Wayne L. Smith


Wayne Smith Elgin High School

Class of 1981

After a detour into auto mechanic work, Elgin High School graduate Wayne Smith took a deep dive into a beloved hobby and emerged with a satisfying and richly rewarding career.

“I make a difference in people’s lives every day,” he says. 

Smith, or, more specifically, Lt. Wayne L. Smith of the Elgin Fire Department, is a 1981 EHS graduate working out of the EFD’s Station No. 2 on Big Timber Road. Immediately following high school, he put the lessons learned from teacher Ron Freedlund and others to work as a mechanic at a local Chevy dealership, later moving to Motor Werks of Barrington and even opening his own repair shop.

Smith’s love of the water (he’s an avid Lake Michigan sailor and hockey player and coach), and scuba diving in particular, led him to explore another career avenue.

“I was a scuba diver at the time and knew that that was what I wanted to do,” he says. “And the Elgin Fire Department had a dive team.”

Starting with the EFD in 1994, Smith was fast tracked to the department’s diving squad, earning a spot before he completed his one-year probation because of his experience

In his 23 years with the Water Rescue Team, Smith has been involved in numerous dramatic efforts, including pulling a driver out of a car in the Fox River in downtown Elgin.

Smith is also involved in mentoring new recruits and has a lead role in the annual memorial to Michael Whalen and Stan Balsis, two Elgin firefighters who drowned during a 1974 rescue in the Fox River at Kimball Street.

“It’s not a job,” Smith stresses, “it’s a career.”

And his time in school helped prepare him for that career. His English teachers, for instance, prepared him to write reports, “which I do a lot of,” he says. Competing on the high school swim team came in handy when he joined the Water Rescue Team. And he still recalls economics teacher E.C. “Mike” Alft fondly. 

“You can’t forget him. He was just a very lively teacher that kept me engaged where other teachers may have struggled to keep me engaged.”

His work with young firefighters keeps him grounded in terms of his work and his role in the community. 

“I try to convey to them that you’re going to be here for a long time. Make it enjoyable and make a difference in people’s lives.”

And, he adds, remember to offer the people you meet kindness and respect.

“I tell everybody that I train to treat everyone like they’re your grandma,” he says.

Wayne Smith Scuba