Vi Waln: Teacher Myrl Smith fell in love with his students

Schools all across Indian Country have their share of both good and not so good teachers. Many non-Indian teachers come to reservation schools because they want to experience Lakota culture. Other teachers come to our reservation and spend a lifetime here because they quickly find they love their Lakota students.

Last Friday all schools in the Todd County district were closed. I will always believe that school was called off due to the death of perhaps the greatest teacher at He Dog School. I really don’t believe the storm was a coincidence.

As news of the passing of Myrl Smith traveled across the rez last weekend I was hit with a flood of memories. I know that lots of people who attended He Dog called him Myrl after they reached adulthood but I always called him “Mr. Smith.”

Students, administrators, paraprofessionals, support staff, teachers and parents are now grieving the loss of perhaps one of the most dedicated instructors to ever touch thousands of Sicangu pupils’ lives. He began his career at He Dog in 1962. Even after he officially retired from teaching he continued to work as a substitute.

Like many people who live in the He Dog, Parmelee and Upper Cut Meat Communities, I spent my entire elementary school career as a He Dog Bulldog. I remember Mr. Smith being there the whole time. I recall how it felt to be anxious to get to seventh or eighth grade so he could be my teacher. We all thought he was the coolest He Dog Teacher/Coach/Bus Driver!

His birthday was on Halloween, I believe. He always had a way of scaring the heck out of us. Most recently, he kept up his Halloween tradition by dressing up in wild costumes and showing up at the school to scare many of the students into tears. They knew he was going to show up but they didn’t know when. He would wait until the anticipation dwindled before he showed up to make all their little hearts jump with fearful surprise.

He played the piano. We all remember watching him cross his hands and play the piano. He kept up the tempo even with his hands crossed like it didn’t even faze him. And what about that freaky thing he used to do with his shoulder? You know, when he would make the bone on his back move up and down? Even now, I still remember what it looked like when he did that in the classroom. It always looked like it hurt.

I remember the Christmas skit that everyone looked forward to. It was probably the main reason for being anxious to get into eighth grade. Being an eighth grader meant you could be in the cool skit instead of singing Christmas Carols in front of everyone. I remember when the Christmas program used to be held at the red hall in Parmelee. I always thought the skit was the best part of the Christmas Program!

Mr. Smith was very proud of his military service. He was a World War II veteran and participated in every Veteran’s Day program and Wacipi that He Dog School sponsored. Last year he was the honored guest at the Veteran’s Day program. He received a star quilt and a million handshakes from the people who loved him. The school served cake in his honor.

I include here some comments that have been posted to Facebook in the past few days. We all have our own memories of Mr. Smith and I would bet money that they are all good memories.

“The first job I had when I graduated from high school was as a teacher's aide for the first headstart class at He Dog in the summer of 1966. Myrl was the teacher. We had a ball with all the pre-school children. He was a great teacher and really loved his career and the children whose lives he touched.” (Sherry Red Owl)

“After Mr. Smith retired he became a ‘substitute everything’ at the school and was there every day even though he was retired. He used to drive the bus a lot. Once we went to a play at another school where he backed the bus into some posts. The students were all shook up and scared. He just told them that those posts shouldn't have been there in the first place. They loved it!” (Deb Boyd)

“He was Grandpa Myrl to my youngest son. We tried to be sure to meet him a couple times during the summer to swim with him at He Dog Lake. He had a heart bigger than the rest.” (Fred Skaggs)

“Halloween was always a treat. I knew he was going to come in the gym and scare us. I loved him for all that he did for the children.” (Sunrise Black Bull)

“One memory I have is when he would give us an assignment then he would sneak out the back door to go have a cigarette. He would come back a few minutes later reeking of smoke! I'm going to miss him.” (Kathy Guerue)

Mary Nylander probably summed it up when she wrote: “Myrl was very visible everywhere. He supported everyone. He was there for his family, community, veterans, church, students, staff and all his friends. He was a hard worker. He always had a smile and a kind word. He liked visiting. He was always helping someone out in some way.

“Long after he retired he would still come to He Dog School every day to check on everyone, including his grandkids. He came to all the school activities to support the children. He had a strong relationship with God, too. He and Emily were always at church. He touched many people's lives, young and old. He will never be forgotten. He will now be one of He Dog’s Angels watching over all of us from Heaven. Myrl will be greatly missed by everyone. Rest in Peace Mr. Smith.”

Vi Waln is Sicangu Lakota and an enrolled member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. Her columns were awarded first place in the South Dakota Newspaper Association 2010 contest. She is Editor of the Lakota Country Times and can be reached through email at vi@lakotacountrytimes.com.

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