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Some may have called him Tom or, in a formal setting, Thomas. To the fortunate ones — those who knew him well — he was simply T.A.

Part of it was to avoid confusion. His father, a longtime junior high teacher and coach, also was named Tom. When you mentioned "Tom Smith" in Minier or later at Olympia, the mind went to Dad.

So T.A. it was. That's what we called him. Presumably, the middle name began with an A. Or perhaps it was just A. No need to research it really, especially once you got to know him.

He was grade A all the way. What else mattered?

T.A. Smith was not a sports hero. He never rewrote a record book or stole many headlines. He played sports at Olympia High School in its infancy, helped establish its athletic foundation. Yet, his star power mostly was on the inside, where it truly counts.

His easy smile and big heart could fill a room and, it seemed, the wide open spaces surrounding our new rural home, Olympia. 

You remember things like that when you've been a nervous freshman walking into a school with fresh paint and, at the time, nearly 1,000 students.

You remember how many juniors and seniors you ran into who were not T.A. Smith, those who took delight in ignoring, intimidating or embarrassing nervous freshmen.

A junior, Smith soon became an ally who would give a nod or a smile or even a "hello" in the hallway. It was his nature and it mattered.

T.A. left you feeling better about the day ahead. Now, sadly, he has left us. Smith died unexpectedly Sunday night at his home in Towanda. He was 62.

As freshmen, we had an "in" with T.A. His brother, Tim, was one of us. That may have made him more accepting since we were among Tim's newfound pals, but we can't be sure of it. He was accepting of most anyone, especially those who shared his love for sports and, in particular, the Cubs.

You didn't have to be one to feel good for some Cub fans on the night their beloved team won the 2016 World Series. T.A. Smith was among those to come to mind. No doubt he reveled in it, stretching that elastic smile even further.

It always came to him effortlessly, in high school and a few years later when, randomly, he wound up living across the hall from a couple of Pantagraph sportswriters: yours truly and Bryan Bloodworth.

We talked about a lot of things with T.A. and his roommate, Ron Krueger. Most of it involved sports.

Later, T.A. became the friendly face from across the gym. His son, Myles, was a starter on the basketball team at Normal Community. His daughter, Lauren, was involved in cheerleading and dance.

Covering a game often meant a wave or a thumbs up. It was kind of like meeting in the hallway all those years earlier. There was just a court in between.

Occasionally, at halftime or after the final buzzer, we would meet for a brief chat. We would talk about the game or the Illinois State Redbirds — another of his passions — or even the Cubs, who were never out of season for him.

He would ask about my family, me about his. He would needle me about something, then break into a hearty chuckle. It was impossible not to join in.

You remember that when your heart stings. You regret taking those exchanges for granted, for not making them longer or more frequent.

Then you remember the guy he was, lifting you up over so many years and in so many ways, more than he ever imagined.

To dwell on what's lost goes against his grain. Better to be thankful for what you had.

Consider it done.

Contact Randy Kindred at (309) 820-3402. Follow him on Twitter: @pg_kindred

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Sports Editor

Sports editor for Lee Enterprises Central Illinois.

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