The last thing Bernal E. Smith II said to his wife, Towanda, was “I gotchu!”
It was a two-word slang response to her very playful reminder that he only had about a month left to get a new pair of shoes she dearly wanted for their 22nd wedding anniversary.
The publisher of The New Tri-State Defender and recently elected to the executive board of the National Newspaper Publishers Association, Mr. Smith passed away of natural causes on Sunday.
He was 45.
Towanda Smith knew the moment she found him by the side of the bed that the unfathomable was the painful truth.
“I am going to miss him. He was more to me than just a husband and the father of my children. He was my friend and that’s the part that is the hardest, losing my friend.”
Widely known and respected as a community force, particularly – but not exclusively – for the African-American community, Mr. Smith’s death was a stunner. From multiple levels and myriad parts of the country came condolences and praise for a man with a life well lived as a champion of hope.
Towanda and Bernal started dating at 16. They attended Havenview Junior High School and then Whitehaven High School.
Stellar on the basketball court and in the classroom, Bernal drew scholarships that afforded him a wide range of higher-education opportunities outside of Memphis.
“I’m not certain, but I would hope that he was too scared that if he left me I wouldn’t be here,” Towanda Smith said with a laugh.
He landed at Rhodes College on an academic scholarship and played basketball for a year.
Over the last few days, his wife has replayed so many events of their lives together, taking stock of herself in the process.
“I’ve understood my role. My role was to establish a career and to make sure my family was taken care of…. He never had to worry about where his kids were because his kids were with his wife.”
Towanda has two masters degrees and established herself in the field of early childhood care, choosing it, in part, because she figured it would allow her see their kids – a daughter and two sons – all day, everyday.
“I was OK with sharing him with the community because that is what his mom did. I saw her from an early age sharing her husband with people at church, sharing her husband with the community.”
In the days since his passing, Mr. Smith’s kids – Brianna, Bryndon and Braylon – have been sharing videos from Christmases past and recalling stories he shared with them.
“He was at every ballgame. When Brianna was born, he was in there (the hospital room) with me. When Bryndon was born, he was in the room with me. He wasn’t one of those guys who was like, ‘Let me just sit out here and let you do this.’ I ain’t going to tell you he was much help, but…”
With candor, she said, “Had I been a woman who was controlling and insecure and not being one that sacrificed, I would never have made it with Bernal. I say that because he drew passion by just talking to people and networking with them. It didn’t matter where we were, at church, at the gas station … He loved people.”
Bernal saw a vision for Memphis, she said.
“He saw Memphis being a diamond in the rough…. (What) he talked to me about on a constant basis (was) being in a position to be able to make real change for African-American people here in the city.”
Conscious of himself as a highly-visible public figure, Mr. Smith was distinctive dresser.
“He liked to be sharp,” Towanda Smith said. “He had the biggest closet in the house and would joke, ‘You want your man looking good when he goes out.’”
Taking in all the tributes, much of it on Facebook and other social media, she said, “(All) the different people that loved him, whether they’re putting out right information or wrong information, I know he genuinely touched them,” she said.
“In 45 short years, to have that kind of impact on people is special.”
The Rev. Derrick Joyce joined the 100 Black Men Memphis Chapter with Mr. Smith in 1997. Of the man he saw evolve, Joyce said, “He was very competitive and was endlessly optimistic whether times were good or bad.”
As a founding board member of the Memphis Academy of Health Sciences, the state’s first public charter school, Mr. Smith was pivotal in raising money to keep the doors open during lean times.
“It was part of that competitive fire that caused him to want take on the responsibility of the evolution of The New Tri-State Defender,” Joyce said. “Taking our history and what was good about the Tri-State Defender and indwelling it with a new spirit, new power and new promise.”
Mr. Smith was a mentor at Hanley Elementary School and other places long before he became a high-profile public persona, Joyce said.
“He truly lived and believed the 100 motto of “What they see is what they’ll be.”
Mr. Smith’s extensive commitments to community service included being on the board of the Memphis Urban League. Felecia Bean Barnes, vice president of Bean and Prince Contractors, Inc. and board chair of the Memphis Urban League, said, “I have so many amazing business, black kinship, working bond and fighting-through-the-storm remembrances of my friend.
“However through the many, I may have none greater than that of the message that I feel he would want me to share more than this, the ‘Story of the Day I Die’ by John Palovitz.
Palovitz’ story concludes with this passage:
It’s easy to waste so much daylight in the days before you die.
Don’t let your life be stolen every day by all that you believe matters, because on the day you die, much of it simply will not matter.
Yes, you as I, will die one day.
But before that day comes: You should Live, I sure did.