After four years in his first teaching and coaching job in Illinois, George Smilanich was offered a teaching job in his hometown of Buhl, Minn.
On his trip back to the small Iron Range town, Smilanich stopped in the Twin Cities to see a friend.
His friend offered him a job that would pay more than the salary Smilanich would make as an industrial arts teacher. But Smilanich declined.
“His friend asked him, ‘Why would you want to go up there and be poor?’ ” said Susan Smilanich. “My father loved Buhl and he responded, ‘This is what I love to do.’ ”
George Smilanich returned to his hometown and taught and coached on the Iron Range for nearly three decades.
“One of the greatest compliments you could give my father was call him ‘coach,’ ” his daughter said. “He always said his greatest accomplishment was seeing the boundless impact his ‘kids’ had on the world.”
Smilanich died Aug. 8 after a brief illness. Smilanich, who was living with his daughter in Hugo, was 98.
“It was just sudden,” said his daughter. “He was the toughest guy. Old school. Nothing bothered him.”
Smilanich was the youngest of seven children born to Serbian immigrants Yelena and Mane Smilanich on June 21, 1922, just outside of Buhl. His father worked underground at the Wanless Mine.
After helping Buhl win the Minnesota boys state basketball tournament in 1941 and 1942 as a starting guard, he was drafted. He spent three years as a tank driver in the 2nd Armored Division.
He served in North Africa and Sicily before landing in Normandy three days after D-Day. His unit fought in Northern France and the Battle of the Bulge.
Smilanich survived having three of the tanks he drove destroyed by enemy fire. He earned a Bronze Star for heroism for pulling his wounded commander from their burning tank. He later was awarded the Purple Heart for injuries he suffered in the Battle of the Bulge.
“He didn’t talk about it,” said his daughter. “His former students said, ‘I didn’t know he was in the war.’ ”
In 2014, Smilanich opened up about his service after he was contacted by Jack Slattery of the 2nd Armored Division Association. Slattery asked Smilanich if he wanted to serve as a consultant to a Hollywood-produced movie titled “Fury.” The movie, directed by David Ayer, starred Brad Pitt.
“Jack knew my dad,” Susan Smilanich said. “My dad told him he didn’t want to do it. He said, ‘Who the hell is Brad Pitt?’ My dad’s whole life had been sports. He had no interest in movies. We told him to consider it because it would be a once-in-a-lifetime thing.”
Smilanich relented and spent three days in Hollywood telling the movie’s producers about his experiences. He and his wife, Mary, and daughter attended the movie’s premiere in Washington, D.C.
“The movie is fiction. It’s David Ayer’s story,” said Susan Smilanich. “But it aligned with the stories that my father shared with them, down to small details.”
After his discharge in 1945, Smilanich enrolled at St. Cloud State Teachers College. He played basketball and was on the track team while earning his degree.
His first teaching job was in Erie, Ill. He coached football, basketball and track at Buhl for 13 years before moving to nearby Hibbing, where he coached track and was an assistant football coach. He retired in 1984.
Survivors also include sons Tom of South St. Paul and Steven of Minneapolis, two grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. His wife died in 2015 after 69 years of marriage.
A wake is set for Thursday and burial Friday at Fort Snelling National Cemetery.