Today, Laurie and I headed up to Pennsylvania to see some of our best friends and to celebrate Denny Smith’s life. I first met Denny speaking at a conference back in 2006, his hunger to learn were evident from our first conversation. As I got to know him better, I realized he was a dreamer par excellence!
Over the years, our friendship grew. He became a trusted confidante who could be relied upon to do the right thing because it was the right thing. Denny modeled the character, tasks, and relationships necessary for great leadership, great leadership strengthened by his partnership with Greg Johnson. In many ways, the relationship these two formed reminded me of the partnership I have enjoyed with Chris Brady, namely, respect, trust, and loyalty.
Greg and Denny joined forces when neither one of them had a nickel to their name. Nonetheless, through the power of massive dreams, massive work-ethic, and massive persistence, these two forged a dream lifestyle for their families. Even though Denny, the Marine, and Greg, the Ivy Leaguer, started on different tracks, they united quickly around the principles of the American Dream, a dream of life and liberty to pursue their goals and dreams.
These two men accomplished what they set out to do and their examples have inspired thousands of others to do similarly. Needless to say, I am one of those countless others and one of my greatest joys was spending time with these two men, hearing their crazy stories of how they persisted through the pain to achieve their dreams. Between traveling around the world, living in mansions on beautiful properties, and enjoying the time/money to spend with friends and family, these two experienced the world.
Dreams, however, on this side of heaven, do not last forever. For every person, whether rich or poor, must face his/her own mortality. Death, in a word, is the great equalizer. Nothing changes a person’s perspective faster from this life to the next faster than the loss of a loved one. Thankfully, Denny was a Christian who knew his Lord and Savior and even though he enjoyed life, he was also preparing for the next one. I will miss Denny greatly, but I also know I will meet him again. This is why I am going up to Pennsylvania, not to mourn, but rather to celebrate Denny’s life.
Denny seemed the picture of health, not only was he the poster-child of positivity, but he also regularly exercised and lived a moral life. Last year, however, he simply could not shake off a bad cough. I remember the day Denny and Donna picked me up in Philadelphia because we had scheduled a morning tour through Independence Hall. Denny and I both loved liberty and history so we did what we always did when we hung out – we laughed and learned. In reality, this was true anytime Laurie and I spent time with Denny and Donna, for both of these two loved to learn and laugh. This is what made them so special to so many.
Still, something was amiss, I couldn’t help but notice that Denny’s laugh ended in coughing fits. Finally, after practically prying it out of him – Denny never like to talk negatively about anything, especially himself – he admitted he was having difficulty shaking this “cold”. Donna said she had been on him to go to the doctor for over a month, but Denny, the tough Marine, believed he would beat it on his own. I took Donna’s side and asked Denny to get this checked out immediately. Denny agreed and we resumed enjoying the rest of the day.
Several weeks later, I received a call from Denny. He said the doctor had run test confirmed his cough was from an aggressive form of lung cancer and the odds did not look good. Denny’s attitude through all of this was amazing. He spent most of the phone call encouraging me! This is the type of man Denny was. He receives bad news and yet he calls and encourages me? Who does this? I asked Denny how he was doing and he said he was going to fight with everything he had. I told Denny if anyone could beat this, it would be him. We prayed together and asked God to intervene for His Glory, no matter what the outcome. Denny then began the fight for his life, knowing, through his faith in Jesus Christ, he would win either way.
I have many men in my leadership community, but what Denny accomplished the last 6 months of his life is second to none. Despite catching up with friends and family, an exhausting series of chemo-therapy, and endless hours researching lung cancer, Denny grew his community. Amazingly, he went CAB Coordinator, qualified for Operation Advance, and also the prestigious Fun-in-the-Sun trip. The day before he passed away, he was in our hotel suite with 25 other guys. I asked Greg Johnson to give a proper introduction of Denny since many of the younger leaders did not know his story. Greg’s introduction made many of the men tear up as they realized what Denny had overcome to be there. Denny proceeded to build the dream like only he could. Struggling to get enough air to speak, Denny encouraged everyone of the importance of dreaming and the importance of doing something within the time you are allotted.
In my mind, this moment is a perfect encapsulation of Denny Smith, for he will always be the quintessential dreamer and doer to me. He didn’t wait for life to happen but rather went out and made it happen. One may wonder why a man, so close to death, would share about the power of the dream, but I knew what Denny was doing. Today, there are many breathing who struggle to live. Denny, in contrast, may have been struggling to breathe, but he lived life until the last second. This is his enduring legacy – Denny dreamed while others slept, worked while others recreated, and accomplished while others excused.
Later that day, Denny was admitted to the Cape Coral hospital and the following day he went to be with the Lord. I know I speak for the tens of thousands of people Denny touched when I say – thank you Denny for teaching me how press toward the mark and leave it all on the field right to the last second. And I do mean the last second, for even as the doctors hooked Denny’s body up to a breathing ventilator, his lungs shutting down from the lost war with cancer, Denny looked at his friends and family one more time and gave them a thumbs up. Only a man who was sure of his destiny would, even at this juncture, still maintain his love for others over himself.
This is why I love Denny Smith and this is why Laurie and I are traveling up to Pennsylvania to celebrate his life. If you knew or heard Denny Smith share the dream, I would love to hear how he touched your heart.