This weekend, more than 300 runners are expected to gather for an annual 5-mile race in memory of one of Worthington Schools' most popular teachers ever.
Sunday, June 10, will mark the 20th anniversary of the well-known Gary Smith Classic in downtown Worthington.
The event memorializes its namesake, Gary Smith, a former Thomas Worthington High School English teacher and coach who mentored cross country and track teams at multiple levels.
Throughout his time as a coach, he earned statewide awards for his work, including the Ohio High School Athletic Association's sportsmanship, ethics and integrity award.
He also periodically provided a home for students with nowhere else to go, attended weddings of his former students – and was even a best man for one – and was a staple at former students' weddings, gatherings and even funerals, according to his family.
"He had had such an impact on so many people's lives," said Nicole Gnezda, Smith's wife and president of Gary Smith Race & Charities.
Smith was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 1998. He coached his state-championship athletes over the phone from his hospice bed, and he died on the last day of school in 1998.
The following year, the district recognized Smith by renaming the Worthington Invitational the Gary Smith Invitational. And in the same year, the Gary Smith Classic, a more leisurely running event, was born.
The Gary Smith Classic uses entry fees to raise money for scholarships, which are presented to three students each year.
Originally run by the city, Gnezda said, the event started as a "small, beginner event" but has grown into a more impressive memorial to Smith, thanks in large part to former students and athletes getting involved.
"In the last few years, many of Gary's former runners and parents have kind of formed a community and reinvigorated the race," she said. "It's become an integral part of the events in Worthington. It's become much more of a part of the fabric of Worthington."
Gnezda now is married to John Snouffer, whom she called the "brains" of the event.
Snouffer knew Smith when he attended Thomas Worthington and is one of many who "knew (he) needed to keep this thing going" when he got involved with the event, he said.
"We've learned that this has become more in the last couple years than we thought it was," Snouffer said. "People know us around town and when the event comes up, we realize how many people know about it and how much it means to them."
The race has expanded to include a 3-mile walk and 2-mile children's race to include more participants.
Gnezda said the laid-back atmosphere at the event has resulted in neighbors cheering in their lawns or people playing music and spraying runners with water.
She said the addition of the race for children has been her favorite.
"The kids get so excited," she said. "It's so much fun to kind of initiate them into this community of athletic fitness."
Gnezda said the event's staying power and expansion are a perfect tribute to her late husband.
"It feels really wonderful," she said. "It's really nice for Gary to be remembered that way and it's really nice to contribute to the community in this way. But what's important to me and what would be important to him is that we try to emphasize the importance of service and passion."
Gnezda said she tries to relay the message that service and passion aren't the same as natural gifts or athleticism.
She said Smith is the perfect example of an "average" person who made a major impact on many lives simply because he was willing to do "whatever it took to help kids through all kinds of situations."
"That's the message we really want to come along with this, especially in this time of so much vitriol and nastiness and division – how important it is to be someone who notices and reaches out and does some work on behalf of someone else," she said.
The Gary Smith Classic begins at 9 a.m. June 10.
The cost of entry is $30 for the 5-mile run, $20 for the 3-mile walk and $15 for the children's run.
For more information, go to fleetfeetcolumbus.com/events/gary-smith-worthington-classic.