His given name was John Smeysters, but everyone called him Opa.
That’s the way he wanted it. John or Mr. Smeysters just seemed too formal. So it would be Opa, which means grandpa in German and Dutch.
He had no official title at W.J. Mouat Secondary, where he was a fixture over the past decade as a jack-of-all-trades volunteer. His passing last Friday – following a nine-month battle with asbestos cancer – rocked the Abbotsford school.
Opa was best known as the ubiquitous equipment manager for the Hawks football team, but he was also a frequent chaperone at dances, paymaster at bingo fundraisers, lunchtime supervisor, and occasional social studies lecturer, sharing first-hand accounts of World War II.
And to many students, he was a father figure.
Asked to summarize Opa’s legacy at Mouat, longtime Hawks football coach Denis Kelly came up empty.
“You can’t,” he said, “because it was all-encompassing.
“He was probably, for a lot of kids, the most influential person in their lives.”
Kelly paused a beat.
“The things he did, and people didn’t realize.”
Steve Goosen, quarterback, Class of 2004, wrote on Opa’s memorial page on Facebook: “What an extraordinary impact you had on so many lives.”
The stories about Opa are numerous, and compelling:
There’s a girl standing in front of Mouat Secondary, by herself. She’s crying. Opa marches over and asks what’s the matter. She was just on the phone with her dad. She hasn’t seen him in a long time – a child of divorce, apparently – but he was in town that day and was supposed to meet her for lunch. He just called and said he didn’t have the time.
Opa asks for the girl’s cell phone, rings her dad, and lights into him.
“Are you kidding? You know you’re breaking your daughter’s heart?”
On the other end, the dad is wondering who is this man with the thick Dutch accent. Tells him to mind his own business, and hangs up.
A couple days later, the girl tracks Opa down and thanks him. Dad had a change of heart. He took her for lunch, and stayed for a couple hours.
“Opa, you were the foundation of all of my greatest young-adult memories.” – Matt Chapdelaine, wide receiver, Class of 2006
In the days since Opa’s passing, his family has been inundated by phone calls, text messages, Facebook postings – everyone with a story of how their lives had been touched.
When the family lived in Burnaby years ago, the hospital would call Opa when there’d been a bad car accident. He had a rare blood type, O-negative, and he was a regular donor. He’d hop off the couch, drive over and roll up his sleeve.
At Mouat, if there was a kid wandering the hallway with no lunch money, Opa would flip him a toonie for a slice of pizza.
Elizabeth Smeysters, Opa’s wife of 52 years, said the outpouring of love has been “totally overwhelming.”
“We knew he was loved, but to this extreme?” she marveled.
“Opa, you have touched all our lives, and you will never be forgotten.” – Tyler Declare, linebacker, Class of 2010
Opa wasn’t the first John Smeysters, nor the last. John – or Johannes in his native Holland – is a family name that’s bestowed upon the first-born son, a tradition that dates back further than anyone can trace.
He’s not even the most well-known John Smeysters in Abbotsford. That would be his grandson, a star Hawks running back nicknamed Bruiser who loved to run over linebackers. He was the B.C. high school player of the year in 2006.
Bruiser was happy and proud to share his Opa with everyone at school, but there were some ground rules.
“If they called him Opa, it was cool,” he said with a chuckle. “But if they said, ‘My Opa,’ then I’d get a little angry. That’s MY Opa!”
“He . . . was truly the heart, soul, wheels and gears that kept that program running so well.” – Greg Spence, defensive end, Class of 2006
Opa volunteered at his grandkids’ elementary and middle schools, then followed them over to Mouat.
The Hawks football program had been a powerhouse before Opa got involved, but Kelly said his presence made it truly something special.
Maybe a player would be sleepwalking through practice, and wasn’t responding to tough love from the coaching staff. In a quiet moment, Opa would step up beside him. Later, he’d come to the coaches and tell them to back off. The kid’s parents were going through a divorce.
“He made our program successful in many different areas that people never realized if they’re just looking at scores of games,” Kelly said. “He could get things out of the kids that we never could. They confided in Opa like crazy.”
Even at 5’5”, Opa was hard to miss, zipping around the football field in his golf cart, laden with equipment and water bottles.
On his head was always a maroon Hawks baseball cap covering his grey hair. He wore glasses that tinted in sunlight, sometimes obscuring the twinkle in his eyes.
Around his neck, Opa wore a lanyard with an impossible number of keys. And not just for Mouat buildings – he had the keys for football facilities throughout the Fraser Valley, after working at every training camp under the sun.
His contributions were so immense, football coaches from all around were constantly trying to pry him away from Mouat. Simon Fraser University finally succeeded, convincing Opa to join them last summer.
“Opa, you are in a ton of great wonderful memories of mine, and you are for sure going to be missed.” – Austin Teer, quarterback, Class of 2007
Last September, Opa began having trouble breathing.
He went in for X-rays, and was told his right lung was full of fluid. He wouldn’t have made it through the weekend.
Upon draining the lung, doctors discovered it was riddled with mesothelioma, or asbestos cancer. He’d been exposed to the stuff four decades ago, doing an underground cable-splicing job in downtown Vancouver.
After four painful rounds of chemo, the plan was to surgically remove the right lung. But the fast-spreading cancer had already spread to the left lung.
At 6:29 a.m. last Friday, at the age of 74, he passed away on his couch at home, with his family surrounding him.
“We’re mourning, but we’re also proud of the Opa he was for everybody,” Elizabeth said with a smile.
Opa’s memorial service will be held on Thursday at 11 a.m. at Northview Community Church. Any current or past Mouat football players are asked to wear their football jackets.
In lieu of flowers, the family is accepting donations for a memorial bursary.
There will be donation envelopes at Thursday’s service, and contributions can also be made at Mouat Secondary, or at the Bank of Montreal under “Opa Smeysters.”