My dad, “Jimmy” Smith, was born in Bad Axe Michigan on April 7, 1935 and later moved to Richmond Michigan. He was the eldest of eight children born to Leo and Luella Smith.
He attended 12 years of parochial school and at St. Augustine High he was captain of the high school football team and played catcher in baseball. He attended seminary for awhile until, according to one of his friends, he learned to better appreciate the charms of women.
Like many kids who came of age in post war America he enjoyed the pleasures that came from a simpler world. He hitchhiked from Bad Axe to Caseville Michigan to swim in the cool waters of Lake Huron. He water-skied behind big lake freighters in the Saint Clair River. He played alto sax in a group he formed with his buddies called the Chevy Five. He even hid a police car from Bo, the local Richmond cop, on Halloween. And there are many more stories that his friends and family have told me that I can’t share here. As you can see, my dad had a great spirit and a zest for life.
Pop was ambitious…he worked his way through high school and college…he was a soda jerk at the drug store…he manually set pins at the bowling alley…he worked at a Bordens milk plant and delivered cameras in Detroit. Dad found a passion in English and foreign language. He attended the University of Detroit and later got his Masters from Michigan State on a scholarship. Jim Smith was a poster child for hard work and the pursuit of the American Dream.
My dad was introduced to my mother through a mutual friend. At first mom was reluctant to date him because he drove a rusted out Plymouth that had no floorboards and worse…horrible brakes and lawn chairs for seats. Indeed, he once popped the hood and made her refill the brake fluid on a date while he pumped the brakes behind the wheel…he had a very interesting way to impress the ladies. Despite this, she fell in love with him and that love continues after 50 years of marriage.
Dad was called up from the Air Force reserves for the Bay of Pigs conflict but fortunately never had to go. I was born soon after and my sister Kathy five years later. He shaped a family life for us that was pretty amazing and perhaps one he always dreamed of having as a kid…My dad never had it easy as a kid. Quite the opposite. He often was never good enough for my Grandfather. It hurt me to hear the stories from others but I am glad I had a relationship with him that he never had with his dad. Dad never complained about his childhood. That wasn’t his way.
I remember him taking me to Utica High football games and he’d smile when people called me “little senor”…He loved being a dad. A good dad that did things with us. He took me skiing for the first time against the advice of my mom…we schemed a plot where he carried me through the front door with a fake broken leg…mom totally bought the gag…we both cracked up…mom didn’t. It was always cool and fun to be senor Smiths son.
Summers were spent in Northern Michigan where he worked as a counselor for the Michigan Mexican Migrant Program and we enjoyed lake living and making new friends in Manistee and Onekama. Dad loved to travel and he shared that love with us. We got an Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser station wagon and a travel trailer and went out west to explore the Rockies and Northern Canada. Later he bought a sailboat and we had great times together on Lake Saint Clair on a sailboat he named Shalom…which is Hebrew for peace.
Dad taught Spanish at Utica High, and later Ford High School where he was also the activities director. When there was no track coach, my dad stepped up and led the Freshman squad for free. When there was no money to fund a Spanish 4 class, my dad volunteered. When there was a need for someone to sponsor a foreign exchange student, dad did. He was well-liked by kids and colleagues. After a good career in teaching my dad retired in his early 50’s and enjoyed a new start in the real estate business. He built up many relationships and had a lot of fun helping people buy and sell houses.
In retirement, he enjoyed spending time with mom. They’d regularly travel out to the lake, attend plays and concerts with their friends, and enjoy time with our families at dinners and outings. They bought a motorhome and travelled all over.
So this is what my dad was…a great husband, a caring father…a guy that had a great zest for life…but it only scratches the surface on who he was…and that is what made him truly special. In fact, this was the secret that kept him happy and fulfilled. My dad never gave a damn about impressing people. He never cared much about titles or a fancy lifestyle. He knew how much money he needed to stay safe and happy. He had a higher order in life.
