Layoff was a blessing in disguise for Park City man
Richie Smail was devastated when he was laid off from his job as a "greeter" at the Kimball Junction Walmart this spring.
He wasn’t alone. The big-box retailer has shed itself of front-door greeters nationwide, ending a 30-year tradition. In Smail’s case, the retail juggernaut’s bold cost-cutting move saved it about $400 a month and cost Smail a job he’d held with pride for six years.
"I loved that job and I did a good job for them," laments Smail. "All the other associates liked me and I liked them." That was evident at Richie’s farewell party, where many workers wept.
But Smail, who has lived in Park City with his family for 20 years, isn’t looking back. "When one door closes, another opens," he reflects. The venerable old adage couldn’t be more appropriate. Indeed, the next chapter in Smail’s life promises to be the most exciting and challenging yet.
Born in 1984, Smail moved with his family to Park City from Chicago at age three. Blind from birth and partially paralyzed, he attended the Utah School for the Deaf and Blind in Salt Lake City and took classes at Evergreen Junior High and Skyline High.
Outgoing and fun-loving by nature, Smail has always been ready for a new adventure. Growing up, with a little help from his friends and family, he never allowed his disabilities to slow him down. He remembers summer visits to the family’s cottage on Lake Chautauqua in New York, where he learned to sail and water ski with encouragement from his parents Mary Ann and Rick and older brothers Bryan and Zach. He is an accomplished horseman and enjoys riding Sage, his longtime favorite horse, in competitions at the National Ability Center Equestrian Park.
Smail learned to snow ski at the Park City Mountain Resort in the early 1990s and once spent a day skiing with Val Kilmer as the actor prepared for his role as a blind masseur in the film, "At First Sight." Last year he raced in the Summit Challenge on a tandem bicycle.
Smail also has a fine singing voice and a natural ear for music. At church, his annual Christmas rendition of "O Holy Night" draws standing ovations. He has also been honored to sing the national anthem at National Ability Center events.
He uses computer software called "Jaws," which converts text to voice, and has become proficient at surfing the Web.
After receiving his certificate of completion from the Utah School for the Deaf and Blind, Smail ventured into the workplace. "I believe in work and I like to stay busy," he says simply. Prior to Walmart, Smail worked in Salt Lake City for the Utah State Library for the Blind, as well as for Big Lots, Bonneville International and the Columbus Center.
Smail’s plan has always been to continue his education at a nationally-ranked school for adults with disabilities, and he has researched several schools across the country over the last few years. But his succession of jobs became a real distraction. He especially liked his job a Walmart and wasn’t planning on quitting any time soon. When the ax fell unexpectedly, Smail and his parents realized that the time had come for him to move on.
Last month, Smail packed his bags and boarded a plane bound for Louisville, Kentucky, and the nearby Stewart Home School. He’ll be the first totally blind student accepted at the prestigious school. "I’ve loved growing up and living in Park City, but I’m really excited about this new chapter in my life. It was time," says Smail. He says his dorm room is great and is really impressed by the school’s equestrian center. "There’s no dust," he grins.
Smail will be living and studying at his new school for the next few years, but he’ll be coming home often to visit family and friends, including his former co-workers at Walmart. He says he harbors no ill-will towards the corporation.
"If I talk to my old boss who laid me off, I’ll just tell him thanks!"
Steve Phillips is a Park City-based writer and actor. Send your profile comments and suggestions to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Favorite things to do: ride horses, ski, bicycle, bowl and surf the Net.
Favorite food: pizza is at the top of the list.
Favorite music: all kinds of music, especially classic rock and a little country. "Do not play ‘Name that Tune’ with him. You will lose," says his mom.
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