Tom Smith’s wild and wonderful life came to an end July 18 after he passed away from congestive heart failure and Alzheimer’s at the age of 94.
Born in Placerville on Nov. 29, 1917, Tom was descended from a family with a long history in Placerville.
His great-grandfather was the publisher of the Daily Republican, which, at the time, was the competing paper to the Mountain Democrat. He also owned the first car dealership in the area. His father was a miner, tool-maker, rancher and foreman of a slate quarry.
Tom grew up having an equally interesting life with diverse interests, many friends and a gift for humor.
Born at the Placerville Sanatorium, he lived in a home on Canal Street.
Tom’s son, Kirk, recalls how his father and Tom’s sister would search in the basement for small rocks with flecks of gold. After extracting the gold, they would hit the candy store.
Tom and his childhood friends also had an unusual tree house. According to an old story told by Tom, the boys tapped into an unused power line running to the nearby brewery and used it to power every electrical appliance they could get up the tree. Tom and his friends also showed their daring during the wintertime by standing at the side of Highway 50 with their skis on. When a car or truck would pass, they’d grab the bumper or door to get a free ride up the hill. Other times they would ride the Pino Grande cable car.
Once he was older, Tom went to work as a projectionist at the Empire Theater in downtown Placerville where he worked for seven years. With his savings, he was able to obtain his commercial pilot’s license and purchase a bi-plane. That was the start of a lifelong love of planes and flying.
After a few years of holding a commercial license, he was hired to work for an aircraft ferrying business in Long Beach and eventually that led to his entering the Air Force where he ferried supplies all over the world including the South Pacific, Europe, Australia and New Guinea. Kirk said his father was grateful for the assignment because he wasn’t in combat and he lost a lot of friends who were.
Smith ended up flying all kinds of planes and in all kinds of circumstances, including landing in cow pastures and having to use peanut oil for fuel. It was during this time that the Air Force learned that he had once been a projectionist and assigned him the job of taking photographs. Luckily he was able to stop by the offices of the Mountain Democrat and learn how to use a speed graphic camera and thus a second career in the military was born.
After serving in the military for 12 years and being commissioned a second lieutenant in the Air Transport Command, Tom returned to Placerville. By this time he was married to Gloria, and had two children. In 1952, he bought the Shell service station on lower Main Street and in 1956 bought the Placerville Drive-In market, which he operated with his sister and her husband. After 10 years in the grocery business, Tom retired in 1966. Kirk said he only remembers his father taking one vacation the entire time he owned the market.
Growing up during the Depression
Like many people who grew up during the Great Depression, Tom felt its mark his entire life.
Kirk said his father was always acquiring property because the Depression made him realize the importance of owning land and being self-sufficient. “He was very thrifty and didn’t believe in waste,” said Kirk. “He could afford to own a department store but bought his clothing from the Hospice store and repaired his own shoes. He was frugal but generous.”
He was also very honest, said Kirk, and that honesty, combined with humor, showed up at unusual times. For example when he decided to run for city council his entire campaign consisted of one ad in the Mountain Democrat. At a campaign meeting he announced why he was up for election saying, “I’m running for the same selfish reasons as anyone else. I own property and I want to protect it.”
Kirk said that besides his father being a good businessman, he was also someone who helped others get started when it came to leasing out his property. “He helped many people start their own businesses or find housing by doing business on the basis of a handshake,” he said. “With him, it was first month’s rent and a handshake. There were no lease agreements. His word was his bond.”
He also had his finger in a lot of different pots, in part — according to Kirk — because of a limited attention span. He had five acres of peaches that he sold through his grocery store. Leftovers were turned into homemade peach ice cream and peach brandy. “This was high-octane, really good stuff,” said Kirk. Later someone turned him in for making it, but couldn’t find the still.
Kirk said his father also kept bees, made wine, cured his own olives, made his own sausage and jerky from the deer he hunted, and made his own horseradish, which he would take with him when he went out for prime rib because he liked his own best. Every year he would plant a garden and can the leftovers. He also owned a gold mine at Grizzly Flats and grew and sold Christmas trees.
“There wasn’t much he couldn’t do — build a building or carpentry. He was very imaginative,” said Kirk. “If he wanted a weather vane, he would make one. He was great at repairing things but there were always parts left over.”
He also liked to hunt and Kirk said he was expert at driving along and spotting how many points there were on a deer’s antlers.
Even getting older didn’t slow him down much for even in his 80s he was tooling around town on a motorcycle.
One of the things that his family and friends especially prized about Tom Smith was his sense of humor and delight in telling jokes and stories. Kirk said as he got older he couldn’t remember what he had for breakfast, but could tell you lots of stories from the past. He also told jokes that many people wished he had forgotten.
“Tom would talk to anybody,” he said. “He liked people and was very gregarious.”
One of his favorite stories was the time he sat beside Eleanor Roosevelt on an airline flight from Fort Worth, Texas to Los Angeles when he was in the military. After a long conversation, they both fell asleep. Later he would upset women by telling them he had once slept with Eleanor Roosevelt.
Kirk said Tom would “proudly state, ‘I’m a Placerville boy.’ He loved the town. My father’s wishes were to be cremated and flushed down Hangtown Creek. He’ll be buried instead but eventually get his wish.
“You can’t feel sorry for him. Everything he wanted to accomplish, he did.”
Tom Smith leaves behind his wife of 66 years, Gloria, his son Kirk and daughter Belinda, one grandson and three great-grandchildren and a lot of good memories. Tentative burial services are scheduled for 11 a.m. on July 30 at Union Cemetery.
Contact Dawn Hodson at 530-344-5071 or email@example.com. Follow @DHodsonMtDemo on Twitter.