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 was evident from our first conversation, a conversation that would turn into a lifelong friendship.
Denny soon became a trusted confidante, one who could be relied upon to do the right thing because it was the right thing. He modeled the character, tasks, and relationships necessary for great leadership, leadership strengthened by mentoring with Greg Johnson. In many ways, the relationship these two formed reminded me of the partnership I have enjoyed with Chris Brady, built upon 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 dreams, work-ethic, and persistence, these two forged an amazing lifestyle for their families. Denny, the muscular Marine, and Greg, the intellectual Ivy Leaguer, may have started in different fields, but they quickly united around the principles of the American Dream, a dream focused on life, liberty, and the pursuit of their goals and dreams.
These two men accomplished so much and their example has 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, despite the pain of the process, to achieve their dreams. Between globetrotting around the world, living in beautiful mansions, and enjoying the time/money to spend with friends and family, these two experienced life like few others.
Dreams, however, this side of heaven, do not last forever. For every person, whether rich or poor, is appointed to die. Death, in a word, is the great equalizer. Perhaps, no single event turns a person’s perspective from this life to the next faster than the loss of a loved one. Denny’s cancer and death caught all of us by surprise. To say we are going to miss him is a huge understatement. Thankfully, Denny was a Christian who knew his Lord and Savior and even though he enjoyed this life, he also prepared for the next one. I will miss Denny greatly, but I rest in the fact that 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 received bad news and yet he called to encourage 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 him if anyone could beat this, it would be Denny Smith, the tough as nails Marine. 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 great people in our leadership community, but what Denny accomplished the last 6 months of his life is amazing. Despite investing time to catch up with friends and family, undergoing exhausting chemo-therapy session, and endless hours researching lung cancer, Denny grew his community. Incredibly, while fighting for his life, he went CAB Coordinator, qualified for Operation Advance, and the prestigious Fun-in-the-Sun trip. In fact, the day before he passed away, he was in our hotel suite with 25 other guys. I asked Greg Johnson to give Denny a proper introduction because many of the younger leaders did not know his story. Greg’s introduction made many of them tear up as they realized what Denny had overcome to be there. Not surprisingly, Denny, although short of breath, proceeded to build the dream like few people can. He encouraged everyone to dream bigger and chase down the dream within the time each of us is allotted.
In my mind, this moment perfectly encapsulated Denny Smith, the quintessential dreamer and doer, who refused to give up. 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 and I couldn’t help but notice the juxtaposition. While most people breathe without difficulty, they struggle to dream; Denny, in contrast, struggled to breathe, but dreamed without difficulty. Denny never stopped dreaming. This is his enduring legacy – Denny dreamed while others slept, worked while others recreated, and accomplished while others excused.
Later that day, he was admitted to the Cape Coral hospital and the following day Denny went home 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 us how press toward the mark and leave it all on the field even to the last second. And I do mean the last second, for as the doctors hooked Denny’s body up to a breathing ventilator, his lungs shutting down from his lost war against cancer, Denny looked at his friends and family one more time and gave them a thumbs up. What a man and leader. Only a person who was sure of his destiny would, even at this crucial 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.