FORT WAYNE — From photographs of historical leaders and their inspirational messages to the children’s construction paper or poster board art work, the yellow-painted walls within the tiny room of the McCormick Boys and Girls Clubs are almost completely covered, floor to ceiling.
Upon entering through the heavy steel door, a solitary white rectangle folding table with black metal legs is on the room’s left side. It is surrounded by various types of chairs, now empty. The cement floor is covered with a vinyl tile, dingy white. The room’s lighting is stark, except for the single window, smudged and streaked.
The place is not furnished for comfort. It’s not supposed to be.
“We’re not here to entertain you,” Marsha Smiley has told her pupils.
In one of those unmatched chairs, the 63-year-old with her dark hair brushed back sits peacefully at the window. Like a protective mother, her gaze is fixed outside as she watches children climb among the club’s constructed playground.
She sits with her right shoulder nearest to the glass. Behind her, leaning in a corner, is a silver aluminum crutch that enables her to walk – not the kind of crutch that goes beneath the shoulder, but attaches to the forearm. Since being stricken with Guillain-Barre syndrome, which nearly took her life in 1987 and placed her in a hospital for 10 months, the mobility of her youth has suffered.
Yet put her in a swimming pool, where she most recently swam laps three times a week, and she can fly.
“I tell these kids, ‘You come to the swimming pool now. I’ll set you down in a swimming pool!’ ”
But twice a week during the evenings, for 11 years, Smiley returns to the small room of the Boys and Girls Clubs to do “what I think I should have been doing from the beginning.”
And that is to teach elementary-age students, and not just improving their reading or writing. She teaches the applications of the words that are pasted to these walls amid the photos of Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi and Abraham Lincoln: Inspire. Courtesy. Respect. Excellence. Doing Your Best.
Marsha Washington ranked 15th in her 1969 graduating class at Central High School, then went on to Indiana University in Bloomington, where she earned a bachelor’s in history.
She married Ephraim Smiley Jr., got a job with Fort Wayne Community Schools working with at-risk children and found a career as a caseworker in which she determined eligibility for Medicaid assistance.
But she got the flu. At least that’s what it appeared to be.
“I remember calling my supervisor and saying, ‘Listen, I’m just not getting over this.’ I had three, four days of being ill with flu-like symptoms,” Smiley says. “But then that particular day, the movement started to leave my body. It started in my feet. I could not move my feet, and it worked itself up to my knees, where I could not move part of my leg.
“I remember my husband just hurrying up and pulling me out of the house and putting me in the car and taking me to the hospital.”
The diagnosis was Guillain-Barre syndrome, a disorder in which the body’s immune system attacks part of the peripheral nervous system.
For nearly a year, Marsha Smiley was hospitalized – working on breathing, working on walking, hoping she could get her life back. And after her insurance carrier deemed she could be released from the hospital, she returned home in a wheelchair, where she remained for nearly another year.
In addition to taking care of four sons, Ephraim Smiley was working at the Pontiac Youth Center, where he was planning a fishing trip for some of the kids. Because there were a few girls interested in going, as well, Smiley needed a woman to accompany him.
“He said, ‘It looks like you’re feeling better,’ ” Marsha says. “ ‘If you could go, I could take some of the girls on this fishing trip.’ And even though I was in a wheelchair, I did.
“Even though my husband loves to fish, that is not my cup of tea. But if you give me a book or magazine, I’ll sit on anybody’s bank while you fish. I did go with him that day, and that’s what got me going to the Pontiac Youth Center.”
She began as a volunteer, working with the kids. The granddaughter of a school principal and already a long-term literacy advocate, Marsha combined her love of education with her skill for teaching. And one foray into volunteer work led to another, and another, and another.
She and Ephraim would raise four boys: Ephraim III, Chris, Jonathan and Brian. Three attended college. Two have graduated. And Brian, an NAIA All-America offensive lineman with the University of Saint Francis, earning a master’s degree.
“For the most part, we all got good grades,” says Chris, 32. “But it didn’t matter if you got good grades or not, we went to summer school until we got to high school.
“There wasn’t a time when I wasn’t doing something extra as far as education. Even in elementary, I remember her getting us the little books that they have for mathematics and English. I can remember her making us do those books, all the way in elementary.”
Marsha Smiley’s countenance softens when she talks of her family; of her boys. This time the gaze outside shifts to the inside, and she smiles.
“Chris read 30 books to his 6-year-old in one month,” she says. “The Smileys stress that literacy.”
Says Chris: “I’ve got a 6-year-old daughter now and she excels. She’s different than us. She wants to go to summer school. I don’t know if it’s gender-related or what. When we were little dudes, we wanted to play football and basketball in the summertime all the time, or Nintendo. We didn’t want to go to summer school, but (Marsha Smiley) always pushed us to try to be better than what we are.”
And he still remembers the house rules: “No loud music unless it was Marvin Gaye,” he says. “You got to do your homework before you can play. Be in by the time the street lights come on. And no bad behavior.
“One of her famous quotes was, ‘This house is thirty-five-hundred square feet; you don’t have to be right up underneath your brothers.’ That was basically it.”
It was in May when the YWCA Northeast Indiana presented the 2014 Peggy Hobbs Award for outstanding volunteerism to Marsha Smiley.
Of course, she accepted it with humility.
“It’s not me,” she likes to say. “It’s the kids.”
The award can be placed among at least a dozen others for her work with literacy and volunteerism.
She excels in art and photography. She has written plays and nationally-recognized papers. She serves on numerous boards and civic organizations – Race Unity Task Force; African/African-American Historical Society and Quasi. She was the Zonta Club’s Woman of the Year in 2006.
But there was one time, she says, when the best reward came during a classroom session.
It was from the little boy, years ago, who looked up and said, “Mrs. Smiley, you love everyone.”
So she continues to peer out the window, watching the children climb the play structure and be right up underneath each other. She softly sighs.
“It’s not about pay,” Marsha says. “It’s about serving humanity. That’s what my faith is all about – serving humanity.”
Then a face appears. It’s a little boy at the window where she sits. He could be 7 years old, maybe 8. He taps on the window, smiles and waves to her. Mrs. Smiley smiles and waves back.