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

Longtime Chantilly boys' basketball coach Jim Smith didn't realize how many friends he had until his wife took her own life last spring. This Christmas, the father of four has come to find out.

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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.

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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.


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