Jack Smith was the most beloved of Times columnists and would have politely scolded anyone who offered that description. He might have launched into a fervid monologue on the precise meaning of the word beloved, citing literary examples and perhaps a memory from his school days. Smith seemed to write a great deal about beloved teachers, which meant either that they had inspired him or had an attractive figure.
When he died Tuesday after several years of declining health, American newspapers and their readers lost a writer who prized the language, used it beautifully and made a story rise from the page with wit, emotion and intelligence.
His spare, often whimsical column first appeared in The Times in 1958 and eventually was distributed to almost 600 papers worldwide. Smith used to write five columns a week, a killer pace, and produced more than 6,000. Imagine.
But Smith got around. Los Angeles was his city and he never ceased poking into its corners, looking for signs of life. He found sailors, musicians, bartenders, professors. His most celebrated sighting, however, was a grackle, a common bird but not around these parts, which Smith insisted he had spotted in his backyard atop Mount Washington. Ornithologists scoffed. “It was unbelievable, of course, and nobody believed me,” Smith told his readers. “I was soon vindicated, however, by a second sighting. This one again took place in my backyard and nobody believed me again.”
In The Times’ newsroom, with a wink, he told young reporters of the zany days of competitive journalism, when the pros knew just how to distract the wife of a murder victim long enough to snatch a photo of the departed off her dresser and dash it downtown in time to publish in the first edition. And, no doubt, celebrate the coup with a glass of something.
The Smith of recent decades was more reflective, more bemused by the human condition, and wrote a string of popular books, including “God and Mr. Gomez” and “The Big Orange.” He never showed a lack of interest in anything. And he was, darn it, beloved.