Most of the journalistic idols of my youth were as fictional as they were honorable or thrilling or both. Guys like Clark Kent (Superman), John Boy (The Waltons), and Carl Kolchak (Night Stalker) made me want to plunge headlong into the fourth estate.
Wilma Smith, on the other hand, was the real deal, even if she has seemed larger than life all these years. Honestly, she gave me no choice but to idolize her to a large degree. We both grew up in Garfield Heights. We both worshiped at Sts. Peter and Paul. And we both graduated from Garfield Heights High School and Bowling Green State University, where we received degrees in journalism. Although I’ve regrettably never met Smith, I’ll never forget the one time we shared the same room with a thousand or so parishioners at Sts. Peter and Paul. It was during midnight mass in the mid-1980s, several years after Smith had become a local celebrity as a news anchor with Channel 5 and certainly after she had left Garfield Heights for greener pastures. I remember turning around to see a standing-room-only crowd, which was impressive enough. But literally rising above everyone else in the packed pews was this statuesque individual, as radiant as the brightest of ornaments atop Christmas trees across the parish. Our golden-haired star — born and raised as Wilma Pokorny — had come back home for this special night.
If you’ve watched the scene from “The Natural,” in which the sight of Glenn Close’s character — singled out among a crowd of baseball fans, thanks to well-placed rays of sunlight — motivates Roy Hobbs to go deep, you know exactly where I’m coming from. That’s the kind of memory that lasts a lifetime. And hasn’t it seemed at least that long since Wilma Smith has been a news anchor at WEWS-TV and WJW-TV? I was in-between the seventh and eighth grades when she joined Channel 5 on July 17, 1977. Smith’s television career ended May 22, when she retired just a few months shy of 36 years in the Cleveland market. Although I haven’t watched much local TV news in recent years, it was always comforting to run across her familiar face while surfing channels. As classy as ever, Smith’s primary reason for retiring, she said, was to spend more time with her husband of 32 years, Tom Gerber. And if you’ve watched any of Fox 8’s video tributes to Smith, you know that her faith is deeper than ever, which makes that midnight mass moment seem even more special three decades later.
Word has it that Garfield Heights officials are going to change the name of Smith’s childhood street, Plymouth Avenue, to Wilma Smith Way. Having already followed her path in a variety of ways, that is a road I’d be more than honored to travel.