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Catfish Club Doesn't Have to Angle to Land Notable Guests : Fish in Big Pond on Black Issues

November 24, 1986|BARRY M. HORSTMAN | Times Staff Writer

Catfish Club members have come to expect three things of their weekly lunchtime meetings--the fish served will be tasty, the gatherings will be as entertaining as they are informative, and, by the end of lunch, several attendees are likely to feel that the fish weren't the only ones that got fried by the Rev. George Walker Smith.

A prominent black minister and former San Diego school board president, Smith spices up the meetings of the mostly black lunch club that he and a handful of friends founded 12 years ago with remarks that often are as saucy as the fish that he prepares in his Golden Hill church's kitchen every Friday morning.

Politicians or others who get too long-winded are likely to be cut off by Smith with a brisk, "All right, let's cut the rappin' and get to the meat." More than one person who went to the Friday meetings hoping to get a foot through the black community's economic door, without checking in advance with Smith, has had his sales pitch interrupted by the minister's admonition that the Catfish Club "doesn't exist so you can make a living."

And then there is Smith's usual ribbing of members and guests alike--as typified by his joking with a police officer over "a few tickets I want you to take care of"--that Catfish Club regulars have come to regard as being as much a part of the weekly menu as catfish and red snapper.

"I suppose some folks might resent my style, but then, they don't have to come back--no one's twisting their arm," Smith said chuckling. "Besides, it's all done in fun. And let's face it, some people just plain need to be told to shut up and get down to the important stuff sometimes."

Originally a simple weekly ritual among a few close friends, the Catfish Club has grown in stature over the past dozen years to become one of the most prominent forums within San Diego's black community.

Smith and other members insist that the club's purpose remains primarily social and charitable, and they chafe at any suggestion that the group, which meets in the annex of Smith's Christ United Presbyterian Church, is merely a collection of lunchtime do-gooders.

"We have fun, but I would hope nobody would take us lightly because we also zero in on things that are important--not just to Southeast San Diego but the entire city," Smith said. "This is like a town meeting in old New England, where people get together to discuss the issues of the day, whether it's politics, social issues, economics, education or what have you. We tackle everything we want to tackle."

Most local politicians eagerly solicit invitations to address the club, which maintains a nonpartisan stance despite Smith's well-known Republicanism. On several occasions, Police Chief Bill Kolender has gone before the group to explain policies of particular import to the black community. Supportive of efforts to reduce the drug problem in Southeast San Diego, the club also is pressing the San Diego Unified Port District and the local hotel and restaurant industries for additional jobs and economic opportunities for minorities.

Though the club does not profess to speak for the entire minority community, county Supervisor Leon Williams, a longtime member, characterizes it as "a window to the black community" and its thinking on a range of issues.

"It serves as part of the conscience of the community," added Smith, a 57-year-old Alabama native who moved to San Diego in the mid-1950s. "Anytime something happens that has even a tinge of injustice, we're there."

Recently, Smith and other club members bitterly protested the San Diego City Council's ouster of City Manager Sylvester Murray, the first black to hold the city's top appointive post. At an overflow Catfish Club meeting, Smith raised more than $3,000 in about five minutes to pay for a newspaper advertisement praising Murray.

The club lodged a similar complaint in 1982 when the city school board bought out the contract of white Superintendent Tom Goodman, whom Smith hailed as "the person who did more to bring women and minority folks into the mainstream of the school district than any other superintendent." The club's spirited support for Goodman proves, Smith argued, that "color means nothing to us."

The majority of the club's actions, however, are relatively low profile. The club awards annual scholarships to needy minority students and has raised money for sickle-cell anemia research. A promising young skater's plane fare to national meets was financed by the club, and the group once paid for the burial of a Nigerian college student killed in a confrontation with police.

In addition, charter member Oscar Pendleton explained that the club's members occasionally "reach into their pockets" to help poor families pay bills or buy food and necessities.

"We're anything we want to be," Smith said of the club. "This is a very nebulous group, and there are no limits to what we do."

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