One of my oldest and closest friends, Dan Smith, has lost his battle with cancer, but is now experiencing victory over death in the presence of the Lord. I am feeling so much as I write these words, but I want to capture some of what he meant to me…what he still means to me.
I met Dan in August of 1989, the Fall Semester of our freshman year at Howard Payne University. We were both outsiders, of sorts, who were thrown together in one of those “get to know you” small groups they put you in at college boot camps. For some reason we clicked, and became pretty close very quickly. It must have been Dan’s cool Tom Selleck mustache. I couldn’t grow a mustache. For about two years we remained inseparable.
Dan Smith taught me how to live in Christ. When I met Dan I was at a sort of crossroads in my life. I spent most of my teenage years as a juvenile delinquent, running from the Lord. By the time I wandered in to Brownwood to go to college I had stopped running and surrendered my life to Christ and to God’s call to vocational ministry. I was in that awkward transition of leaving one life behind and learning how to live a new life in Christ. I had not always been successful at this. In many ways I felt like a failure, and I was convinced that Christ would not want me on his team, let alone to represent him in some ministry endeavor. I hadn’t really had close Christian friends, and I wasn’t sure that I wanted any. A part of me wanted to go back to running from God, to self-destruct, and leave behind God’s plan for my life.
Enter Dan Smith. We became friends. He was so positive, upbeat, encouraging and accepting of me. Over time he taught me how to be 19 years old and be a follower of Christ. It was as if God threw me a lifeline in Dan. I am convinced that I would not be who I am today if it were not for Dan Smith.
I wish I could describe the time Dan and I spent together. I had never known anyone quite like him. Dan and I loved music, just not the same music. We spent countless hours driving across the state of Texas together listening to music. Dan tried to get me to like Country, which I detested. I preferred hard rock, which Dan had no interest in. We often settled for the Traveling Wilburys. Then Dan introduced me to his favorite Christian bands. He loved old school Petra and DC Talk. He would sing along to all the songs with such enthusiasm. I thought he was weird at first, but it eventually I was singing too.
Dan loved to laugh and be absolutely silly. I had never really heard of Monty Python until I met Dan. If we weren’t listening to music on our treks across Texas, we were listening to Monty Python. To this day I can’t hear someone say “spam” without singing the spam song (SPAM! SPAM! SPAM! SPAM!) and look around to see who else is singing. Of course no one is but me. I am comforted by telling myself that if Dan were there, he would be singing too (LOVELY SPAM! WONDERFUL SPAM!). We would be driving down the road and Dan would yell out “HAY!” and point out the window. I would look and there would be bales of hay rolled up in fields. I fell for it every time. Some of my favorite memories are of us sitting
in a room with Blake Hamaker and Jeremy McKewen playing Spades or Poker. We played and talked for hours with no cares in the world.
Dan never met a stranger and seemed to have no inhibitions about talking to people. Dan had a picture of the two of us standing in front of the Alamo as the sun was coming up. He gave his camera to some homeless man and asked him to take our picture. The man did, and as he gave the camera back to Dan he said, “There you go, a picture of two dudes in front of the Alamo.” Combine this with his sense of silly and you get Dan inserting himself in the backgrounds of people’s pictures with a terribly huge grin on his face. Dan had a way of making you feel special, important, and wanted. Dan made friends easily, many friends. And he had the ability to keep the friends he made. People wanted to be Dan’s friend.
Dan loved Jesus Christ. As an older teenager trying to leave behind one life and live a new life in Christ, I had never heard guys my age pray, really pray. I think I learned how to pray by listening to two guys: Dan Smith and Jeremy McKewen. They were so passionate, earnest, and sincere. They were not sissy or phony by any means. They meant what they said.Neither was Dan shy about his worship or self-conscious in any way. Dan carried around a big Bible and knew how to use it. He was the real deal. He made me want to know Christ and be like Christ.
Dan actually got me involved in ministry. He wanted to get involved in all kinds of things with the BSU. I didn’t. No matter how hard he tried, I wouldn’t join him. In the spring semester of 1990, Dan was involved with BSU Drama. He told me they needed me to play some part because I could do a voice like an old man. I said no, but Dan was persistent. So I got involved. Before long, Dan and I were writing skits together. Most of it was goofy stuff. Some of it wasn’t so bad, though. Best thing was spending time together writing material and making each other laugh. Dan was a good laugher. I’ve seen him laugh until he was beet red and the tears were running down his face. We spent a lot of time doing that. Dan really enjoyed the drama ministry and seeing people respond to how God was moving through a performance. A couple of years later Dan moved on to other areas of ministry, but I would be leading BSU Drama along with my future wife. All thanks to Dan.
