On the walls of the Fillmore’s Ella Hill Hutch Community Center, stands a mural of one of the neighborhood’s foremost youth advocates, Reuben ‘Smitty’ Smith. Smith was born in 1933 and was raised on the Upper West Side of New York City. After graduating from Saint Augustine’s College in North Carolina in 1957, Smith served in the U.S. Army. In 1963, he moved from Harlem to the Bay Area because he “wanted to see what was happening on this side of the world” (Millard).
After moving across the country, Smith recognized that America was a country of great inequity. He began his career working to influence the lives of children, stating that he wanted “to improve the quality of people’s lives. These young people are citizens of tomorrow, and that’s all we have. They’re going to run the city and run the country, and a lot of people don’t realize that” (Millard). He became an agent of change when he was positioned as the Executive Director of the Hunters Point Boys and Girls Club in 1970. Hunters Point carried a reputation for being heavily impoverished. Unemployment played an impactful role in the socioeconomic makeup of the neighborhood. After arriving in Hunters Point, Smith connected with the community, took it as his own, and never gave up on the children he mentored.
In an interview with the San Francisco Examiner, Smith elucidates his dedication to uplifting the next generation of Hunters Point: “In my mind, most of these kids, when they become adults, they should be better than me, with all the opportunities they have” (Millard). He encouraged the idea of “actions not words.” Though he was a man of few words, when he spoke he spoke profoundly when he served as a mentor and big brother figure to many (Yollin).
Smith established connections with all his members and often played pool and ping-pong with them. He took the children to the library, Golden Gate Park, Mt. Diablo State Park, and many other places that were worth the excursion. During the time spent with the boys, Smith had become a big brother, mentor, and even father figure to them.
Reuben Smith was Director of the Hunters Point Boys and Girls Club for 38 years.
Robert Duty, a 62 year-old El Cerrito real estate broker, was 14 when he met Mr. Smith. Duty remembers Smith as “a big kid himself ” (Yollin). Duty also saw Smith as a father figure: “He was very personable. He was not pretentious and he was a real down-to-earth person. Kids really identified with him. He was not like all the other adults. He started a bodybuilding program. A lot of older gang members came to lift weights with him. Everyone related to him” (Yollin).
Smith was more than just a fun mentor, he was also an effective disciplinarian who used constructive methods to correct the children’s misbehavior. In one incident, a boy was misbehaving and Smith corrected him by saying “Why don’t you go into the men’s room and take a look in the mirror?” He would allow the boys to take a moment to reflect upon themselves and recognize their worth and value as growing gentlemen. He would then say, “Did you like what you saw? Well, you don’t have to act up then” (Yollin). His simple yet empowering ways of discipline made Smith a parental figure to many.
Smith retired from Hunters Point Boys and Girls Club after 38 years in 2001. To recognize his exemplary service and commitment to the Hunters Point Boys and Girls Club, Mayor Willie L. Brown declared “Reuben Smith Day” on July 20, 2002.
Even in retirement, Smith was strongly committed to keeping the doors of the Hunters Point Boys and Girls Club open. On January 26, 2006, Smith helped steer a project with the city alongside Rob Connolly, President of the San Francisco Boys and Girls Club, to grant $1 million in funding to Hunters Point Boys Club.
For the remainder of his life, Smith danced to jazz and continued to reveal the potential of his community (Brown). He died from cardiovascular disease on December 25, 2008, at the age of 74 at the Alta Bates Hospital in Berkeley. Five hundred mourners, including generations of youth who he inspired, gathered together at his memorial. Reuben “Smitty” Smith is remembered as an inspiration who encouraged youth to believe that they could be successful.
— Juliet Baires
Brown, Willie (Mayor). “Resolution 930-01” City of San Francisco. 19 Nov 2001.
Hunters Point Boys & Girls Club. Jun 2000.
Millard, Max. “Hunters Point Boys &Amp; Girls Club.”
Murphy, Pat. “Loving Arms of Private and Public Sector Forge $1 Million Hunters Point Youth Center.” Fog City Journal. 7 Jan 2006.
“Reuben ‘Smitty’ Smith.” SF Chronicle. 1 Feb 2008.
Yollin, Patricia. “ ‘Smitty’ Smith, Mentor to Youth, Dies at 74.” SFGate. 31 Jan 2008.