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Former state Sen. Earline Rogers remembers the first time she met Quentin P. Smith when she was a student at Roosevelt High School in Gary.

He walked into her English classroom at the start of the 1951-1952 school year.

With chalk in hand, he began writing the beginning of a sentence with his left hand and completed the sentence with his right hand.

He was, she said, one of the most impressive men she ever met and one of her inspirations for becoming a teacher.

"I will never forget the kind of teacher he was. I never again ran into a teacher like that. He was innovative," said Rogers, admitting then that she and many of her female classmates had crushes on Smith, whom she described as tall and handsome.

Sixty-five years later, Rogers said one of Smith's quotes still rings with her: "Everything you think of shows up in the expressions of your face."

Rogers' impression of Smith isn't unusual.

Those who knew him called Smith an imposing figure, standing more than 6 feet tall, with a booming voice, sharp sense of humor and stories to tell.

Smith, who died at age 94 on Jan. 15, 2013, lived a life full of stories.

He is one of two members of the 2017 Class for the South Shore Wall of Legends, joining prominent Region figures including early flight pioneer Octave Chanute; "A Christmas Story" author Jean Shepherd; popcorn magnate Orville Redenbacher; ecologist Henry Chandler Cowles and astronaut Jerry Ross in the South Shore Wall of Legends. All are honored in a hall of fame-like wall display at the Indiana Welcome Center, 7770 Corinne Drive in Hammond.

The early years

Born July 30, 1918, in Texas, Smith was a child when his family moved to Northwest Indiana, where his father took a job in a steel mill.

That, Gary attorney Greg Reising said, was a story all by itself.

Reising met Smith in the 1970s, Reising recalled, when Smith was an educator in Gary public schools and Reising and others were concerned about books being used by students.

Reising, who nominated Smith for the 2017 South Shore Convention & Visitors Authority Wall of Legends recognition, said Smith told him his father had been a semi-successful farmer in Texas until he had a run-in with a local deputy sheriff. The dispute, Reising said, ended in Smith's father hopping aboard a train and relocating to the Region.

"He was the only truly great man I ever met," Reising said about Smith.

"He was a very large man and very well educated. He had a great sense of humor and told great stories. He was an amazing man."

After graduating from Washington High School in East Chicago, Smith attended Indiana State University in Terre Haute, where he earned a master's degree in English in 1940, according to his obituary.

He returned to Gary where he began to teach. Then World War II broke out.

Tuskegee Airman

Smith joined the U.S. Army Air Corps and became a member of the legendary Tuskegee Airmen 477th Composite Group. In the 1940s, all military planes were assigned to white pilots, so Smith flew "primary" planes, or service aircraft, and served as a flight instructor at the Tuskegee Institute. Because of his size, he couldn't fit into fighter planes and became a bombardier.

Reising said one of Smith's proudest moments was when he nearly landed in jail for life.

Transferred to Freeman Field in Seymour, Indiana, Smith, now a first lieutenant, and some 100 other black officers were arrested for defying orders not to enter the base's officers club. The Army sent the officers to Fort Leavenworth, but that Kansas base was not prepared to handle so many African-American detainees, and they were sent back to Freeman Field.

Facing 20-year sentences at the U.S. Penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas, the men were defended by Thurgood Marshall, an NAACP attorney who would go on to become the first black U.S. Supreme Court justice. He won their case, and the men were released.

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Smith was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal years after his service.

'Education was his passion'

Smith returned to Gary, where he took up his career in education as a teacher and guidance counselor. He would serve as principal at Roosevelt Junior High School and West Side High School before becoming director of curriculum for the district. He is also credited with creating the Emerson High School for Visual and Performing Arts.

Education was his passion, said Dennis Rittenmeyer, former president of Calumet College of St. Joseph. Smith was vice chairman of the board of the college when Rittenmeyer was hired.

"He was a mountain of a man. When Quentin was in the room, you saw him, heard that booming voice. He was a gentle giant, a wonderful man committed to his community. He wasn't unwilling to stick his neck out," Rittenmeyer said.

"He was a Republican, but he was progressive. He was a man with his heart in the right place. He was very, very gregarious and had a strong personality." 

"He was an extraordinary man who lived in an extraordinary time and represented the best in us," John Davies, South Shore Legends founder and coordinator, said about Smith.

"There was a greatness about the man, not only in how he carried himself, but in what he experienced. There were so many layers," said Davies, adding Smith exemplified the four pillars of the legend recognition: exploration, courage, creativity and innovation.

Davies said Smith was an enduring figure of "this is the right thing to do and I will do it, despite the consequences."

Smith also served on the Gary City Council and several municipal boards.

After Smith's death, a bridge on U.S. 12/20 near the Gary/Chicago International Airport, was named in his honor. Smith also served as a member of the Gary Airport Authority, including, tenure as president.

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Porter County Reporter

Joyce has been a reporter for nearly years, including 23 years with The Times. She's a native of Merrillville, but has lived in Portage for 39 years. She covers municipal and school government in Porter County.