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Mel Smith

Posted on | March 12, 2010 | Comments Off

Mel Smith died this week at 97.  He was my surrogate father, the go-to elder in my life, the model of a public servant, and a Christian gentlemen.  His warm smile, ready handshake, and sunny disposition triumphed in a life that could have been surrendered to grousing about bureaucracy and personal tragedy.

Mel passed out get-out-of-jail cards for a living, second chances  on  life.  He believed in people foibles and all.

Mel wrote about himself before he died in the self-effacing prose of a federal civic servant, which he had been:

Merrill Atherton Smith

Smith was born in Los Angeles February 20, 1913.  He was educated in the public schools of Los Angeles, Sierra Madre and Pasadena.  He attended the University of Redlands and the University of Southern California from which he received a Bachelor of Science degree in 1936.

On September 9, 1937 he and Vera Crispin of Salem County, New Jersey were married.  They raised two daughters, Kathy and Chris, in Southern California.  In 1954, the Smiths moved to Maryland when Merrill took a job in the service of the federal judiciary in Washington, D.C.   Until 1971, he served as the assistant chief and chief of the federal probation service.   Smith coordinated the work of probation officers serving all the United States District Courts.  He was chief consultant to federal judges on probation, sentencing and parole, and directed field services for the U.S. Board of Parole and other agencies.

Upon his retirement, the Smiths returned to Southern California where Merrill spent two years as Administrator of the Criminal Justice Programs at the Kellogg Center, Cal Poly, Pomona.  He was active in the Presbyterian church as an elder both in Maryland and California in addition to working with many charitable organizations.

He is survived by Vera, his wife of 72 years, three grandsons (Warren and Jesse Knapp and Marc Cushing), seven great grandchildren, many cousins, nieces, nephews, and good friends.  He was a wonderful friend to all and will be missed greatly.

A memorial service will be held Saturday, March 13th at 11am at the Claremont Presbyterian Church:  1111 North Mountain Avenue, Claremont, California.

But there’s more to Mel.

Leanne and I came to know Mel and Vera Smith shortly after we moved to Claremont in 1976.  He was already retired.  Then, the parole service enforced retirement at 55.  Ed Aluzas, who was studying for his doctorate at the Claremont School of Theology and putting bread on the table by serving as associate pastor of the Claremont Presbyterian Church, invited about a dozen of us to meet and discuss a book.  Mostly we were thirty-ish, but there was this attractive older couple, who reminded us of the best sides of our parents.

We dispensed with the book in six weeks and continued to meet for the next 32 years, our numbers somewhat diminished.  We last met  three weeks ago on Mel’s 97th birthday when we visited his bedside for what for some of us would be a final hug.

Between the first meeting and the last, Mel Smith became our friend, and our extended family.

His short summary of his life skipped over the colorations that made the man: the part about growing up in Boyle Heights on Soto Street during the Depression, the part about chasing down parole violators unarmed, the part about meeting and wooing Vera.

An early encounter with a medical marijuana user convinced him that federal laws were overly punitive.  About 1940, a man was convicted of carrying weed into the U.S. from Mexico and put on probation under Mel’s supervision.  He had used marijuana for years and found it was the only thing that relieved his constant tinnitus (ringing in the ears).  Mel begged the court to allow the man to continue medical use, but the judge declared it would be abstinence or jail.  Unable to quit cold turkey, the man committed suicide a week later.

Years later Smith declared that overzealous drug laws were endangering the federal judiciary.

Mel’s summary of his life also omitted the most difficult part: experiencing both his and Vera’s daughters die before their time.  His quiet courage and acceptance taught us a great deal.

He also wrote about his own faith and family, and some of these thoughts will be captured in his memorial service.

He was one grand guy.

If you would  like to contribute a memory or tribute, please use the comment feature.

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