Alpha Frater Bobby Smith sees swordplay as chance to make difference with kids
Fencing saved Bobby C. Smith’s life — and he believes it can save more.
“Fencing, in the mind of a typical inner city youth, is seen as an elite sport for only the privileged in our society,” says the Wayne State University student.
“What does it mean to a poor immigrant child to compete and win in that arena? It meant infinite possibilities to me — my hope is that (there are children) who can benefit as I did.”
The founder of En Garde! Detroit, which travels to area recreation centers and schools teaching the art of fencing, says the ancient form of combat can reinforce a tradition of respect, increase analytical and decision-making abilities, and instill self-esteem and confidence, in addition to keeping children and young adults physically active.
He says En Garde! has taught fencing to 300 Metro Detroit youths and demonstrated the martial art to hundreds more through activities including large-scale demonstrations.
Now, he hopes that he can use it to help the city of Detroit.
Smith, who serves as the director of youth affairs for the state of Michigan’s District 6, is bidding (with the Detroit Sports Commission’s help) for the national fencing tournament, the North American Cup, to come to Detroit this year. Such an event is estimated to generate between $1 million and $2 million for the city.
The martial art is a conduit for positive change, says Smith.
“Without fencing, I would have dropped out of school in my first year at Wayne State University,” says Smith.
Rob Fournier, director of athletics at Wayne State, says he’s impressed with Smith’s ability to juggle school and run a business aimed at helping youths.
“Bobby had it rough and had to work hard to get what he has accomplished,” says Fournier. “He continues to astound me.”
The 26-year-old Detroit resident knows what it’s like to grow up in a city where struggle is the norm and that offers little time for dreaming of a future. Smith lived in some of the roughest neighborhoods in Jamaica, where he was born, and in America, and eventually settled in Newark, N.J.
Smith and his family struggled financially and were treated as outsiders by their Newark neighbors.
“We were immigrants, we were different, often attacked and called names,” Smith remembers. “The only way my mother allowed me to leave the house was to participate in things that had academic benefit, like chess.”
It is his love of chess that eventually led him to fencing.
In 1999, an interviewer at Newark’s prestigious St. Benedict’s Preparatory School suggested that Smith try out for the school’s fencing team. Smith says he hadn’t even heard of fencing, but agreed to join when it was described as “physical chess.”
Joining the team also meant a scholarship, which was needed to afford tuition at St. Benedict’s.
Later that year, Smith joined the Peter Westbrook Foundation in New York, which funds youth fencing and academic outreach programs. Its founder, Peter Westbrook, was one of the first African-Americans to bring home an Olympic medal in fencing, winning the bronze in the men’s saber event at the 1984 Games.
Westbrook, who also grew up Newark, remembers Smith as tenacious.
“He came to us when he was 13,” says Westbrook, by phone from New York. “I remember he was focused, dedicated and had a lot of talent. He was a fighter.”
Smith went on to receive an athletic scholarship to Wayne State University, which has one of the top fencing programs in the country, and began there in 2003.
As a freshman, Smith was rated one of the top 25 fencers in the NCAA and led the men’s fencing team to finish in the top 10 in the country yearly.
While fencing had taken Smith far, life struggles continued. His mother was dealing with great financial burdens. In fall 2007, Smith dropped out of school and headed home to work odd jobs to help out.
After he returned to Metro Detroit, Smith began teaching fencing full time at a fencing club in Troy and saw firsthand how fencing can change the lives of children, especially those from lower socio-economic backgrounds.
He realized two things were certain — he wanted to work for himself, and he had a passion to help others.
So in 2008, he founded En Garde! Detroit, staffing it with members of the Wayne State team. The company is recognized by the Detroit Sports Commission as a partner in fencing-related sporting events.
Last summer, En Garde! Detroit, with the help of sponsors, hosted its first fencing tournament, called the Ballestra 350. The event, which En Garde!’s Web site calls the largest multicultural fencing tournament in the country, attracted 100 fencers and 1,000 visitors.
Meanwhile, Smith has resumed his studies at Wayne State and plans to earn his law degree and a master’s in business administration.
Focusing on youth
While some of Smith’s goals may seem grander — if he and the Detroit Sports Commission have their way and the city gets the North American Cup tournament, it would be the first Cup held here since the 1970s — Smith says his focus remains on impacting youth. He points out the French phrase “en garde” means “get ready” or “prepare thyself.”
“So our hope is that we are preparing children in Detroit for success with fencing,” he says.
‘I set goals for myself’
Keith Carr has been a fencing student of Smith’s since the age of 11. An academically gifted 14-year-old freshman at Advanced Technology Academy in Dearborn, Keith says he has become a better person, thanks to fencing and Smith’s influence.
“Before I started fencing, I was immature,” admits Keith, who was often written up for mouthing off at school. “Now I don’t get in to trouble. I set goals for myself.
“I want to see myself go far in life and I hope that fencing can open up some opportunities.”