An esteemed dance coach who had mourned the loss of at least two students to gun violence in recent years was fatally shot outside a coffee shop Wednesday, just two blocks from his dance studio, according to friends and officials.
Verndell “Vee” Smith II, 32, was shot “numerous times” after placing an order at a Dunkin’, 7450 S. King Drive in Park Manor, according to officials. The driver of a silver SUV stopped next to Smith “immediately” after Smith left the restaurant, opened fire and struck Smith repeatedly, driving off west on 75th Street as Smith lay wounded around 11:20 a.m., according to police.
Paramedics took Smith to the University of Chicago Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead at 12:10 p.m., according to the Cook County medical examiner’s office.
Smith worked tirelessly to uplift the younger generation and show them a path to a better life, said Tenika Blackman, whose son Lewis Funchesdeveloped a close friendship with his mentor before Funches was fatally shot in July at age 22.
And while Smith, who went by the nickname Vee, was the artistic director at Ultimate Threat Dance Org., 460 E. 75th St., that title doesn’t convey all he did for his students.
“He was amazing, he was strong, he was positive, he was an achiever,” Blackman said. “He didn’t just teach them to dance. He took them out to eat, he took them bowling, they had his cell and knew they could call him, 24/7.
“He didn’t just teach them kids, he tried to make a way for them,” she said, explaining that he had helped some dancers land jobs and occasionally helped them with school, if needed. “He had it for them. So, dance teacher, I mean, he was just Vee ... he wasn’t Lewis’ dance teacher, he was part of the family.”
Jasmine Harris, 24, who now lives in Iowa but who came back to Chicago when she heard Smith had been shot, started dancing with his team when she was still in high school. She trekked from the West Side to the South Side for each practice and credits Smith with helping her not just become a better dancer, but helping her to develop self-confidence and overcome her shyness.
“He always showed up for me, always. And it’s not just me. He treated us all like his kids,” including some verbal disciplining, she said. “He’d tell you what you need to do and how you need to make your passion in life your priority. But it was all out of love.”
Both Blackman and Harris said current dancers gathered outside the locked studio Wednesday, unaware of why Smith didn’t show up. Harris said his sister also posted on social media around the same time that she hadn’t heard from him and was looking for any tips on where he might be.
Given how much of a pacifist Smith was, Harris said no one could ever have imagined he would become a victim.
“I think I’m only able to be as strong as I am right now because I just really don’t believe it’s real. He’s the main person we know who wanted to stop violence so bad,” Harris said.
Smith never told her explicitly, but she believes he felt that dancing helped save him when he was younger, that “it kept him off the streets and him wanting to return that to others.”
The Yelp page for his studio says the New Jersey-born dancer moved to Chicago with his family when he was 6. His Facebook page says he attended Harlan Community Academy High School and Olive-Harvey College. He formed Ultimate Threat in 2010.
The biography does not mention he was partially deaf. Blackman said he was deaf in one ear and Harris said he was comfortable reading lips. Although members of the team gave him a hearing aid, the women said, he had been dancing for decades without being able to hear the music.
“He could just feel the beat. It was incredible. When you’d talk to him, even loudly, he couldn’t hear you. But he never missed a beat,” Harris said.
Harris said that since Smith’s death, many dancers who worked with him have mentioned how Smith always told them they should know how to run a practice without him, in case he had to miss a session. If he was late to an event — his team performed in the Bud Billiken Parade annually and traveled to Alabama this month for a competition — the dancers were meant to have gotten themselves warmed up because each participant knew what Smith expected of them.
In doing so, he prepared an entire generation of his students to become coaches — and several already have. Far from being upset that they branched out on their own, he encouraged them, set up friendly dance battles, even let other coaches use his studio, Harris said.
“None of us ever thought this would be why we’d need to know how to lead a practice, or why he wasn’t here,” she said.
“I just know we’ve got to figure something out for these kids, his students. We’ve gotta do that for Vee.”
Chicago Tribune’s Alice Yin and Rosemary Sobol contributed.