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Chantilly community rallies around Coach Jim Smith and his family after a tragedy

By Preston Williams
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 24, 2010; 10:06 PM

In Becky Smith's world, her children's birthdays were not just birthdays and holidays, particularly Christmas, were not just holidays. All called for major celebrations. In the Franklin Glen subdivision of Fairfax, the term "Mrs. Smith party" was code for a nuanced blowout, whether it entailed a sleepover for 20 or her dyeing her hair green for St. Patrick's Day.

At the Smith home in recent months, those special days have been observed, but muted. Becky Smith, after a debilitating mental illness, took her own life in May, leaving behind four children - Zim, 19; Bobby, 16; Helen, 14 and Derek, 11 - and her husband of 23 years, Jim, the Chantilly High boys' basketball coach for nearly two decades.

The wages of grief, however, can evoke unexpected invitations. Since her suicide, dozens of neighbors, friends and colleagues have swept in with an outpouring of support that continues to bolster the Smiths, who Saturday will mark their first Christmas without Becky.

"The day that Becky died, that house came alive with love and life," neighbor Liz Lisko said. "You could feel her presence, like she was aware of what was happening. In her death, it's almost as though all her positive qualities came whooshing back through the house.

"The front door never closed for months and Jim was so open to it. Prior to Becky dying he couldn't be open to it because he was fiercely trying to protect her integrity. Everybody really loved her and had high respect for him. It was really a very healing place to be."

Neighbors familiar with Becky Smith's struggle had been eager to help the family for years but did not quite know how without being intrusive. They say that Becky - once a fun-loving, spontaneous, gracious "firecracker," as one neighbor put it - had been withdrawing for some time and that her illness and occasional disappearances had frayed the sturdy family.

By rallying around the Smiths after her death, friends say they not only could take care of Jim and the kids but in a way assist Becky by nurturing the husband and children she was so proud to call her own.

The collective aid has been so overwhelming that Jim Smith can't help but believe that his wife, deep down sensing that she someday would prematurely leave the family nest that she had so lovingly lined, settled on the Franklin Glen community for a reason when she picked out their home and neighborhood 20 years ago.

"There was some part of her that knew that this was a great place to raise a family," Jim Smith, 49, said one recent morning at his kitchen table, his voice cracking with emotion over the gentle hum of the dishwasher. "I think some part of her knew that this is where me and the kids are meant to be. Becky, God - they put us here for a reason.

"The support has just been continuous. The number of people who have done things for me out of friendship and kindness has changed me, and changed the kids, I think, too."

A wealth of support

There has been a steady parade in and out of the house on Great Laurel Lane. There are the Bookers and the Funakis and the Liskos and the Youks and other neighbors. Teachers and administrators at Chantilly. Coaching colleagues past and present. The Church of Epiphany congregation. Students and players from Chantilly and from Jim Smith's previous stint at McLean, or from his alma mater, Stuart. Even basketball referees who have worked Smith's games have shown up with food and comfort for the longest-tenured boys' basketball coach in Northern Virginia.

Some coaches prefer not to live in the school district in which they teach to better distance themselves from the parents of their players. Smith, closing in on 400 career wins, has lived in the same home, less than two miles from Chantilly, for his entire time at the school.

"The guy's a legend around here, and he's really treated people well," Chantilly Athletic Director Terry Brown said. "It wasn't that he was out looking for support. The support really came to him."

Ann Booker, a neighbor who teaches with Jim at Chantilly, organized food delivery for the family three nights a week through takethemameal.com. Since May, 89 volunteers, most of them friends or acquaintances but some complete strangers, have delivered dinners to the Smith home. Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday except one from today through the middle of March is already booked for a delivery. With Chantilly having basketball games most Tuesdays, neighbors are now delivering food to the home on that day, too, independent of the Web site.

For the remainder of the 2009-10 school year after Becky's death, five women in the neighborhood took turns preparing a sack lunch to hand to Derek at the bus stop. Moms have handled the children's birthday celebrations at school and much of their clothes shopping. Neighbors decorated the house for Christmas, with blue and white lights and other flourishes.

The Weeren family, living overseas at the time of Becky's death, allowed Becky's visiting family to stay in their home. Lisko, who shared a love of gardening with Becky, has attended to the Smiths' landscaping and collected remembrances and pictures of her for a scrapbook, with an assist from Christy Youk, that was distributed to the family on Becky's birthday Oct. 20.

Smith's assistant coaches bought him and the three boys new suits and shoes for the funeral. The Northern Virginia Association of Boys' Basketball Coaches donated $1,000 to the Smith children's college scholarship fund. Basketball team members did yard work and painting around the house.

At school, Chantilly administrators have allowed Smith to start his teaching day at 8:50 a.m. instead of his former 7:20, so he can see his three youngest children off to school each morning to Lees Corner Elementary, Franklin Middle and Chantilly.

Then there are the more random acts. The self-help book that a tearful mom, dealing with a family suicide of her own, gave to Smith at back-to-school night. A coach who slipped Smith a card at a meeting sharing a similar experience of loss. A former student offering to babysit on college breaks.

"I think my kids really understand and appreciate everything and [realize] that that's really what life is all about," said Smith, a history and government teacher. "It's reaching beyond yourself and doing things for others and helping to ease other's pain or any way that you can support someone else. The most powerful thing that I've learned from this is the goodness of people."

