Happy birthday Granny!Over 150 friends and family members threw legendary baseball coach Granny Smith a surprise party to celebrate his 90th birthday.
By: Patrick Johnson, Staff Writer, South Washington County Bulletin
In 1945, Granville Smith took a job teaching five classes and coaching basketball and baseball at St. Paul Park High School.
“I didn’t really know where St. Paul Park was,” Smith said. “But, It was a nice town. I figured I’d spend a couple years there and then look around. But, we won the conference championship the first five years and took second the next four years, so I said I wasn’t moving.”
Sixty-five years later, Smith has grown to be one of the most beloved members of the community and a local legend. On Monday, July 18, over 150 friends and family members threw Smith a surprise party at Mississippi Dunes Golf Links in Cottage Grove to celebrate his 90th birthday.
“It’s very, very touching,” Smith said. “A lot of them aren’t too far behind me, though. They all have the same color hair at least. The girls, of course, they always look good. But, this is great. We never expected this at all. How can you visualize something like this? This is unbelievable. I cannot believe this.”
Roger Pribnow, a 1957 Park graduate, was one of the party’s main organizers. Pribnow, 72, came to the area the same year as Smith — in 1945 — as a first grader. He played baseball for Smith from PeeWees through high school and earned 19 varsity letters in his time at ‘Park-Hi.’
“He’s a well-liked teacher, he’s a well-liked coach and a well-liked citizen,” Pribnow said. “Everybody likes Granny. A lot of people have moved away, but Granny has stayed here and made a difference. All these people appreciate and respect Granny for being a great teacher and just a good citizen. He would always help anybody out if they needed it.”
Pribnow said his father passed away when he was in the sixth grade and that Granny took him under his wing.
“He’s been a good friend,” Pribnow said. “He has always been there for me and if I needed anything he’d help me out. He’s a good guy and a mentor to me. He always kept a watch out for me. Still does now.”
Smith worked for the school district for 45 years. He retired from teaching in 1983, but was a substitute teacher until 1990. His last year as a coach was 1977. Smith finished his 32-year coaching career with a 328-133 overall record (a .711 winning percentage) and won 14 conference championships. Out of his 32 years as Park’s coach, Smith had 25 first- or second-place conference finishing teams. He was a charter member of the Minnesota State High School League Hall of Fame and was voted into Park High School’s inaugural athletic Hall of Fame. In 1978, Smith was named Minnesota High School Baseball Coach of the Year and was a finalist for the National Baseball Coach of the Year. He is also a recipient of the Dick Siebert Award, named for the legendary baseball coach at the University of Minnesota.
Al Boche Sr., a Park 1955 graduate has known Smith since 1952. He played baseball and basketball for Smith and was one of the first coaches in the Cottage Grove Athletic Association. He still lives in Cottage Grove and sees Smith nearly once a week.
Boche called Smith “just an overall good guy.”
“He’s just a very nice person,” Boche said. “He didn’t take any crap from anybody at school, though. That was good. He was very influential to all of us. The turnout here says a lot of people feel the same way I do. He’s just a great guy.”
In the history of Park baseball, there have been only four head coaches — Smith, Bill Kroschel, Reid Tschumperlin and Kerry Ligtenberg. Kroschel played for Smith at Park and led Park to nine conference and three section championships over 24 years as Park’s coach. Tschumperlin was Kroschel’s assistant coach for 14 of those years and head coach for nine years. Ligtenberg played for Kroschel. All of them were on hand to pay homage to the venerable Smith.
“There’s some very influential people here tonight and Granny made an impact on their lives,” Boche said. “You can tell how people responded for Granny.”
Boche said the things he learned from Smith lasted a lifetime.
“I learned to do things the right way, whether you’re playing ball or whatever you’re doing, and to finish what you start and don’t take shortcuts,” Boche said. “He was just a great coach.”
Smith graduated from Hamline in 1945, just after World War II. He got the job in St. Paul Park the following school year with help from his friend, Marvin Towes. Towes was leaving to attend Washington University and his wife, a teacher in St. Paul Park, was going with him.
“He got a scholarship to work on his Ph.D,” Smith said. “He asked me if I was looking for a job. He told me he could arrange an interview for me. I met with the superintendent and the school board. A couple days later I had the job.”
His first contract with Superintendent F. G. Brandes and the school board was for a salary of $1,750 for the 1945-1946 school year.
Smith paid $12,000 for his first home in St. Paul Park and lived there with his wife for 53 years. Five years ago, the Smiths moved into a townhouse in Cottage Grove.
“We love that too,” Smith said.
Pribnow, his brother Dick Pribnow and fellow Park graduate and standout baseball player Bob Briggs have been taking Smith to play golf on his birthday each year for the past 10 years.
“That’s what I thought we were going to do, but they said it’s pretty hot so we were just going to have breakfast at Perkins,” Smith said.
On his birthday morning, the trio picked Smith up in a stretch limousine, giving him his first-ever limo ride. However, the car went past Perkins.
“I told them to tell the driver we went by Perkins,” Smith said. “We were way down by the Dunes now. They told me we’d just have breakfast there, then. I got out of the limousine and there were about 50 people out there with a big sign that said, ‘Welcome Granny Happy 90th Birthday.’ It was unbelievable.’”