ATHENS – As hundreds of World War II veterans leave this earth, one more fine sailor joined their ranks on Wednesday, Nov. 29.
Still probably able to wear his uniform, which unfortunately was destroyed in a house fire, along with his beloved hockey skates, Carl Robert Smith, Jr. calmly made his transition.
Always filled with a joke, a hilarious pun and even downright silliness, being in his presence was a gift. This was clear starting with his birth. As the third son born to Amelia Winters Smith, he is the one she wanted to name for his father. An avid student and athlete, he played running back (then known as halfback) for the Coatesville, Pennsylvania high school football team. Their claim to fame was that his class was the first from Coatesville to go All State (His nephew would bring home the same trophy years later as the basketball coach from the same high school).
Planning to study engineering, World War II intervened. Following his older brothers’ lead, he joined the Navy, as had his second brother. The eldest was at Tuskegee Institute as a Tuskegee airman. Curiously, the military was well represented even though half of their family were Quakers.
For Carl, the Navy was a life-changing experience. Bound and determined to make the world a better place, he spent his life doing just that. Beginning his naval career at Great Lakes in Illinois after leaving small town lovely Coatesville, Pennsylvania. He saw the bright lights of the city of Chicago and the bright lights in Mae’s eyes. After meeting Mable Parker Smith at a naval dance in Chicago, and following madly in love, they married. Moving to Astoria, Oregon, Carl fought forest fires. Shortly after that, he was called to duty in Alameda, California where the young marrieds enjoyed the beauty of California. Carl, then a munitions specialist, was home after training. He was with a childhood friend at lunch when the Fort Chicago disaster took place. Shortly after, his port of call became the beauteous Coronado Island in San Diego which his wife adored until her transition. In the midst of that beauty for her, he was sent to the Pacific rim on the USS Franklin. There one of his life’s proud moments occurred. He had shaken the hand of FDR as a child, had waved feverishly when the newly elected president FDR’s inaugural train passed slowly through Coatesville. He had witnessed the regattas at the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia. None compared to the incident which occurred on the deck of the USS Franklin.
The sailors were told that the following day was for inspection. Carl, a particularly meticulous character, was frenetic all night and morning. He had to be perfect, not only because he was the lone black in the group but he was a Smith, and Carl at that. As the young sailors lined up for inspection, a dapper gentleman in naval dress whites approached each one. When he reached Carl, he looked, inspected, took one step ahead, paused, then took a step backward and turned to Carl and said, “a damn fine sailor.” As he continued his inspection, all the sailors realized that he was Adm. Elmo Zumwalt, a Carl hero to the end.
All on the Franklin did not remain so rosy. The glorious vessel was kamikazed twice. Easily viewed on YouTube, Carl was on board surviving both attacks. He only told his family of that event five years ago. He told the family that he just hadn’t wanted to discuss it.
After World War II, he and Mae headed back east. After continuing his studies of both machinery and engineering, he did a short stint in Pennsylvania’s steel mills, decided it was not for him, and headed to his wife’s hometown of Chicago. There he opened an auto body shop where he did the painting of mostly foreign cars. Among his customers were the Staple Singers, Ramsey Lewis, Jesse Jackson, Louis Robinson of Ebony, Johnny Mathis, and many other popular Chicagoans. When he first met Mathis at Caesars in Las Vegas, he told his friends that “Johnny was so gorgeous that, if he were gay, Mathis would be the one”.
A close friend of the early gender bending entertainer, Hi-Fi White, he always championed gay rights. He also was involved with civil rights coming from the very involved Quaker oriented Winters-Smith clan. Many young whites, Jewish and Hispanic males returning from Vietnam, alongside blacks, received training in his shop. Several became lifelong friends.
The family settled happily in Hyde Park, Chicago where they raised two children, Tanya and Sherine. Always fun-loving, Carl kept something both educational and amusing up his sleeve. This might range from spelling games with homonyms or naming the states license plates during regular trips to the cottage in Michigan or the long amazing road trips around the Americans which were never boring. With the convertible top down, he told his children to always wave to truckers, as they were the backbone of America.
Fiercely loyal to his country, he refused to take his then young children to Marquette Park where Martin Luther King marched for peace. Between his daughters tears, he explained that, although he was a peaceful man, if a Klansman hit him with an egg, peace was not what would follow. On that basis, he declined to attend as he did not wish to disappoint Dr. King.
Sharing a close connection with young people, he was the one teen males could talk to when they couldn’t talk to their parents. As permissive as he was, his children were always surprised by the number of parties he chaperoned, some on yachts in Lake Michigan. What tales could be told. Clearly that smile and charm had captured the parents.
An avid world traveler, one of his first dashes was to visit Pearl Harbor which he found quite sobering, but not as sobering as a subsequent trip to Hiroshima. He and his wife included many Japanese in their social circle, some of whom were concentration camp survivors. On a later trip to Hawaii, Carl, always the early riser, was thrilled to find the beach empty. As he dove into the clear surf, sirens blared. What he did not know was that storms were expected that clear and glorious day. Still after Australia, his favorite places were Switzerland and the Vatican. Not Rome, which he adored, but the Vatican which he loved. Attending Easter mass under Pope Paul was called one of his most moving experiences ever. There he marveled at the architecture of Vatican City saying he he’d never seen so much gold in one place in life, enough to solve world poverty.
Closing his business in Chicago, he came out of retirement five months later. Never one to sit still long, he began a new career at the local Ace Hardware store. An assistant manager, he became known as the key maker to the stars. The Ace was frequented by many Hyde Parkers including David Axelrod, whose mother was also a regular, and the then young senator from Illinois named Barack Obama. Some customers would not frequent Ace on the days Carl was off. His reputation having preceded him, Carl was still known for key making skills even as his vision failed. Finally, at 90, he retired, dividing his time between Chicago and Athens where he rekindled many old and cherished friendships.
To carry on his legacy of living, loving, giving, and liberty, he leaves his daughter Tanya (Dr. Harold C.) Thompson of Athens, his adopted grandson, Carl Robert Smith III, an OU alum, two grandsons: Brandon Clayton Dotson Thompson (Katherine) of Athens, Gavin Carl Pryor Thompson of Athens, great grandsons Carl Robert Smith IV of Chicago, Christian Smith of Chicago, and his first great-granddaughter Parker Thompson of Athens. He is also survived by his beloved sister-in-law, Blanche Olivia Cruz Smith (James), who dubbed him “the Mayor” of Coatesville, Pennsylvania. He leaves a host of devoted nieces and nephews and friends from California to Connecticut and beyond.
Whether you knew him as Daddy, Granddaddy, Carl, Smitty, grocery boy or the key man, he’s dancing like it’s 1999! Thank you to Dr. and Mrs. Glenn Doston and Cmdr. Jack Andrews for making this veteran day his best! A joyful celebration of his 92 1/2 years of life will be celebrated Saturday, Dec. 9, at Jagers Funeral Home in Athens from 3-6 p.m. In lieu of flowers, donations in his name may be made to the World War II honor fund, Paralyzed Vets of America and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Online condolence available at www.jagersfuneralhome.com.
Ciao for now, fine sailor. April 17, 1925 – Nov. 29, 2017
Published in The Athens Messenger on Dec. 3, 2017