A team grows closer

Two days after Becky Smith died, Chantilly basketball players visited the house as a group after school and assembled on the Smiths' screened-in back porch. Smith detailed what his family had been dealing with in recent years, a soul-baring which quietly stunned some players and drove others to tears. Among the lessons: Someone's life, even someone you think you know pretty well, is not always what it appears to be.

Smith said he tries to be honest with his players when it comes to playing time issues or other team business, and he thought that this situation called for similar straight talk now that he could share some of the back story.

"It was really touching what he said," said Matt Howerton, a senior on last year's team. "He wanted to educate us about it and to not be afraid to ask questions about his wife. He loved telling stories about his wife. After the talk, it seemed like everyone on the team was a lot closer."

Said senior center John Manning: "It was pretty amazing to see how open he was willing to be and how strong he was being in that kind of situation. I think it impressed all of us."

Smith felt the burden of being a teacher, coach and public figure in the community, knowing that how he handled his grief would not only register with his own children but with his players and other students at the school.

"There were times when I kind of almost said to myself: 'This isn't what I set my life to do,' " Smith said, his voice quivering. "I don't want to be the poster child for how you deal with a tragedy. This isn't what I want. I want Becky to be back."

Last March, Chantilly captured its first Virginia AAA Northern Region title - Derek, a team ball boy, helped clip down the net after the championship win - then won its state quarterfinal game and was up seven points on I.C. Norcom in the fourth quarter in the semifinals before fading.

But the partner who years ago had reveled in the basketball wins and stewed about the losses alongside her husband could not relish the team's accomplishments as she once had.

"She was dealing with so many other things that we weren't able to share it at all," Smith said. "I don't even know that we even talked about winning the region championship."

Finding a sanctuary

In the weeks after Becky's death, Jim Smith used a veteran coach's gut instincts to help guide some of his single-parenting decisions.

Instead of sending each child back to school at the same time, he at first kept one home with him each day to gauge their emotional state and to give himself a companion. It was almost like a substitution pattern, deciding whom to play and when.

Later, he questioned whether he should continue to coach, given his increased responsibilities at home. That internal debate has persisted.

"If I get the sense this is just taking too much time and I can't be there for the kids, I'm going to have to walk away from it," said Smith, who also is coaching Derek's youth league basketball team. "I thought what would be best for me definitely was that normalcy. I'm the Chantilly basketball coach, and Chantilly is part of our lives and my kids come to the games. I kind of felt this year, selfishly for me, that I just needed basketball and I needed to be in the gym. It's just a safe place for me."

Smith has tried to make home a similarly comfortable haven, tackling projects that went neglected for years, such as installing new windows and replacing siding. He hits the Franklin Farm Giant every Wednesday and Sunday, shopping for food for breakfasts and lunches and the weekend meals he prepares, usually a grilled meat, pasta and green salad. He hosted Thanksgiving dinner this year, continuing his tradition of deep-frying a turkey at assistant coach Chris Dux's house. Smith prepared most of a spread not only for his immediate family but also his parents and a visiting niece from New York. Helen set the table days in advance.

Neighbors and friends have been impressed, and amused, by Smith's new-found domesticity and satisfaction in producing tasty meals and fresh laundry. Dux laughs about the time recently when Smith talked about serving a wine that had complemented a roast that Smith had prepared. Booker was taken aback when Smith once dropped into their conversation, "Shoppers Food Warehouse has some pretty good prices on cereal."

"Yeah, they sure do," Booker replied. "But Jim, if you start cutting coupons, I'm going to have to draw the line."

Moving forward

There are five stockings, not seven, hung over the Smith's fireplace this year. The family also lost their trusty yellow lab, Teddy, this fall.

The glaring absence is that of the smart woman with the contagious laugh known during her healthy years for her ability to find humor in every corner of the suburban, school-kid chaos of her home and neighborhood. The handy woman who could fix a leaky toilet while one of her you've-got-to-give-me-the-recipe pecan pies baked in the oven. The woman who rescued withering plants and rooted for the Boston Red Sox.

Just as Becky would have, Smith put out the fall doormat for autumn and now has the winter mat out. He carved a pumpkin at Halloween. He wore a Santa hat while decorating the tree. But the holiday void is inescapable.

"Christmas is a tough time for [Jim] right now," Dux said after a recent game. "I can sense it in him. Becky used to make a huge deal out of Christmas."

Jim and Becky met as chemistry lab partners at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn. The New Jersey girl helped him so much in that class, the joke went, that he felt indebted to marry her. Both loved Bruce Springsteen, and "Born To Run" is still the last song played during the Chargers' pregame warmups.

With his sort of Jimmy Stewart decency, Smith in a way has emerged as the George Bailey of Franklin Glen, never realizing how many friends he had until he really needed them. He worries that he has not adequately expressed his gratitude and wishes he could issue a "blanket thank-you" to anyone who has offered so much as a hug or a kind word during the past seven months.

Becky Smith's funeral was two days before Mother's Day. The Bookers decided to have a cookout on Mother's Day, as usual, and invite the Smiths, as usual, but decided this year, out of respect, to play down the Mother's Day aspect. The word spread. This was to be a cookout that just so happened to be on Mother's Day, not a Mother's Day cookout.

But one person - Smith - did not play along. When he arrived at the gathering, he gave freshly cut flowers from Becky's front garden to all the moms, who already had begun to lift the family that had lost theirs.

In death, life had returned to a certain house on Great Laurel Lane. The celebrations would continue.

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