'He's easily impacted thousands.' Tributes pour in for longtime Norwalk band director killed in crash
It's rare for a single person to touch an entire community, but almost everyone in Norwalk has a story about Jeff Smith. Tributes poured in on social media as news spread that the beloved former band director died Thursday in a car accident in New Hampshire, where he lived.
“He's easily impacted thousands of students and thousands of parents,” said current Norwalk High School band director Chris Rivera, who took over the program when Smith retired in 2010.
Smith began his music education career working at Ponus Ridge Middle School for two years, then spent five years at Brien McMahon High School. In 1982, Smith went on to lead the music department at Norwalk High School as band director, where his style could be classified as “tough love.”
“Jeff was the kind of person that at first, you either loved or hated him. But then after a while, those that didn't love him at first understood why he was the way he was, and they began to love him as well,” Rivera told News 12.
“He was almost like a militaristic type but a very loving man behind it,” explained Craig Bergamo, a Norwalk High School alum.
Smith ran a tight ship, drilling this doctrine into his students: “To be early is to be on time. To be on time is to be late. And to be late is just unacceptable,” Bergamo recalled. “And I live by that by that saying today.”
News 12 sat in on a couple of Smith’s practices over the years, including one where there were a lot of pushups and running.
“My job is to make them better citizens. And if they're correct I praise them, and if they're incorrect, I tell them they're wrong,” Smith told News 12 in 2002. “You can't allow them to fail. You have to know that they will succeed by repeating it, reinforcing it and repeating it.”
But Smith was more than just a teacher. He was a friend, mentor, and father figure to generations of teens even after they graduated.
“He went to funerals. He went to weddings. He spoke at weddings. He spoke at funerals. He was always there for his students and his family,” said Brien McMahon High School band director Ron Secchi, who continued to talk to Smith weekly, even after his retirement.
Secchi was a graduate of the “Jeff Smith School,” both as a student at Norwalk High and later as a music teacher who studied under Smith.
“I modeled my professional career after him,” Secchi stated.
Rivera echoed that. He was one of Smith’s students as well.
“I wouldn't be here without him today,” Rivera told News 12. “Jeff made me the teacher I am, and I'm proud to say that everything I do and accomplish now is a direct reflection on what he taught me.”
But Smith’s most important lessons had nothing to do with hitting the right notes.
“He created a family concept which really was his strongest accomplishment I think throughout his career—better than all the trophies and banners because he made every student feel welcome,” Riveras said. “Some kids didn't have a family at home; they became the family. They didn't have food; he got them food. They didn't have a ride somewhere; he'd give them a ride.”
Bergamo knows that firsthand. He found himself living in the Norwalk shelter when he was 17 after his parents died.
“I got my first cellphone because of him. I got my first bank account. He set it up and went to the bank with me, and he was just always there for me through the years. He came to my police academy graduation—just an amazing man,” Bergamo shared.
He called Smith “selfless” and said he’s modeled his life on that because of what Smith did for him as a kid. “The man I am today is just giving back and wanting to help.”
That’s one way Smith’s teachings in and out of the classroom will live on.
“We're just passing all that love and knowledge of music to the next generation,” Secchi told News 12.
Smith leaves behind a wife, three sons and a daughter. His family shared a message about his death on social media: "Jeff cherished his family and the band family, was devoted to his students and celebrated each of your milestones every single day. In challenging times Jeff would ask that you keep your shoulders back, chin up and eyes with pride. Please always remember that and know that he loved you all."