Verndell Smith’s motto was, “Stop shooting and start dancing.”
It’s why he opened the Ultimate Threat Dance Organization, to get kids off the streets.
“He wanted to give other children an outlet to forget their struggles in life,” his sister LaToya Smith said. “People came in the door not knowing how to dance. And they left, as we’d say, ‘the coldest in Chicago.’ ”
Late Wednesday morning, Smith was walking near his studio in Park Manor when the driver of a silver SUV pulled into the parking lot and opened fire in the 7400 block of South King Drive, hitting Smith in the leg, arm, forehead and torso.
Get Chicago local news, weather forecasts, sports and entertainment stories to your inbox. Sign up for NBC Chicago newsletters.
Paramedics took Smith to the University of Chicago Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead, police said. Detectives were reviewing surveillance video, but no one had been arrested by Thursday afternoon.
The shooter’s motive was unclear.
Although partially deaf, Smith “found his voice” through dancing, LaToya Smith said.
“My brother was a giver,” she said, not only instilling a passion for dancing but helping his students any way he could.
Sheila Neal’s 15-year-old son has danced at Smith’s studio for three years. “That man was a sweetheart. He cared about those kids beyond recognition,” she said.
Neal said her son doesn’t have a father figure around and Smith “took him under his wing” and helped him think positively.
When her son went to practice but was too sick to dance, “Verndell texted me he was all right and he got him an Uber home,” she said. Her son ended up in the ER with a migraine, and Smith texted her all night to check in on him.
Smith once wrote a lighthearted song about his disability, “Speak up, I can’t hear you,” Neal said. “You always had to look in his face for him to hear you. He made jokes out of it.”
Smith dreamed of leading the Bud Billiken Parade, Neal said. “That was his dream. ‘One year I’m gonna be the Bud,’ that’s all he said.”
Verndell was born in Elizabeth, New Jersey, and moved at age 6 to Chicago. He was influenced by R&B and the dance moves of Usher, Chris Brown, B2K and Michael Jackson, according to his Bud Billiken Parade biography.
Verndell’s dance company performed in competitions across the country, including the Apollo Theater in New York.
“He’s definitely a dance legend and he should never be forgotten,” said Devoureaux Wolf, who has a dance platform on the West Side and sometimes collaborated with Smith.
“He opened up a way to let these boys and girls be comfortable. Some of them needed a way to express themselves and Verndell would get that out of them,” he said.
Smith, who had a 10-year-old son, considered his studio a safe space. His sister recalled the time he learned two boys were carrying guns in his place. “He grabbed them and asked why they were doing it. They said it was protection for school. And he said he’d take them to school until it calmed down,” she said.
Days later, someone called police and reported that the boys were carrying guns at the studio, LaToya Smith said. Officers entered the studio and Verndell stood between them and the boys until the officers’ supervisor arrived.
When the situation calmed down, police searched the boys and found no guns, she said. Later the police invited the dance group to perform at one of its functions.
LaToya Smith hopes her brother is remembered for his determination and for his dreams.
“He had a disability, the fact he couldn’t hear, and he continued to push through,” she said. “I want people to go after your dreams. He wanted to be a rapper, and at age 31, he started to rap again. It’s never too late.”