In Memory of Virginia Smith: A Midwest Badminton Legend

L-R: Ernesto Villareal (Mexican Champion), Virginia Smith (Missouri), Margaret Varner (Texas), George Harman (Oklahoma)

By Mary Ann Bowles

Virginia Smith of Bridgeton, Missouri, was a top Midwest player back in the 1940’s and 1950’s, retired from play, and came back to be a top Senior player in her badminton career. She passed away July 19, 2023, at the age of 101.

Virginia was born in Webster Groves, MO, in 1922, the youngest of eight children with three sisters and four brothers. Her father was a civil engineer who had 32 patented inventions, the most famous being the railroad “dump car” patented in 1904. She began playing badminton in high school when one of her brothers brought home a badminton set. She played in the driveway and on the lawn, and enjoyed intramural high school badminton. Walking by Webster Groves High School one day, she saw players and was invited to play. Eventually she ended up on Olive Street Road at Ochs watermelon stand where the charge was 25 cents a night to play on six lighted courts. Jean Shirley and Marshall Jenkins encouraged her to play tournaments, and in 1941, Virginia played in her first tournament and won the Women’s Singles event.

While playing in 1941, Virginia met Russell Smith with whom she fell in love at first sight, and they married in November of 1942. Russ and Virginia played the Midwest tournament circuit until 1954, and ended up in the finals of Singles, Doubles, and Mixed Doubles in many of those tournaments including the Midwest Championships. Russ won the MD title in 1946 with Herpel Perkins, and the 1950 and 1951 titles with Ted Moehlmann, Jr. Virginia won WD in 1947 with Marie Riel, and in 1951, the Smiths won the Midwest XD title.

The badminton court was a great place for play and friendships, and the Smiths’ list of players and friends included Dick and Mary Casey, Herpel and Elizabeth Perkins, Peggy Robertson, Jean Shirley, Herman and Peggy Goessling, and Ken and Helen Atterholt. Virginia knew Ted Moehlmann, Jr.’s parents, and met Ted and Dick Witte on the tournament circuit. She also met Elsie Beck at early tournaments, and she and Elsie ended up playing in many local and national Senior Olympics Badminton Games. In the mid-1950’s, many of the regular players ceased to play, and that included the Smiths. Many families hung up their rackets, concentrated on their families, and went to work. Virginia and Russ had three sons, Wayne Russell III, Rexford Keith, and Victor Michael. Wayne and Rex became Junior players.

In the early 1980’s, Virginia was still competitive, and signed up for table tennis and racquetball competitions. Since she had once played badminton competitively, she
declined to enter the badminton tournaments, but in 1982 she decided to enjoy the sport again. In 1987, at the age of 65, Virginia entered the Senior International Badminton Championships in Miami Lakes, Florida, where she played against top U.S. and Canadian Senior players. She began to collect medals and enjoy the play and new friendships. Virginia and Russ celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in 1992, but Russ passed away the next year.

Virginia continued to play and began to win tournament titles in her age group. In January of 1998, she went back to Miami Lakes for the Senior International, and beat the famous Canadian Dorothy Tinline for the 75+ WS title, the first time she had beaten Dorothy after many defeats. In March of that year, she won her first U.S. Senior Nationals XD title with Bernie Steenson, took the WS title, and won WD with Priscilla Healey. In August, Virginia played in the Nike World Masters Games in Portland, Oregon, where she won 75+ WS and XD with Bill Tom. What a year for the Midwesterner!

Virginia also appeared on local TV in St. Louis in the summer of 1998 when
“Show Me St. Louis” filmed and interviewed her at the Gateway Badminton Club where she played regularly. She had a room full of the trophies, plaques, and medals that she and Russ had won with her own medal collection of over 200 Senior titles. She played in the Senior Olympics up to the age of 91. She won 17 Senior National titles: 7 WS titles; 6 WD titles with partners Priscilla Healey and Lee Calvert; and 4 XD titles with partners Bernie Steenson, Dick Witte, and Wolfgang Arlt.

As for hobbies, Virginia loved to watch TV, especially sports and game shows. She bowled twice a week, and participated in a water aerobics program at a local recreation center. She played badminton weekly, and took lessons to improve her table tennis. She encouraged youngsters to play badminton and enjoy a great lifetime sport. As she was quoted, “I met my husband on the badminton court and we were married for 50 years—what a life.”

Virginia had seven grandchildren, six great-grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren. She was a legend in the Midwest, and shared her love for badminton with everyone she met. Condolences to her three sons and their families, and thanks to Virginia for all the memories.