Always brothers, but sometimes rivals
Bimby and Bobby look angelic, almost European, in the photo from 1936 or early 1937 (left, above). But as teenagers in the '40s, they were feisty, all-American competitors, especially on Russet Lane driveways where basketball was played. Bimby and Bobby were the older cousins who lived next door on Russet Lane; both were important role models who taught me many things.
Their parents were Gertrude Maltby and Boleslaw (William) Smolinski. Bimby's given name is William. At some point in his very early childhood Billy Smolinski's efforts to say his own first name produced a sound that left him with a lifelong nickname: Bimby. To this day I have met only one Bimby. That nickname was all the identification needed when you talked about him. Nobody ever had to ask, "Bimby who?"
Somehow he reminded me of Danny Kaye. It was a physical resemblance, though Bimby, like Kaye, was versatile, giving you the impression he could do anything. He was the golden boy at Solvay High, Student Council president and captain of one of the best basketball teams in school history.
KIDS ON our street — and there were plenty of them — idolized Bimby. He was an accomplished athlete, enjoyed games of all sorts, and was never too busy to engage younger kids in conversation, treating them as though they were members of his family. We all enjoyed playing on Bimby's side in any game, not only because it improved our chance of winning, but because he was a teacher as well as a teammate. (I continue to be fascinated by memories that linger. One such involves a basketball game on the Smolinski driveway when I was 11 or so. We usually played up to 20 — that is, until one team made 10 baskets — and the score was tied at 10. I was on Bimby's team and he called us together and declared, "We're going to score the next ten points." And we did.)
Younger brother Bobby was more of a rebel, someone who wasn't a follower, but not yet the leader he would become as an adult. The first thing I remember noticing about Bobby was his devotion to the family's dog, an Irish setter named Buster. Actually, I always considered Buster to be Bobby's dog. Whether that's how it was viewed in his family, I don't recall. It was through Bobby and Buster that I overcame my childhood fear of dogs. (It would take a lot longer for me to overcome my fear of Bobby, however.)
He seemed to take delight in beating his brother in our backyard games. Not that Bimby and Bobby were unique; Dan "Red" Mathews and his brother, Jimmy, who lived just two houses from the Smolinskis, were equally — and often more colorfully — competitive. ("Red" Mathews followed his father's path and became a lawyer; Jimmy Mathews became a well-known Syracuse-area priest.)
BIMBY and Bobby were Russet Lane's best basketball players. Bimby was our Bob Cousy, a slick ballhandler whose passes often seemed to come from nowhere. Cousy would influence at least one generation of basketball players, and on our street that influence started well before Cousy became famous as a Boston Celtic. We saw him play for Holy Cross in 1949 when he dazzled the crowd — and his Syracuse University opponents — with his no-look passes and the way he whipped the ball around his back with his right hand, faking a pass, only to wind up with the ball in his left hand, taking a shot.
At 6-foot-6, Bobby was the tallest boy on the street, which cast him as our George Mikan. That name may not register, but in 1950 Mikan was basketball's most dominant player. Granted, this was back in the days of a lily-white NBA, but Mikan, at 6-foot-10, 245 pounds, was a prolific scorer and huge presence under the opposing team's basket. Mikan's reputation has suffered in recent years from those who claim he was slow and couldn't jump very well, but, in truth, he was the most mobile big man of his time and played so well above the rim that he prompted an important change in basketball rules. When he starred at DePaul University, there was no rule against goaltending, so Mikan was free to swat away as many opponents' shots as he could. He was so effective that the NCAA was forced to act. As a pro, Mikan was a unique weapon who made the Minneapolis Lakers the NBA's best team, though some feel the Lakers were lucky the league didn't include the Harlem Globetrotters, who beat the Lakers in a few exhibition games, though, truth be told, the Lakers beat the Globetrotters in most of their games. (Mikan also was a dead ringer for Clark Kent, which was appropriate because some of his NBA opponents regarded him as Superman.)
WITH HIS SIZE, Bobby Smolinski had a Mikan-like effect on our Russet Lane games. He also contributed mightily to what I believe was Solvay High School's highest-scoring team, before moving on to LeMoyne College where he was the starting center for three seasons. He helped the Dolphins pull a huge upset against Western Kentucky, which, at the time, had one of the country's top basketball programs. It probably was regarded as LeMoyne's biggest win ever until they beat Syracuse in a pre-season game a few years ago.
Unlike Bimby, whose nickname endured, Bobby never had one that stuck. For awhile (and for reasons I don't recall), we called him Tiger, which morphed into Bengal Bob. His high school yearbook labels him Thuggie, which might have been an inside joke, but I wasn't laughing. During the two years Bob and I walked the same hallways at Solvay High I cringed each time I saw him headed my way. He'd wait til the last possible second then pound my left shoulder with a hard jab. Then continue on his way as though nothing had happened.
In the yearbook Bobby's classmates listed such future occupations as doctor, veterinarian, engineer, Navy officer, research chemist, illustrator, concert artist, even professional ice skater, Bobby facetiously set his goal as the yard gang at the Solvay Process Company. As I recall, his father, my Uncle Bill Smolinski, didn't appreciate the joke, though as things turned out, he had much reason to be proud of his son.
BOBBY'S turnabout began at LeMoyne where his basketball coach was Tommy Niland, who must have been one of the greatest people who ever lived. I'm almost sorry I didn't go to LeMoyne and try out of the team. I knew something was up a year or so after he left Solvay High when he was driving on Orchard Road, about two miles from Russet Lane, and he stopped and offered me a ride home. He suddenly was sensitive and introspective. It's not like we ever became close — we moved in difference circles for a few years and then I left Solvay and returned only for short visits — but he is one of my favorite people, very much like his father, whose life was cut short by leukemia at the age of 69. Bobby and his father formed a very tight bond during Bill's illness.
Bobby became a lawyer and for many years was the village of Solvay police justice, which earned him yet another nickname — Judge. He shares a law office with his son, William, who — at 6-foot-10 — may be the tallest attorney in Onondaga County. William also played basketball at LeMoyne. Bob and his wife, Patty Sullivan, also have a daughter, Jennifer, who lives in Solvay.
Bimby became a chemical engineer and for several years lived in Smoke Rise, New Jersey, with his first wife, Marcia Maloney, and their five daughters – Suzy (Winchester), Amy, Mary (deLoe), Helen and Kate, all of whom eventually headed west, Suzy to Colorado, the others to California. (Among the photos at the top of the page is one of Bimby with his daughter, Helen, a San Francisco lawyer.)
Bimby returned to Central New York and, at the most recent family reunion was still challenging all comers to a foul-shooting contest. He also was telling the world's oldest jokes, a shtick he seems to have developed over the past 40 years or so.
But that reunion was many years ago. He has since moved to California to be with his daughters, who hopefully will teach him some new jokes. (Somewhere among my possession squirreled away in our garage attic is a round, coin-like piece of wood upon which is printed TUIT. Bimby handed it to me many, many years ago, saying I no longer had an excuse for putting off things "until you get around to it.")