FOR STEVE SMITH, it was all about the kids.

Here was a man who devoted his life to coaching young people at schools and recreation centers in the city - not just coaching them but teaching them how to be responsible adults.

It's called mentoring, and that was what Steve Smith was all about.

A burly guy with a big smile that told you all you needed to know about this man, he loved what he was doing, and the world around him could tell.

Steven J. Smith, longtime Philadelphia Recreation Department leader who coached and mentored young people at various recreation centers in the city and at Catholic and public schools, and a devoted family man, died Dec. 1 of cancer. He was 54 and lived in Southwest Philadelphia.

"Steve's life may seem short to many, but to those who were touched by this gentle giant with a huge heart and a ready smile, to all the youths to whom he gave encouragement, hope and courage, his lifespan is immeasurable," his family wrote in a tribute.

One lesson Steve taught everyone who knew him was how to persevere in the face of severe trials that might have stopped a lesser man.

"Despite his failing health, he never complained or became a victim," his family said. "Rather, he continued working and persevered through his illness, never fully revealing the severity of his condition."

Steven Smith was born in Philadelphia to Charles R. Smith Jr. and Magnolia Barnett. He attended St. Gabriel's Parochial School and graduated from St. John Neumann High School in 1979.

He went on to Villanova University and earned a bachelor's degree in education.

Steve held several jobs before he joined the Recreation Department. He started working as recreation leader at various rec centers, including Stinger Square, Vare and Marian Anderson.

He ultimately became recreation supervisor at Kingsessing Recreation Center. Steve was in no way through with his mentoring career and intended to start a job as recreation supervisor at the Cobbs Creek Recreation Center on Nov. 2. But his illness prevented it.

In addition to his full-time job, Steve became a seasonal coach for the Philadelphia Archdiocese in 1999. He coached various sports at John W. Hallahan Girls High School, West Catholic, Archbishop Carroll, St. Frances Xavier and Lower Merion High School.

Steve was presented with a special challenge when his alma mater, St. John Neumann High, merged with St. Maria Goretti High and he was selected as the first head basketball coach of the combined school in 2004.

The first year was tough. Transition problems had to be faced in the sports program, but Steve pulled it through as the boss of the faltering but dedicated Neumann-Goretti Saints.

Thanks to Steve's pioneering work, the Saints became perennial contenders in the Catholic League Blue Division.

"More important than being successful on the field, coach Smith was a mentor and role model to countless young men and women in their personal lives," his family said.

"While he has coached many youths in football, track and field, cross country and as part of the Recreation Department, it was his selfless and generous nature, along with his genuine interest in the lives of everyone that made coach Steve extraordinary."

He is survived by a sister, Verna D. Smith, and a brother, Charles K. Smith.

Services: Memorial Mass 11 a.m. today at Divine Mercy Parish Church, 6667 Chester Ave.

215-854-5573