My dad was the most interesting guy I ever knew. He had his own compass, and often marched to the beat of a different drummer…He was a deep thinker and a great writer…and he was deeply spiritual.
He was extremely patriotic and always optimistic that our country could overcome most any problem and frustrated that we somehow couldn’t…he went to memorial services for veterans…but he prayed for peace and hated war of any kind…he felt deeply that government could truly help people but he was angered at the bureaucracy, the control and spending it represented today…
He was smart…he read all sorts of books and periodicals and could speak on a wide range of topics…He loved debating politics and world affairs with my considerably more conservative father- in- law Armen Delpup… it made our family Sunday dinners interesting and illuminating with arguments from both sides of any issue…
He was funny…he told jokes and did funny things…most people politely honk their horn and wave when leaving someone’s house…my dad would flash his headlights and peel out down the street in a roar of Buick-powered glory…he loved a little Jim Beam and water…or a strong Manhattan… and he would revel in a dinner toast spoken in perfect Spanish…”amor, pesetas y el tiempo para gazarlos”, he would say…which translated means love, money and the time to enjoy both.
He loved a sailing trip with my crazy college buddies…and they loved having him along for the ride too. We’d swap lies and sing Jimmy Buffet tunes on the stereo late into the night…
He loved people and he lived the Good Samaritan principal in all his affairs…dad sought out people that many others found “uncool” or bothersome…I remember numerous occasions where dad reached out to help people that crossed his path…whether they needed someone to listen, or some financial help, or just a kind word or a meal…he saw his role as someone that could help…and he did.
He was loyal…to his wife, his family…friends…and God. Never missed a Sunday mass that I can remember…proudly wore a cross around his neck…prayed and meditated daily…A lot of people hide under couches when the Jehovah’s Witness ring the doorbell…my dad might have done this a few times too…but he was also likely to invite them in for coffee and a prayer and conversation about their life. He broke bread and shared a service or conversation with any faith… Catholic, Baptist, Jew…didn’t matter.
And of course he loved his Spartans…and the Tigers…he watched nearly every game on TV. I don’t know how he did it, but he’d watch the Wolverines too.
When we played golf, most times we left the scorecard behind…because to dad, golf was more about a good walk and conversation with friends than keeping score.
He never missed a dance recital or a grandkid’s game, swim meet, or concert…and in fact, though filled with cancer and unable to walk, my dad made it to Spencer’s last football game just one week before he died. He could hardly talk, but he yelled at our coach to throw it to ocho…(spanish for eight)…Spencer’s jersey number.
He was a strong willed fighter that refused to be babied despite his condition and legs so weak he could barely walk…he crawled up the steep stairs to his bedroom every night rather than be carried and til the end fought cancer with all his might and a hope that he could still beat it. He talked to a priest at the end of his life and asked if it would be okay to forego chemo anymore. He didn’t want God to think he quit. And he wanted to be okay with that.
On one of his last days I took him for a wheelchair ride though his neighborhood and we had a great talk about life and death. It was a postcard Michigan autumn day and the fall colors were beautiful. He told me he had lived a great life and wasn’t afraid of dying. It was a great chat.
At the end of our ride we came to the crossroads of Independence and Liberty Drive…there, a little girl in a stroller crossed our path…she was surprised to see someone so much bigger than her also being pushed around in a chair with wheels…she turned around for another look at Dad…she smiled and waved…and Dad smiled and waved back…she went one way…and we went another. She was starting. And he was coming to his end and his own new beginning.
Dad was at peace. He thanked me for having a father son relationship he wished he had. I gave him a hug and told him I loved him. He did too. He was a man that lived a great life that prepared him for death and a new life beyond. He lived a life that made a difference. He wouldn’t want us to feel sad for him. He’d want us to laugh a little more…and worry less, care about each other a little more and spend more time with our friends and family and helping others where we can. That was dad.
Godspeed pop…we love you…and we’ll see you on the other side.