Sunday marks the 91st anniversary of the birth of Jack Smiley, a member of Illinois’ iconic “Whiz Kids.” Born in the tiny village of Waterman — in DeKalb County — Smiley was his town’s most famous resident, leading Waterman High to two consecutive Little Ten Conference championships.
From there, coach Doug Mills recruited him to play for the Illini, where he joined forces with four other small-town stars: Gene Vance from Clinton, Ken Menke of Dundee, Andy Phillip from Granite City and Art Mathisen of Dwight.
As a sophomore in 1941-42, Smiley and his teammates won the Big Ten title with a 13-2 record and played two games in the NCAA tournament. His junior season was even more impressive, winning the Big Ten again and posting a 17-1 record.
Individually, he was named to the All-Big Ten squad, with his most impressive game being played Feb. 20, 1943. Superstar John Kotz, averaging more than 20 points a game, and defending NCAA champion Wisconsin visited Huff Hall. When the final buzzer sounded, Smiley had held Kotz scoreless and limited him to two shots. A week later, the Illini defeated Northwestern 92-25 and were odds-on favorites to win the NCAA tournament title.
However, following the game, Mathisen, Menke and Smiley were issued their military induction notices and, a month later, were shipped overseas for duty in World War II. Vance and Phillip answered their call to duty a month later. Smiley, an artillery corporal in the Army’s 106th Division, had the daunting mission of fighting in the infamous Battle of the Bulge, manning a Howitzer for infantry support. In an interview after the war, he said that at one point he fired his gun for 96 straight hours. Smiley was fortunate to have been among the 10 percent of his force that didn’t suffer casualties.
The war veterans all returned to campus in 1946. But, due to the tolls of wartime duty, they weren’t able to recapture that once-magical chemistry. The Illini finished second in the Big Ten, with Smiley named MVP. He played professionally for two years, but the meager salary wasn’t enough to support his wife and five children.
Smiley returned to the Waterman area in 1951, accepting a job as a truck driver for a seed company in DeKalb. He advanced in the seed business and, in 1973, started the X-L Seed Treatment Co. in Granger, Iowa. On July 30, 2000, he died at age 77.
Sunday: Dennis Nevolo, tennis (24)
Monday: Alexis Smith, basketball (20)
Tuesday: Nate Williams, basketball (60)
Wednesday: Dave Aina, football (50)
Thursday: Jerry Gee, basketball (38)
Friday: Tom Porter, wrestling coach (72)
Saturday: Mike Hopkins, football (45)
By Mike Pearson, author of Illini Legends, Lists & Lore
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