A Saltillian's Recollection of Coach "Catfish" Smith
By Robert Cowser
Glen Onley’s biography of Milburn “Catfish” Smith, Coach Catfish Smith and His Boys, Santa Fe: Sunstone Press, prompts me to reflect and on the people depicted in the book and the times it covers. I was able to preview the book on line, surprised that a relatively large number of pages have been posted. Having led a team from Carey, Texas, to a state championship in basketball, Smith went to Mt. Vernon High School in 1943 to coach both basketball and football. Saltillo School, which I attended for twelve years (from 1937 until 1949), was located five miles from Mt. Vernon.
In some ways, our school might as well have been hundreds of miles away. Unlike Mt. Vernon High School, our school had no football team, except for a team that was fielded in 1946. The team played three or four games. After the uninsured gymnasium burned that year, the football equipment was destroyed. We had no marching band, of course, though Mt. Vernon’s band was highly touted. Except for a mimeographed sheet that was published four or five times during my tenth-grade year, our school had no newspaper. Only one year, 1946, was there a yearbook , The Saltillian, published. Copies of that book are almost as scarce today as some collectibles. The curriculum at Saltillo was sparse, including only the basic courses required for accreditation as a high school. The school at Mt. Vernon offered courses in Spanish and journalism and agriculture and, of course, band. As I previewed Onley’s book I was reminded of the successes of the Mt. Vernon teams Smith coached. The school won district and regional championships in football and a state championship in basketball (Class lA). Almost to a person, the citizens of Mt. Vernon and also those in Franklin County supported the high school teams. On Friday night in the fall women wore hats and gloves to the football games; once the weather began to turn even a little cooler they wore fur coats. The men dressed in suits and ties and wore felt fedoras, carefully stored in hatboxes when not in use. My younger brother, R. L., and I would have attended many of the home games at Mt. Vernon except we had to depend on others for transportation during our high school years. Once when our neighbor’s son was on furlough from the Army, he took us to see a game between Mt. Vernon, and its arch rival, Winnsboro. In 1947 R. L., Jimmy Smith, and I took the Greyhound bus from Saltillo to Mt. Vernon in order to see a regional championship game between the Tigers and Athens. The sun was brilliant, but the North wind was bitter. The bleachers on both sides of the field were filled to capacity, leaving many fans to stand on the sidelines. There was hardly the bonding of a community in Saltillo that existed in the Mt. Vernon community. Our school was formed of several different communities with churches of their own, and the parents of many of the students felt hardly any ties to the Saltillo School. They themselves had attended small rural schools long since disappeared.
After Catfish Smith came to Mt. Vernon, he met and married Dorothy Nell Penn. Dorothy Nell was the niece of Lewis Gist, who was married to my mother’s only sister, Molie Wardrup. The Gists operated a grocery and service station in Mt. Vernon. I never met Dorothy Nell, but I often heard Aunt Molie refer to her and ”Coach,” the name almost everyone in Mt. Vernon used in reference to Catfish Smith.
Catfish kept a close eye on his boys at the school, where he taught history, and he enforced a strict curfew for the times they were away from school. He named one of his two sons, Ronnie Gayle, in honor of one of his key players, Gayle Tinsley.
Before I was graduated from East Texas State (1953), Catfish Smith took a job as head coach of the basketball team there. Then he was named head football coach. In 1956 I took a teaching job at Longview High School where Catfish had gone in 1954 as head coach of the Lobos’ football team. A few times during my free hour in the school day I went to the “coffee room” in the main building where the male faculty members and administrators often went. Catfish Smith was usually there, surrounded by the principal and other teachers, almost all of whom were deferential when addressing “Coach.” I never spoke to Catfish, telling of my connection to the Gists and others in Mt. Vernon. The Longview Lobos won more games than they lost during Smith’s tenure as coach, but their record was not as outstanding as the records at Mt. Vernon and East Texas State when Smith coached at those schools.