Legendary GCHS coach succumbs

Published 10:45 am Thursday, January 18, 2024

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ST. AUGUSTINE, FL – Leon Harrell “Pete” Smoak, legendary football coach at Gates County High School, passed away January 8 at Clyde Lassen State Veterans Home in St. Augustine, Florida. He was 88 years old.

Coach Pete Smoak

A devoted husband, father, teacher, coach and mentor, Pete will be remembered for his legacy of teaching and coaching hundreds of students and student-athletes over a long career in education and athletics.

Born September 15, 1935 in Hiltonia, Georgia, Pete grew up in Elizabeth City, NC. Starting at a young age, he was a gifted natural athlete in baseball, basketball and football, lettering in all three sports at Elizabeth City High School.

He was a regular at the local Boys Club, hanging out there with his friends and looking after his baby sister Betty Jean in between school and ball practice. Young Pete’s passion for sports helped him win an essay contest and serve as a ball boy for a Cleveland Indians game where he warmed up famous pitcher Bob Feller.

Upon graduating high school, Pete enlisted and served in the U.S. Marine Corps as a reconnaissance marine, did tours in the Pacific, and achieved the rank of Lance Corporal. Afterward, he returned to North Carolina for college.

A Chowan College standout, Pete covered the infield playing shortstop on the baseball team, and he was a small, but lightning-fast, defensive back on the Braves football team. It was at Chowan where he met his wife Deborah, before transferring to Wake Forest University to earn a bachelor’s degree that would prepare him for a teaching career.

Participating in a program to recruit new teachers to rural areas, Pete and Deborah moved to Gatesville in 1964, where they lived for four decades.

Pete taught numerous subjects at Gates County High School, including biology, where he would sometimes prop his young daughter up on the lab table during class. He also taught geography, P.E., and driver’s education, petrifying many 15-year-olds behind the wheel with his stone-faced, taciturn approach. He coached the baseball team and basketball team. But most people who knew Pete know that football was his greatest passion. As a teacher of football and lifelong student of it, he was recognized for his creativity and there was nothing he didn’t know about the game.

Pete coached the Gates County High football team starting in 1964. In 1971, he led the Red Barons team to its first and only state championship (so far). The team used its powerhouse defense to go undefeated 13-0 that season. A few years later, he was selected to coach in the North Carolina All-Star Game, where as defensive coach he helped lead the East team to victory.

Over the years, Pete turned away offers to coach at larger high schools, or colleges, or return for graduate school, not because he wasn’t ambitious, but because he was devoted to coaching and mentoring the young men of Gates County. Coach Smoak spent countless hours, with the help of his outstanding assistants, promoting players to colleges, helping them obtain scholarships, sending tapes, writing letters, making phone calls. Many of his players earned college scholarships, athletic or academic, and a number of them played professional football in the NFL.

Pete was proud of his students in whatever they chose to do in life, as many of his players became doctors, accountants, lawyers, policemen, teachers, ministers, mayors, tradesmen, farmers, salesmen or coaches themselves. He believed that education and athletics could be the key for many of them, as it had been for him.

Those who knew Pete well knew he was a unique personality – curmudgeonly, at times short-tempered, with high expectations, but also fiercely loyal and quick-witted, the master of the amusing anecdote, with his teaching and coaching adventures often the source of many funny moments that he loved to share again and again. He enjoyed nothing more than getting together with friends for a round of golf or an oyster roast in the backyard, often including his former students, and reliving the glory days. To jam with one of his musician friends, he even took up the guitar, which is when it became apparent his talent at athletics did not in fact extend to music.

After retiring from teaching and coaching, Pete had more time to spend on leisure activities like fishing on the river or down at the beach, and following his beloved UNC Tar Heels and New York Yankees. An accomplished golfer on the links, he won many amateur tournaments and made not one, but four holes-in-one. From bowling, to water-skiing, to roller-skating with his kids, to shooting pool even at age 88 from his wheelchair (and sinking the shots), there seemed to be no sport or game he couldn’t master.

In a nod to legendary coach Bear Bryant’s quote: “Win games with your strengths, not your weaknesses,” he often focused his children and his players on the idea of playing to your strength, using the most of your God-given talents, and rising above your circumstance to find the way to win, which is what Pete Smoak did in his life.

Pete’s dedication to his family, his friends, and his students was unwavering. He is survived by his wife of 63 years, Deborah; daughters, Allison Pearsall (Chuck) of Charlotte, and Adrianne Frederick (Brent) of Columbia; two granddaughters, Claire and Corinne Pearsall; and sister-in-law, Betsey Folkner.

Services are to be announced.

Contributions in memory of Coach Smoak may be made to The Boys and Girls Clubs of America or the Gates County High School Athletic Booster Club.