Emerson Perry Smith, 78, professor at Naval Academy, trained Mids to box

August 25, 1998|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

Emerson Perry Smith, who helped thousands of midshipmen learn to box during his 29 years as a physical education professor at the U.S. Naval Academy, died of a stroke Saturday at Genesis Elder Care Nursing Home in Annapolis. He was 78.

Mr. Smith taught his fighters not just to punch, but to out-think, out-point, "out-class" and out-maneuver opponents.

"What he wanted to see was two skilled boxers who worked hard at learning the fundamentals," said Marine Col. Fred Peck, a former student, in an interview at a 1996 dinner honoring Mr. Smith.

"He didn't want to see anybody get beat up."

Mr. Smith -- invariably described as a "nice, gentle man" -- became a father figure to many midshipmen, and they gave him what he once described as "the finest memories of my life."

Knockouts were rare, and safety was always a primary concern with Mr. Smith, said Jim McNally, the academy's head boxing coach.

"He always felt all the instructors should teach the midshipmen as if they were teaching their own sons. We don't want to see any of them get hurt," he said.

Mr. Smith was born in Kent, Ohio. He attended Geneva College in Beaver Falls, Pa., intending to become a teacher. In 1940, he took what he thought would be a short break from school. But when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941, he enlisted in the Navy.

He was sent for basic training to Newport, R.I., and later to Bainbridge Naval Training Center in Maryland, where he met and married Louise McKnett.

Chief Petty Officer Smith was then assigned to work with former heavyweight champion Gene Tunney and middleweight champ Fred Apostoli, putting on boxing demonstrations for servicemen in the South Pacific.

After the war, Mr. Smith finished his bachelor's degree at Geneva College. In 1971, he earned a master's degree at the University of Maryland.

In 1956, after nine years as a basketball coach and physical education professor at Washington College in Chestertown, he was hired by the Naval Academy.

Boxing instruction is required of all midshipmen.

"It is probably the only activity here at the Naval Academy where we can put the midshipmen into an environment of controlled stress, where they have to think and act under pressure," said Mr. McNally.

In the fleet, an officer's ability to think and act under stress can save lives.

Determined to avoid injuries, Mr. Smith helped to improve protective headgear and develop thumbless boxing gloves to reduce eye injuries. Since 1984, thanks to his efforts, headgear has been required in all amateur matches.

In 1991, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame of USA Boxing, the governing body for U.S. amateur boxing.

He was a golfer and liked to sail his 22-foot boat, Bell Ringer, on the Severn.

His memberships included the Annapolis Civitan Club, Annapolis Elks Lodge 622 and Coats Lodge Masonic Temple in Easton.

A memorial service is scheduled for 11 a.m. tomorrow at the Naval Academy Chapel.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Smith is survived by two sons, Stephen E. Smith of Southern Pines, N.C., and Michael Smith of Austin, Texas; a daughter, Deborah Smith Chambers of Annapolis; two brothers, Malcolm Smith and Dwayne Smith, both of Marion, Ohio; a sister, Florence Sengler of Deerfield Beach, Fla.; and three grandchildren.

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