James Smith (an editorial)


It was a sunny Saturday morning when James Smith ran afoul of the law. Smith, the women’s basketball coach at Northwestern at the time, dragged me into his legal entanglement. Smith picked me up in his convertible for a day of golf at the country club. We had not been on Texas Street long when a police car seemed to appear out of thin air behind us with its lights flashing. The two officers who approached the car were amiable and pleasant. But Smith was already indignant at just the thought of being stopped by police when he was not speeding and had not run over anybody.

One of the officers said Smith had run the red light in front of a grocery store. Smith said he knew the light was yellow when we were under it, because the top was down on the convertible and he had looked up at the traffic light. Then Smith wanted to know where the officers were parked when they observed his alleged violation. When they told him, he said they could not have determined from that angle if he had run a red light. The officers had not reached for their ballpoint pens or ticket pads at that point, and I felt that they just wanted to issue Smith a verbal warning and send us on our way. But Smith was adamant that he was innocent of running the red light.

Instead of letting things go, Smith asked me to verify his claim that the signal was yellow and not red when we went past it. I said I thought we got through the intersection before the light changed to red, but the policemen didn’t care by then what I thought. They wrote the ticket with Smith protesting the whole time. We went on to the country club, and Smith blamed the encounter with the police for his bad round of golf. I shot in the high nineties, but that was just a normal score for me. Smith told me the next day that he planned to go to court to fight the ticket. He said he would serve as his own attorney and needed for me to be his star witness. I told Smith that we could end up spending two or three days in the courtroom waiting for our case to be heard, and that would create a lot of inconveniences for both of us. I even offered to pay the fine myself if he would not go to court. But he insisted it was the “principle of the thing,” and we ended up in court. We sat through a day of proceedings, and our case didn’t come up. Judge Fred Gahagan saw us in the hall and encouraged Smith to just pay the ticket. But we went to trial the next day. Smith introduced himself as his own attorney and me as his witness. Judge Gahagan rolled his eyes. Smith opened his defense by asking me to describe everything I saw on Texas Street that morning. I said the first thing I observed was an elderly man in a straw hat selling tomatoes out of a pickup truck. Then I said I saw some people coming out of the Holsum Thrift Store with boxes of Twinkies and Ding Dongs. Judge Gahagan seemed a little exasperated and asked Smith to get to the point of the ticket being issued to him and his denial of those charges. So Smith re-phrased his question. He told me to “tell all of us everything you know about me running that red light.”

With that accidental admission of guilt, Smith created a burst of laughter among the courtroom audience. The judge called Smith, me and the officers who issued the ticket to the bench. Out of earshot of others in the courtroom, Gahagan told Smith to go pay the ticket and for both of us to get our butts out of there. Only he used a different word for our backsides that started with the letter A. I was a little surprised to hear a judge use that kind of language in the courtroom. The officers chuckled and slapped us on the back. I was out the door before the gavel hit the table, and Smith was right behind me. Smith called me at home that night to say he wanted to appeal the ruling. He said we could get stopwatches to see how long the light stayed on yellow and could study the view the officers had of the light from where they parked. Somehow, our connection got messed up and the conversation ended. Smith told me the next day he tried several times to call me back but kept getting a busy signal.