When Kenneth Smart hired me to be sports editor at the Kilgore News Herald back in 1987, I assumed he did so because he found someone willing to work 80-hour weeks covering sporting events for basically enough money to keep gas in the truck. ...to cover more sporting events.

And, he was right.

Mr. Smart died a little more than a week ago at the age of 88, and I don’t know if I ever told him how much I appreciate him giving a 21-year-old, smart aleck hillbilly from East Tennessee the keys to the sports department at his newspaper.

This is that long, overdue thank you.

I moved from Tennessee to Texas in 1985 after being told by the good folks at East Tennessee State University I should take a semester off to “rethink my priorities.” Evidently — unlike in golf — bigger numbers are better when it comes to a GPA.

I enrolled at Kilgore College in the spring of 1986, began taking journalism classes under legendary teacher/advisor Bettye Craddock and quickly found my passion for journalism and sports writing. I was so passionate about my newfound love, I waltzed into the Kilgore News Herald in the fall of 1986 and asked sports editor Mark Elwood if I could start covering games for him.

Elwood gave me $10 per game to be a “correspondent” that fall, and in the spring of 1987 he let me start covering the Kilgore High School baseball team for him while he covered Kilgore’s soccer squad.

About a month into the gig, Elwood left to become editor at a newspaper in Mississippi, and managing editor Greg Collins asked me to handle sports for the spring and summer. The News Herald would hire an experienced sports editor before football season began in the fall. It wouldn’t be me, he said, but I would get my hands dirty that spring writing stories, taking photos and doing layout and design and then would be allowed to cover more football that fall.

Sometime between April and August, Mr. Smart decided I would be his sports editor. I never asked him why he took such a big chance on me at such a young age, but when I read his obituary earlier this week I think I figured it out.

Someone once took a big chance on him, and he was paying it forward. Mr. Smart landed a job as a reporter at the Dallas Times Herald when he was 22. He was that newspaper’s 31-year-old city editor in 1963 when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, making him responsible for assigning all of the newspaper’s reporters to cover the assassination and the subsequent killing of Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby.

If you can handle that kind of pressure, the idea of hiring a 21-year-old college kid with almost no experience to run your sports department evidently wasn’t that daunting.

A year into my career, the Kilgore College Lady Rangers made a trip to Senatobia, Mississippi to compete in the National Junior College Athletic Association National Basketball Tournament. I turned 22 a few weeks earlier, but Mr. Smart still sent me to cover the event.

Before I left for what turned out to be a week-long trip that ended with KC’s first national championship, Mr. Smart called me into his office to have a talk. I expected a lecture on the importance of being a professional, representing the newspaper the right way and meeting my deadlines with solid stories.

And, and I got a little of that. Then he told me to have fun. He told me to soak up the experience and understand not everyone gets the chance to do what I was about to do. “It’s a tough job with deadline pressures and lot of responsibility, but I know you’ll do a great job.”

Thirty-six years later, those words delivered about a particular assignment still ring true. It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it. I’m forever thankful Mr. Smart believed I was that someone.

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Jack Stallard is sports editor of the Longview News-Journal.

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