Bob Smith, 75; champion pole vaulter, longtime coach

By Jack Williams

For those who knew Bob Smith, the fact he won two national collegiate pole vaulting championships and qualified for three Olympic Trials came as no surprise.
With a steely resolve and discipline, plus the influence of a father and uncle renowned for their vaulting skills, he seemed destined for big things despite his modest stature.
"I was a snot-nosed kid, smaller than most," he said in a 1991 interview. "Competition was like a tonic to me."
Mr. Smith, a retired track coach who continued to excel as a senior pole vaulter in recent
years, died July 25 at his home in Lakeside. He was 75.
The cause of death was a blood clot in the lung, his son, Ron, said.
"He was never much bigger than 5-foot-10 and 170 pounds," said his son, who continued the family's pole vaulting legacy. "But his strength was scary, and his willpower and discipline were out of this world."
During the 1960s, Mr. Smith coached some of the finest high school track teams of the era at Lincoln High, including a 1962 squad that tied for a state championship. However, a review of finish-line films later dropped the Hornets to third place.
"That could have been the greatest high school team ever in San Diego," said Bob Fitzpatrick, a former pole vault coach at Grossmont High School and longtime friend of Mr. Smith's.
The 1962 team's leading scorer was sprinter Vernus Ragsdale Jr., whose wind-aided times of 9.4 seconds in the 100-yard dash and 20.3 seconds in the 220 were among the best in prep track history.
"Bobby was a feisty guy – you didn't mess with him – but he was very well-liked by athletes," Fitzpatrick said. "As a volunteer at Grossmont a few years ago, he helped me coach John Takahashi, who qualified for the Olympic Trials."
Before concentrating on track and field, Mr. Smith competed in wrestling and gymnastics as a youth. He learned to vault in the eighth grade in the back yard of his home across from Morley Field.
Mr. Smith cleared 13 feet, 2 inches at San Diego High School before winning a Junior National AAU title in 1948.
From 1949 to 1955, he was consistently ranked among the top 10 vaulters in the world by Track & Field News. In 1950, he was ranked second in the United States behind Bob Richards, the 1952 and 1956 Olympic champion.
In an era of cumbersome metal poles, Mr. Smith became the first American to use a revolutionary fiberglass pole in 1950 at the Inquirer Games in Philadelphia.
After breaking seven glass poles in a year, he went back to metal.
He won NCAA titles at San Diego State in 1949 and 1950 and achieved a career best of 14 feet, 113&Mac218;4 inches. He competed in the 1948, 1952 and 1956 Olympic Trials, finishing fourth in the latter after winning a pre-Trials meet at the Los Angeles Coliseum site.
In 1977, Mr. Smith was inducted into the Breitbard Hall of Fame at the San Diego Hall of Champions in Balboa Park. His father, Ralph, who in 1924 set an American pole vault record of 13 feet, 51&Mac218;2 inches, was inducted in 1982.
In 1991, father and son donated their old poles to the hall.
Ralph Smith and his brother, Harry, started the family pole vaulting tradition in 1916 after buying some bamboo sticks at a San Diego grocery store. Both went on to win Junior National AAU titles.
Bob's son, a former Point Loma Nazarene College athlete, carried on the Smith family tradition. He vaulted 15 feet, 7 inches before suffering a career-ending back injury, and his son, Rory, representing the fourth generation of family vaulters, competed at El Capitan High School and cleared 14 feet.
Bob Smith won regional master's vaulting championships as recently as three years ago in his age division and was a World Masters Games champ in 1998.
"Until the last two years, he always kept in top shape," his son said. "He would set goals every year. When he turned 55, he wanted to tear a phone book in half, do 50 chin-ups and do a muscle up (elevating his torso to the height of a chin-up bar). He did all three."
Mr. Smith earned bachelor's and master's degrees at San Diego State College and coached at Horace Mann Junior High School before taking over at Lincoln in 1960.
"He got involved in kids' personal lives," his son said. "Some of the kids he coached lost their lives in Vietnam, and their families asked him to do the eulogies at funerals."
After coaching a string of prep powerhouses at Lincoln, Mr. Smith went on to coach for more than 20 years at San Diego City College. He retired in 1990.
His father, who administered recreation and athletics programs in the city of San Diego from 1946 to 1971, died at age 92 in 1998.
Survivors include daughters, Sheri Rack of Escondido and Sandra Chase of Poway; son, Ron of Lakeside; sisters, Betty Wendell and Carolyn Kissel, both of Las Vegas; brother, Ralph of Lakeside; and six grandchildren.
Private and public services are pending.
Jack Williams: (619) 542-4587;

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