Youth advocate Smalls dies at 72

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Nate "Bobo" Smalls hugs his wife June 10, 2017, after cutting the ribbon opening a set of new basketball court at Garfield Park during dedication ceremonies. The courts were named for Smalls, a Negro League legend in baseball. Smalls stated about God, "He gave me a mission to work with these kids."

The Danville community lost a tireless advocate for its young people with the death Tuesday of Nathaniel “Bobo” Smalls at OSF Sacred Heart Medical Center in Danville.

"We know it will be a big loss," said the Rev. Edward Butler, who also serves as president of the local NAACP chapter, said of Smalls' death.

Smalls, 72, a native of Savannah, Ga., moved to Danville in 1969. He was a member of the Indianapolis Clowns, a team in the last Negro Baseball Barnstorming League, from 1965 to 1986. He played for the team longer than any other member.

As a left-handed pitcher, he could throw a ball 97 mph. He also was known for the ability to hold four baseballs at once and pitch them to four different batters with one throw. The Indianapolis Indians minor league baseball team honored Smalls last summer during a special night at Victory Field.

His efforts in Danville went beyond baseball.

He was one of the primary organizers of a summer basketball league for young people at Garfield Park and was one of the founding members of the Three Kings of Peace along with Butler and the Rev. Frank McCullough. The three volunteered daily in Danville schools to serve as mentors for students and to help reduce violence in the schools.

Butler said the three men began talking about way to push back against the violence that ripped through the city a few years ago. They started to organize marches in the community, and the three of them when to a different location for seven days straight to say prayers for the community. It was a visit to Kenneth D. Bailey Academy to talk to students when one of the students referred to the as the three kings. Butler said they were telling then Danville Director of Public Safety Larry Thomason about it, and he said they should keep the title and add "pace" to it. So they became the Three Kings of Peace.

"We try to keep a lot of kids in school," Smalls said during a November 2016 interview about the Three Kings of Peace. "A lot of time they might try to expel them for two or three weeks, and sometimes we'll go to the principal and say we need to have a meeting with their mothers and their fathers and see if we can come to some kind of solution so they won't be suspended."

In recognition of his work with area youth, Danville officials dedicated the basketball courts in his honor in June 2017.

Ward 3 Alderman R.J. Davis said Smalls “meant an awful lot to the community. He will sorely be missed.”

Whether it was through the basketball leagues at Garfield Park or his involvement in the schools with the Three Kings of Peace, Davis said about Smalls “he was just a fantastic guy. The kids just loved him.”

Butler said they hope to find someone who could relate to young people as well as Smalls could willing to dedicate the time to work with the Three Kings of Peace.

"We're not sure what they next step will be," he said.

"We're just hoping and praying these young people will not forget what Bobo put in their hearts and minds — that we need to love each other and embrace one another; do the right thing; and stay positive so we all can live in peace."

Commercial-News reporter Jennifer Bailey contributed to this story.

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