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Musicians and fans say farewell to Verne Smith

January 19, 2011

Verne Smith of Rockford, who passed away Jan. 12 at age 64, received a Rockford Area Music Industry (RAMI) award in 2001 for "Biggest Music Fan of All-Time." Photo by Jim Hagerty

By Jim Hagerty
Staff Writer

The man the Rockford Area Music Industry (RAMI) called the biggest music fan of all time, has died.

Verne Smith, 64, died last week after a battle with esophagus cancer. Smith was a staple at live music events and rarely missed a set. Sometimes known as “Dancin’ Verne,” Smith was often the first to arrive at gigs, sometimes before the bands, and the last to leave.

His favorite band, Bullet, was a group he followed closely. If Bullet was on the bill, Verne would be dancing in front of the stage. It was also rare to see Verne in anything but a rock-and-roll T-shirt or the signature leather-threaded jacket, given to him by members of Bullet in 2005.

“I remember Verne dancing in the ’70s,” Bullet drummer Mitch Whittington said. “He wore plaid suits and smoked cigars. He’s been friends of ours for 18 years, even before I was drumming for the band.”

Smith didn’t drive, and walked or rode the bus to shows. Fellow fans and band members would see to it Verne arrived home safely.

While Verne will be remembered for his dance moves and loyalty to the local music scene, he was also in attendance at some of the biggest rock shows of all-time. His apartment is full of memorabilia, including the 1969 Woodstock show, Monterey Pop Festival, and others. His music collection contained hundreds of records, tapes and CDs.

“I told Rick Nielsen (Cheap Trick) about my records, and he couldn’t believe it,” Smith said last year. “He wanted to buy them, and I said, ‘No way, man.’”

Before he died Wednesday, Jan. 12, Verne thanked many of the people who helped him look after his affairs over the years.

Dave Giamalva of Palace Shoe Repair became one of Smith’s powers of attorney after the two became friends more than 15 years ago.

“His mother would come into my store,” Giamalva said. “Verne would come in, too. At that time, another gentleman, an attorney, was looking after Verne’s affairs. When he (the attorney) moved to Colorado, I began looking after him (Verne).”

Giamalva saw to it that Verne properly budgeted his money and helped Smith sniff-out area live music.

“I’d look at the GO section for him and let him know who was playing and where,” Giamalva said.

When Verne was diagnosed with cancer late last summer, members of Bullet and fans joined forces and staged a benefit for him at Whiskey’s Roadhouse. In 2001, the Rockford Area Music Industry (RAMI) gave Smith an award naming him the Biggest Music Fan of All-Time.

The Arc of Winnebago, Boone and Ogle Counties has arranged Smith’s funeral services. Visitation will be Thursday, Jan. 20, from 5 to 8 p.m., at Heartland Community Church.

Funeral services will be at 10 a.m., Friday, Jan. 21, at the church. The visitation was initially slated to be held at Grace Funeral & Cremation Services. The venue was changed to accommodate what is expected to be a large turnout.

“It is heartwarming to know that this guy could bring out the best in so many people,” Pat Kline from the Arc said.

Smith will be buried at Calvary Cemetery.

Friday’s funeral service will be followed by a luncheon at Whiskey’s Roadhouse, 3207 N. Main St. Heartland Community Church is at 1280 S. Alpine Road.

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