Editor's note: Each week reporter Matthew Guerry shares the life stories of residents of Minnesota or the Dakotas who have died recently. Maybe you don't know them, but their stories are worth knowing. If you have a suggestion for someone to be featured, email mguerry@forumcomm.com or call 651-321-4314.

Trends always made their way to Bemidji, Minn., a few years after they caught on elsewhere.

"We never had first-run movies at the movie theater," Todd Smart said. "It was like that across all kinds of cultural things, whether it be music or fashion or roller skating."

Sensing that roller skating could take root in the area, Todd's father, Doug Smart set out in the late 1970s to open what would become the first roller rink in town. The nearest source of competition up to that point, a rink in Nisswa, Minn., was a 90-minute drive but still drew high school and college students from Bemidji on Friday nights.

By fall 1980, when Todd was 12 years old, his dad opened Smart Skate to great success.

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Smart, who Todd called a "serial entrepreneur," died at age 81 on March 11, 2021. Doug Smart ran the rink alongside his other business ventures for another 13 years before selling it.


Though the rink had long since closed, memories of the place linger.

Ironically, Doug Smart was never much for skating himself. Nor was he particularly taken by pool, darts or arcade games — even though he sold and maintained those games and supplies throughout the region as the owner and operator of Northern Amusements.

"I think that he thought of businesses as a means to an end, to have a good life, not to build an empire. To be able to travel, to be able to hang out at home," Todd said. "I think the commute from the office to the house was like three minutes."

Doug, born in 1940, lived most of his life in Bemidji. He married his wife, Gloria Smart, in 1963. They had two children.

Growing up, Doug learned to fix vending machines and other coin-operated devices from his father, who founded Northern Amusements before him. New inventory and machines under repair were sometimes kept in the family's garage, which Smart's youngest sister Heidi Gall said once housed a jukebox, pinball machine and two vending machines one for cigarettes and the other for pop at the same time.

Doug Smart of Bemidji, Minnesota, smiles in his workspace after shoveling snow. Family said the founder of Smart Skate delighted in fixing things and helping others.
Doug Smart of Bemidji, Minnesota, smiles in his workspace after shoveling snow. Family said the founder of Smart Skate delighted in fixing things and helping others.

"We had a huge group of kids in the neighborhood, and so they would all hang out in our garage," Gall said.

After the elder Smart died in 1965, Doug bought the business and focused on pool tables, dart boards and arcade cabinets.

It was a fun environment to grow up in, Todd said, though he joked that he and his younger sister were usually given "whatever the crappiest jobs (were)," such as tending the roller rink snack bar or wiping down machines.

"Check this out: in terms of my childhood, my father owns a ton of video games and a roller rink. It was a pretty cool thing as a kid in the '80s have access to both of those things," he recalled.

Doug preferred to spend his downtime in a fast-paced style. He liked to travel, snowmobile and spend time on the lake, according to Gall.

"Whenever we go on the lake where we live now in Watertown, South Dakota, we say 'There goes Doug,' when we see a pontoon going really, really fast," she said.

Smart is survived by his wife Gloria and their two children, and by his three siblings.

Correction July 26, 2021: Heidi Gall is Doug Smart's sister. Their relationship was wrong in an earlier version of this story. It has been corrected.