He eventually moved up in the ranks from amateur scout to professional scout, where he scoured the country for players in other organizations. He did so with a genuine smile seemingly stuck on his face at all times.
"He loved what he did," Randy Smith said.
Van Smith was one of the scouts who was responsible for sending the Padres positive reports on current reliever Luke Gregerson, who was the player to be named later in the Khalil Greene trade with the Cardinals in March 2009.
Smith also watched Ryan Ludwick in the day leading up to the 2010 Trade Deadline and recommended him to then-San Diego general manager Jed Hoyer. In the spring of 2011, Smith recommended Alberto Gonzalez, a utility infielder that the team traded for that March.
It was Smith who in 1991 recommended infielder Homer Bush to the Padres. The team drafted him in the seventh round of the Draft. Bush went on to play seven seasons in the Major Leagues.
"He had a keen eye for talent and saw the good in everyone he scouted," said Padres assistant general manager A.J. Hinch, who also oversees the professional scouting department. "That's not to say that he thought every player would be a big leaguer or a superstar.
"But he respected the game and that was reflected in his reports."
More than that, Van Smith was a person that other scouts gravitated toward. This partly explains why Hinch and Randy Smith have spent the last day fielding scads of emails, calls and test messages of condolences from those in the industry.
"He was well-liked by just about everyone in the industry, he had that conviction and he always told you what he thought," Randy Smith said. "Maybe it was his Midwest values, but he was inquisitive by nature ... he had a teaching background.
"He could make anyone feel comfortable and was genuinely interested in what people had to say. Van was a guy you wanted to be around."
Van Smith is survived by his wife, Ann, and his four children, Robin, Lindsey, Christine and Tad. A memorial service will be held at United Presbyterian Church in Belleville, Ill., on Sunday.
Van Smith covered the Orlando area during Spring Training this year so that he could spend more time with son Tad.
Smith was picked as the Padres' Scout of the Year in 2001. He was also elected to the Midwest Scouts Hall of Fame in 2004.
On the 20-80 scale that scouts use to rate players, Smith graded as an 80 in the books of those who had the chance to cross his path.
"He was as dedicated and loyal as they come," Hinch said. "He never gave the impression that he knew it all."