Dan had an extreme sense of justice. It was like he had to make himself a part of every underdog’s struggle. The longer I knew him the bolder he got in standing up to injustice. The summer of 1990 we worked on staff at Mt. Lebanon Baptist Encampment.Dan had worked there in previous years and had spent some really great moments of his childhood at Mt. Lebanon. He told me it would be the greatest experience of my life if I worked there with him. Have I mentioned Dan’s ability to over-exaggerate in a bout of sincere enthusiasm? Well, apart from the great people who worked there with us, such as Jana Greenlee and Blake Hamaker, it was a terrible summer. So bad, in fact, that Blake and some others got fired and tensions were running high. The camp manager said something to Dan that set him off and he quit right on the spot! It was so unlike Dan and yet, so very much like Dan. He had enough of the OPPRESSION! Who knew Dan was such a fighter? Another time when we were living out in the country Dan stood up to a guy who was living in our house at the time. He was a big, and violent kind of guy who would eat all of our food off of our dishes and then complain because no one cleaned up the mess he left. One night Dan had enough and stood up to this guy and told him off. I was afraid Dan was about to get pummeled, so I took my stand right along with Dan, saying that if he fought Dan, he was fighting me too. Our housemate backed down. Dan had never been so bold.
Something I knew about Dan that other people may not have had opportunity to experience was how Dan was a hopeless romantic. One of Dan’s favorite movies was Can't Buy Me Love. We watched it many, many times. Afterward he would get that dreamy look in his eyes and sigh deeply. I went with him at least twice to watch The Little Mermaid. Dan loved Ariel. He would sigh and talk about how he wanted to be in love and have a family. It would pass and Dan would be back to hating women and talking about how he would never get married. He was going to be a camp manager and live alone or something like that. And yet…I always knew who Dan was crushing on during any given week because he would find ways to be involved in what they were doing, be near them in the cafeteria, and work their names into the conversation. As far as I know Dan never pursued any romantic connection with these young ladies and always remained a gentleman and a good friend.
Dan would get mad at me and others for not taking our relationships with girls seriously. It was true that I was a cad and a selfish turd and Dan would always call me on it. “You don’t know how to treat a woman!” he would say in disgust. He was right, of course. Dan was always much better at that than I. For instance, I was head over heels about one of our friends who wouldn’t give me the time of day. She was sick one weekend and spent some time in the hospital. When she got back to the dorm I wanted to do something to let her know I was concerned and thinking about her, but I was at a loss as to what to do. Dan, as always, knew her better than I and knew exactly what I should do: get her some coloring books and crayons. He was right! She loved it and colored me a wonderful picture that I kept a long time. I think, however, that she knew that the idea for the gift was too good to be mine and had to be Dan’s.
Another example: my wife, Kim, and Dan were good friends before Kim and I started dating. At Dan’s encouragement she and I dated for a while and then I lost interest. Dan was flabbergasted. Again, in disgust he told me what a fool I was and how I would regret being so stupid and selfish.
Dan: “You’re never going to find a better woman than her. You are so lucky! And now you are so stupid!”
Me: “What’s the big deal? You date her.”
Dan: “I would but she doesn’t like me, she wants YOU!”
Me: “She’ll get over it. You wanna go to Taco Bell?”
Dan: (with drool on his chin) AAAAAUUUGGGHH!!!!
Again, Dan was right. I never found a better woman than Kim. In another year I would be begging her to date me. Thank goodness for grace because Kim later became my wife. She is the best woman I know.
I believe Dan went through a period of depression for a while when it came to love and the future. He was a good man, such a very good man. He was faithful to Christ. He was kind and considerate. He wanted to be in love, and he had so much love to give. He wanted to settle down. He dreamed of having a family. He knew he would make a good father and he wanted to be one. As time went on, I wonder if he began to feel like it would never happen for him. He was always the odd man out, the fifth wheel, the guy girls wanted to be friends with but didn’t date. He would often withdraw and become sullen, which was out of character for Dan. He would speak with resignation in his voice, saying, “I’ll always be alone, won’t I?” I warned him that before he knew it, he would fall in love quickly with a girl he hadn’t even met yet.
Me: “You’ll end up marrying the first girl you date seriously.”
Dan: “No, I’m never getting married.”
Me: “Out of all our friends, you will be the first one to get married.”
This time, I was right. It all happened so unexpectedly. Dan came in late one night, or it may have actually been early one morning. I had been concerned because Dan didn’t usually stay out like that without letting me know what was going on. He came in and sat down at our table and had this dreamy look on his face.
Me: “What’s wrong with you? Where have you been?”
Dan:“I’ve been with Linda.”
Me: “Linda who? What are talking about?”
Dan: “Linda Manino, Hope’s sister.”
Me: “You've been with Hope's sister, Linda?”
Dan: “Yeah…we washed dishes and talked a long time…”
It was at that exact moment that I knew it had finally happened. Dan would never be the same. My first instinct was to protect him. Just who is this Linda, anyway? What does she want with you? What is she doing in Brownwood? Just what is her agenda?! My fear was that she would be one more in a long line of marvelous, wonderful women who wanted to be Dan’s friend, but nothing more. If Dan had that same fear he never showed it. He was all in and wide open, just like I predicted. Turns out my fears were unfounded. Linda would be something very special.
