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TOWANDA PEETE-SMITH: From wife to widow to sounding a health alarm

Talk to Towanda Peete-Smith for just a little while and you likely will pick up on her sincere sense that God works things out for you.

Her allegiance to that belief got tested on the morning of Oct. 22, 2017 when her husband, Bernal E. Smith II, passed away from cardiovascular disease and hypertension.

With three children and the youngest 13 at the time, Peete-Smith went from wife to widow in a flash. Relying on her faith and support system, she charted a way forward for her family without Smith, the late publisher of The New Tri-State Defender.

Sometimes, she still wonders.

“If I had gone in there 30 minutes earlier, could I have done something differently? … The bottom line is God had a plan for him and his life. He fulfilled that plan and ….now, what we are trying to do is educate people.’”

The “we” references Maleka Williams McCray, a sorority (Alpha Kappa Alpha) sister that she has teamed with, along with Dr. Derrick D. Payne and Men of Memphis United and the 100 Black Men of Memphis. On the campus of Rhodes College on Oct. 13, the collaborators will host the Bernal E. Smith, II & Michael Mason Heart Healthy Men’s Symposium.

Excited to get a call from Williams McCray, Peete-Smith already was working on a Bernal E. Smith II commemoration weekend. The health symposium will mesh with a block party set along the recently designated Bernal E. Smith Way, which is the street north of FedExForum near the office of The New Tri-State Defender.

The commemorative weekend will come one week before the first-year anniversary of Smith’s death. It will feature the awarding of college scholarships to local seniors. Funds were raised by 100 Black Men, where Smith once served as president.

“He (Smith) would have been very disappointed had I not just stepped to receive the awards on his behalf but to make sure that this didn’t happen to somebody else.”

Since Smith passed, she has become painfully familiar with the observation that many men “don’t take care of themselves. They are secondary or they’ll take care of everything else more so than taking care of themselves.”

Mr. Smith, with his wife, Towanda, their children, Brianna, Braylon and Bryndon at TSD Legends & Leaders 2017.
(Photo: Tyrone P. Easley)

Upon reflection, Peete-Smith now sees signs associated with the health tragedy that took her husband’s life – the bottle of low-dose aspirin that he kept nearby and his habit of lifting and rotating an arm trying to get pain relief. In November 2016, his daughter, Brianna, rushed him to the emergency room as he complained about chest pain.

“Bernal had never been one to like doctors,” Peete-Smith said. “As educated as he was, Bernal was endlessly optimistic about everything, including his life.”

Smith was careful about what he ate and would even admonish her about going to heavy on colas, she said.

“It was just that Bernal had hypertension,” she said, disclosing that she does also. She routinely takes medication; he did not.

“He told me that he did not like the way it made him feel. I told him, ‘You’ve got to keep taking it until you get the right one.’ … It’s a silent killer. You can be up today doing what you regularly do and then you can just fall out and you’re gone.”

The October health symposium is for “everybody and anybody,” she said. “The focus is primarily for African-America men but it (October) is also breast cancer awareness month. Last year, I was at an event where Bernal was the MC for Tiara’s Teardrops. At the event they featured Bret Miller founder of the Male Breast Cancer Coalition, who had male breast cancer.”

And then there is the need to proactively address the issue of stress, Peete-Smith said.

“Bernal internalized his stress,” she said. “You’ve got to release some things…”

Peete-Smith said it is imperative to take control of one’s health, including visits to the doctor.

“People like to use excuses about ‘I don’t have the money’ or I don’t have this or that. There is no reason why you could not have gone to the doctor,” she said, noting that there are free and/or low-cost options.

With candor, she said, “Everybody might not have the means but Mike and Bernal did. …

“Sometimes tomorrow don’t come for people. So it’s important to take the time today to take care of yourself. Give the give of life.”

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