granddaughter compete in her senior season.

Tenold said Peggy Smith shared the story that her husband went to town one time and returned home with a nine-passenger van as the family car. It was needed to transport wrestlers to practice and competitions.

“He was an awesome mentor in general, teaching me about coaching and life, and dealing with the kids,” Holmes said. “Not only did he take care of his family and his business, but he reached out to get kids into town.”

Smith’s influence went well beyond Bonanza.

Long-time Etna High School wrestling coach Scott Forrester is among the many to reach out. He has brought his wrestlers in the Bonanza tournament for many years, and is one of many who hope to attend services and celebrations of Smith’s life Saturday (July 20).

With a lot of support, wrestlers and coaches, past and present, have started to seek naming Bonanza’s annual wrestling tournament, the oldest continuous sports event in Klamath County, the Captain Lafe Smith Memorial Tournament.

It would be the right thing for the school, and the Klamath County School District, to do.

Smith, meanwhile, in his own inimicable way, would simply shrug his shoulders and ask: “Why?”

Because — because sir it is the right thing to do.

That is the way he was.

Steve Matthies is Herald and News sports editor. He can be reached at 541-885-4411, or at smatthies@heraldandnews.com.