From simple beginnings, a tradition is born.
The Red Smith Banquet began in 1965, the brainchild of George Kloes, Casey Roemer, and George Theiss, three men who not only loved to talk local sports, but supported them as well. These men championed the Appleton Foxes, the city’s Class A minor league affiliate, which played their games at Goodland Field. Their idea was to start a banquet that would not only help support the Foxes, but other local sports organizations as well.
When the banquet was first announced in a press release in the Appleton Post Crescent in the fall of 1965, it was referred to as the Foxes Midwinter Sports Awards Dinner. Prior to the banquet, the committee, led by chairman George Kloes, came up with a new idea. Theiss’ wife was related to local sports hero Richard “Red” Smith, who agreed to lend his name to the banquet, and the Red Smith Sports Awards Banquet was born. Another one of their friends, Al Maes of Green Bay, was acquainted with baseball slugger Frank Howard, who agreed to attend the first banquet and receive the Nice Guy Award. With former baseball player and manager Charlie Grimm as the first emcee, and newly constructed Reetz’s Supper Club as the venue, 500 people paid $5 for a dinner ticket and a chance to enjoy a night of celebrities, stories and good fun. At the same time, the Committee set the standard for recognizing many of the unsung heroes behind the scenes in the local sports scene with awards going to notable volunteers.
The second year was a pivotal year in more than one respect, as the banquet began a long relationship with Miller Brewing as a title sponsor, and it also was able to convince Packers quarterback Bart Starr to come down and receive the Nice Guy Award. “He said he came home that night and was hollering at (wife) Cherry and his son,” said committee member Chuck Kunitz, relaying the story Starr told the audience that evening. “He said he couldn’t find his suit, couldn’t do this and that. Cherry finally said, ‘Bart, what’s the matter with you?” He said, ‘I’ve got to go to Appleton to this banquet.’ She said, ‘What for?’ He said, ‘Because I’m receiving the Nice Guy Award.'” In spite of his surly moment at home that day, Bart was well received as the Nice Guy that evening!
The banquet was moved to the Country Aire in 1969, its fourth year, to allow for nearly 1000 people to enjoy the festivities for the next 18 years. In 1973, scholarships for Appleton area high school students added a new dimension to the program. Local volunteers were still a big part of the program and sports dignitaries continued to highlight the evening. By now, tickets were hard to come by and the proceeds of the banquet were helping many youth sports organizations in the area. George Kloes passed away in 1975, and Casey Roemer stepped in to chair the 11th annual banquet in 1976. He turned the reins over to Danny Ornstein the following year.
Thanks to the leadership of chairman Danny Ornstein, and committee members Bob Lloyd and Al Golz, the banquet remained sold out for many years. A 1987 move to the Paper Valley Hotel in downtown Appleton allowed attendance to grow to somewhere between 1,500 and 1,600 tickets sold. Many who couldn’t get into the main banquet hall were willing to sit in an adjacent room and watch the festivities via closed-circuit television.
Chairman Mike Reese took over leadership of the banquet when Danny Ornstein passed away, and added new dimensions and financial strength to the banquet organization. In 1998, a scholarship in honor of Danny Ornstein was added to the program. The Red Smith Youth Sports Fund at the Community Foundation of the Fox Cities was started and friends of the banquet have contributed to this fund in order to support the banquet and its charitable pursuits. A sports memorabilia silent auction, benefiting Big Brothers and Big Sisters of the Fox Valley Region was added in 1995, and has helped this organization gain community visibility while raising more than $250,000 through the generosity of our attendees.
A big change for the banquet came in 2004 when the Miller Brewing Company discontinued its sponsorship of the banquet after 37 years of outstanding support. We thanked them for the help they had given us in making this an outstanding event, and moved on with local sponsors and friends supporting the effort. Mike Reese’s leadership was key to making this transition as seemless as possible. A name change to the “Nice Guy” award was all the audience noticed as the quality of the banquet and the contributions to the community remained strong.
Paul McCann took over as Chairman for the 2014 banquet, with Mike staying on as Chairman Emeritus. The Committee now consists of 11 members including: Mike and Cassie Curry, Dave Edwards and Shelly Soulis, Dick Fredricks, Chuck Kunitz, Paul and Barb McCann, Joe Ornstein, Mike Reese and Chris Winter.
The Red Smith Banquet has also had a fine tradition of colorful emcees to keep the program lively. Radio sports legend Bob Lloyd ruled the head table from the second through the thitieth year of Red Smith Banquets with his stories and jokes that kept the audience and sports celebrities in stitches. Few could forget the ridiculous Miller Brewing Company tuxedos Bob would wear to make the night special. Following Bob, his long time friend, and Red Smith Committee member, Chuck Kunitz took over the job of emcee and kept the program moving along for the next 18 years. No flashy tuxedos, but Chuck’s humor and attention to detail kept up a high standard of excellence throughout his tenure. In 2014, Chuck handed the baton to WHBY radio host Dave Edwards. With Dave in the role as emcee, the banquet moved from a head table presentation to more of an interview format.
Attendance has decreased to around 1400 in recent years, because many of the original attendees who held tables have gotten up in age. After all, 50 years is a long run! The reputation as a sold out event leaves many new prospective guests thinking they cannot join the tradition. Ticket and PR Director Joe Ornstein has done a great job getting the word out that opportunity exists to get in on this 50+ year tradition to new ticket buyers.
The Red Smith Committee is proud of the 50 year tradition we have established. We celebrated an outstanding Golden Anniversary event on January 20, 2015 which set the standard for the next 50 years. Thank you to all who have supported the banquet for all these years!
Its original mission and primary objective was to raise money to help support local youth sports organizations and, to date, has generated more than $600,000 in contributions. Its second objective was to present awards to local adult volunteers for service to youth sports which we continue to do today. Additionally, $9,000 in scholarships is awarded annually to Appleton area high school student athletes. Banquet organizers also wanted to recognize athletes with a national flavor, accompanied by a national speaker of note, and the result has been a cast that has included hall-of-famers from every major sport, Heisman Trophy winners, baseball commissioners, Indy 500 champions, major championship golf winners, renowned authors and writers, and various sports personalities.
The banquet grows better and better each year. We hope you can join us!