I have often wondered if Linda felt that I didn’t like her or trust her. That was never the case. I guess I just knew Dan well enough to know what was happening to him and I didn’t want to see him hurt. Far from being hurt, Dan’s heart burst wide open and his whole life blossomed. It was as if he came alive. He became even more outgoing, sillier and filled with more laughter, more like Christ, more bold and strong. In short, Dan grew up and became a man. Linda brought out all the best things in Dan and magnified them. She got him interested in meeting new people and involved in doing lots of different things Dan wouldn’t have been doing otherwise. Some of these things they did together had a profound influence on Dan and would shape the rest of his life, at least vocationally. She may not know it, but I have always secretly been one of Linda’s biggest fans for who she is, for what she meant to my friend, and for the way she loved him.
Dan and Linda got married in January of 1992. I was honored to stand up with him as his best man. God had blessed Dan with Linda, blessed Dan the way I always knew he deserved to be blessed. A year later Kim and I would marry and Dan would be my best man. After that we were busy perusing life and enjoying our families. Dan was positively giddy when Savannah was born. I knew this was something he
always wanted, and that his daughter would have a very fine father. I remember when the twins were born and what a scary time that was for a while. I’ll never forget being with Dan and Linda in the NICU and knowing how scared my friend was and yet how very brave and full of faith he was.
As time went on and God moved us around to different places of ministry, Dan and I lost touch for a while. I missed my friend but I was comforted by the knowledge that Dan was absolutely filled with joy at the way in which God had blessed him. His dreams had come true and he had the family he wanted. It was in Dan’s nature to be all in, wide open, and totally focused on what was going on in his life at the time. My nature was to withdraw and move on. Our nature’s worked against us as the years rolled by. Every year I would intend to make contact with Dan and Linda, but wouldn’t. I always thought I would have more time.
The internet and Facebook helps you rediscover people and renew contact, so Dan and I reconnected briefly online. Not long after that, like so many, I watched and prayed during Dan’s battle with cancer. A few days after they put Dan on hospice I asked Linda if I could come and see Dan. She graciously consented, and I made the seven hour trip to Fort Worth to spend a few hours with my friend and his family. Dan and I spoke of old times and laughed together again. He was always such a good laugher. I got to meet some of their close friends, which was such a blessing. Dan’s parents were there that day, and I had not seen them in years. That brought back memories of spending time in their home and eating at their table. The best thing for me, next to seeing Dan and Linda, was seeing their children. Savannah, especially, so brave, so focused on listening to her father, talking to him about things in her day, standing quietly in the room while Dan and I went on and on about the good old days. Dan’s parents brought Christmas gifts because they were not able to be together during the holidays. I was blessed to be able to watch them open gifts as a family. I just don’t have the words to describe how much all that meant to me.
I was able to tell Dan how much he meant to me and how much God had used him to shape my life. Dan expressed similar kinds of things. He spoke to Savannah of the importance of friendship and ties that can never be broken. We all prayed together. I told Dan I was absolutely committed to his family, even though I knew they would be well taken care of. He said he knew that, and he told me he loved me. Of all our years knowing each other, out of all the time we spent together, I can’t say for certain that Dan and I had ever said those words to each other. Felt them, yes…knew it in our hearts. But I don’t know we had ever
put words to it. I told him I loved him too. That was the last time I saw Dan.
Here are three things I am taking away from my story:
1. Make every effort to maintain relationships with people who mean so much to you, because few things are as hard to live with as regret. Time and distance combine with the natural ebb and flow of life and can draw people apart. It takes commitment and effort to counteract these natural life forces, but isn’t it worth it? Act now, before it is too late.
2. Here is how I am praying for Dan’s children and for my own children: when they need it most, I pray that God will provide good Christian friends in their lives who will help them to make good choices and follow after Christ. Further, I pray our children will be that kind of Christian friend to others.
3. As I read through the online tributes to Dan, I am encouraged that while my story about Dan is special and my own, it is far from unique. Dan touched many, many people. If it is true that I met Dan Smith when I was at a crossroads in my life, and if it is true that God used Dan to help me go in the right direction, then all of the ways in which God has blessed and provided for me are, at least in part, a result of Dan’s influence. I owe so much to him: my wife, my children, my calling. If God uses me for His purposes and His glory, then everything I do is a credit to Dan’s account in some way. The best way to honor Dan’s memory is for me to live my life, truly live it and live it well. And that is exactly what I intend to do.
Dear Lord, I want to thank you for allowing Dan Smith to be a part of my life. I thank you for his parents who raised him well, for the men and women who led him to Christ and helped him to grow, and for the many ways in which Dan bore fruit in how he influenced me. I thank you for giving me such a good friend. I pray that you would bless Linda, Savannah, Isaac, Sam, and Nate, their extended families, and all of their friends who grieve alongside them. We look forward to seeing our friend on the other side when he will be made new. Until that day, please find ways to remind Linda and the children that they are surrounded by so many people who love them. Thank you for being so good to us. We turn our eyes to you, we love you, and we trust you. Amen.