A hook pin adorns the beak of Frank Smith's white baseball cap. The souvenir comes from a crappie fishing trip to Lake Grenada in Mississippi.
Smokey Robinson walked past an empty boxing gym at 4716 S. Ashland as we talked before our after school crush.
Smith knows hook, fishing and boxing. On April 14, he was inducted into the centenary of the Chicago Golden Gloves Hall of Fame.
It was a side of him that I didn't recognize. I know him as Frank “Cat Daddy” Smith for fishing.
Live long enough, you learn a lot of things.
In Smith's case, live long enough — 68 — you teach boxing to thousands of people.
I see Smith occasionally, such as last month at the first night meeting of the Chicago Fisheries Advisory Committee. More often, he appears in photos and fishing reports sent by BoRabb Williams.
At a committee meeting, Wayne Hankins bowed and said, “Frank's into the Golden Gloves Hall of Fame.”
I think Hankins sensed my disbelief. Smith might have weighed in at 130 pounds if he had just eaten a 20-ounce steak and baked potato. But Smith is a Hall of Famer, the first to win titles in three Gold Glove weight classes: flyweight (1973), bantamweight (1974) and featherweight (1975).
I've covered a lot, but I never set foot in a boxing gym until Smith invited me to meet Aaliyah Johnson. He coached the 16-year-old sophomore, who won the Gold Gloves title on April 15, at national level.
I'm early enough that Smith is spreading old photos and news clippings from Mayor Daleys, Laila Ali, Leatitia ”Baby Girl” Robinson and more.
As he was showing me the ring, mat and bag in the back room, Smith suddenly said: ‘Put on a pair of gloves. Let's see what you got.”
He gave me intense lessons in boxing — moving around the ring, hitting the bag, covering my face — it was humbling.
Asked about the “Father Cat” nickname, Smith said: “I caught a lot of catfish when we went to Monster Lake, Braidwood, LaSalle, Rend Lake.”
“He's the king of catfish, honey, but he's a real crappie master,” Williams said.
Smith said his most memorable fish was a 3-pound crappie from Lake Grenada.
“But I also caught a lot of 2.75 seconds,” he said. “Actually, I had crappie (to eat) this morning.”
When I asked if boxing and fishing went together, Smith said: “Not really. But if you have a good (boxing) tournament then go ahead and move on. it is worth it. That's where you find yourself.”
The last line is the definition of fishing.
After they moved into the Wentworth Gardens housing project, Smith's mother, Amanda Samuels, brought him into boxing.
“I was a bad boy,” said Smith.
He trains with Gene Kelly.
”I was a small, skinny kid, first place at 85 pounds,” recalls Smith.
He fought in the Chicago Park District, Catholic Youth Organization, AAU tournaments and the Gold Gloves. He is very compatible with Sugar Ray Leonard and the Spinks brothers.
Because of his thinness, Smith said: ”I'm just a boxer. I have a problem dropping them. I have 59 fights with nine losses. . . . I have a good one-two. Stole my boxing style from Sugar Ray Leonard.”
But Smith couldn't get past the physical for the pro license because of a heart murmur.
So he worked in physical education for the park district. In 1987, his boss asked him to form a team. Her team of 12 people, including a woman, reached the final of the President's Cup and won.
He doesn't have a knockout style, but he can develop a fighter.
“Many of them don't have a father figure, and I became a father figure to them,” he said.
What he remembers best is his sons, Darres and Frankie Jr., and others such as Shawn Simpson, Destyne Butler, Joshua Bunting, Catrelle Wright, and Dwayne Williams, whose mother called him “Nose”.
“I wouldn't have my program without Darrell Johnson,” said Smith. “We call him ‘Heavy.' He has defense; I committed an offense. . . . I am very strict as a coach, militant as a coach. We did well with what we had.”
Smith learned to fish from his father, James.
“It seemed he was out every day catching buffalo and goldfish with a rattan stick,” said Smith. “When I started working, I took a break from fishing. One night after work I saw them fishing for salmon in Jackson Park. It got me back into it. Get out of there.”
Smith retired from the park district but helped out at a boxing gym (a former clothing store) in South Ashland.
As the afternoon wore on, a mother brought a high school boy. Smith looked him in the eye and interrogated him, then told him what to expect. A 27 year old man with boxing experience walked in coldly. Smith made him put on gloves, then trained him hard. The man's punch exploded as it hit Smith's soft hands.
After a long warm-up, Aaliyah Johnson stepped into the ring. That's serious. He can hit and move.
The others circled the edge of the ring. Music has turned into something aimed at the younger generation. More people arrived. I said goodbye to Johnson and Smith.
Walking out, I wondered if I had done enough with my life.
Some of us dance around being father figures. Others, like Smith, had a firm grip on it.