Palmetto High band director dies of cancer just days after his wedding

Eight years ago, a young widow named Lisa Judy approached Paul Smith, Palmetto High School’s trombone-playing band director, at church and asked him to teach the instrument to her young son, Wade.

Smith, who played with two ensembles at Kendall United Methodist Church, agreed.

Lessons led to love. A family formed. And on Oct. 6 at the same church, Wade Morgan Judy played with members of the University of Miami Frost School of Music’s trombone choir during Paul and Lisa’s wedding.

The ring bearer carried the teddy bear in which Smith had hidden an engagement ring when he proposed in 2007.

On Saturday, the couple’s loved ones will again gather at the church — for Paul Joseph Smith’s funeral. He died on Oct. 18 of a fast-spreading cancer that started in his kidneys. He was 48.

After getting the diagnosis in April, Smith reluctantly resigned from the Palmetto faculty after 15 years, his wife said.

Smith, born June 15, 1964 in Lincoln, Neb., regularly taught marching band, symphonic band, concert band and jazz band at Palmetto, at times adding guitar and chorus, even though he wasn’t a vocalist.

“Paul volunteered in an emergency situation when [the chorus teacher] retired,’’ said Robert Longfield, music department chairman and Smith’s longtime officemate. “That’s the kind of person he was.’’

Smith’s Marching Panthers played at Palmetto football games, the annual Martin Luther King Day parade in Perrine and the Christmas parade at The Falls, Longfield said. They played at Disney World and at two college bowl games: the Champs Sports Bowl in Orlando, and the Cotton Bowl in Dallas.

On New Year’s Eve 2003, they played with the rock band Phish at the AmericanAirlines Arena.

“He was a much-loved teacher,’’ said Longfield. “Kind, compassionate, accessible. He was there for the students. Many who have graduated have come back and said to us how much it meant to them to be in the band, and how much they appreciated what he did.’’

Longfield recalls being excited by Smith’s arrival in 1997, even though Smith had never taught before.

“Paul had extensive experience playing professionally,’’ said Longfield, a saxophone player. “I thought his wealth of experience was a tremendous benefit to the students. And he loved it. He could have been playing professionally with Big Bands, but he wanted to be a teacher.’’

Paul Smith hailed from a musical family, said his mother, Ann Marie Smith, a retired teacher whose husband, a nuclear scientist, died in 2006. Paul got his first trombone in the fifth grade from his grandfather, a high-school band director in Nebraska.

Wade still plays that instrument.

“Paul started piano in third grade,’’ his mother said. “There was never any doubt he was going to be in band.’’

By middle school, the family was living in Plainfield, Ill., which had an “outstanding’’ school music program, Ann Smith said.

Smith won several performance awards in high school and was first chair in the all-state music program’s honors band two years in a row. He also played with the Greater Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra.

Smith, an ardent Nebraska Cornhuskers fan, earned degrees in music education and trombone performance at DePaul University, where he played with the DePaul Blue Demons basketball band. In 1985, he performed with the All-American College Marching Band at President Ronald Reagan’s second inauguration.

After earning a Master of Music from the University of Victoria, Canada, in 1991, Smith went on the road internationally with some of the best known Big Bands: Guy Lombardo, Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller.

He also worked on cruise ships, many of which left from the Port of Miami. He liked South Florida so much that he decided to settle here in 1997, his mother said.

Two days after meeting with Palmetto’s principal, the month before school started, Smith had a job. He became a Boy Scout assistant troop leader and joined Kendall Methodist’s orchestra and brass ensemble.

“He’d been in jazz and was looking for a classical outlet,’’ said Thom Proctor, a French horn player who directs the two groups.

Smith lent his jazz sensibilities to a Dixieland-style arrangement of Just A Closer Walk With Thee, said Proctor. His trombone solo “brought the house down.’’

Despite his commitments — at school, with local bands, the Miami Wind Symphony and musical theatre — Smith remained “very loyal’’ to the church and always came to rehearsals, Proctor said.

Among the groups that Smith played with is the Mystery Tones, an R&B cover band made up mainly of UM professors and doctors. They organized a tribute concert at Palmetto on Sept. 20 that included the Marching Panthers, Boy Scouts from Troop 457, and the school’s color squad.

Despite recent surgery for tumors on his spine, Smith was strong that evening and had a great time, said Lisa Smith, a Gulliver Academy science teacher.

“So often, a tribute comes too late for the person being honored to enjoy it,’’ she said. “Paul loved it.’’

Wade, a UM sophomore and recent Eagle Scout, filled in for his dad that night with the Mystery Tones.

To play trombone and live with Paul Smith was “like having a lesson 24/7,’’ Wade said. “He’d hear something I was doing from the other end of the house and come in and work with me for a few minutes. It was kind of neat to have that.’’

Playing at the wedding with eight of the trombone choir’s 21 musicians “was fantastic,’’ he said. “Paul had always wanted to have a trombone choir at his wedding. It’s a very unique thing and it was his dream.’’

In addition to his wife, son and mother, Paul Smith is survived by his brother David and sister Caitlyn. Visitation is scheduled from 6-8 p.m. Friday at Stanfill Funeral Home, 10545 S. Dixie Hwy. Funeral services will be 10:30 a.m. Saturday at Kendall United Methodist Church, 7600 SW 104th St.

Smith will be buried with a trombone mouthpiece and a teddy bear from his collection, Lisa Smith said. He’ll wear his wedding suit, with his “father of an Eagle Scout’’ pin affixed to the lapel.

The family welcomes donations in Smith's memory to the Paul J. Smith Foundation, 16601 SW 153rd Place, Miami, FL 33187.