Nov. 29, 1917 — July 18, 2012
Thomas Callan Smith, a native son, was born on the 29th of November in 1917, close to a dozen years after the Wright brother’s first flight, making it natural that the imagination of young boys growing up in Placerville would soar to the sky. Tom plowed his earnings from work as the projectionist at the Empire Theatre, starting while in high school, into buying an airplane and getting many hours of flying experience.
Community movie theatres at that time where not just a major social mecca but, long before the birth of television or the internet, they were the way people were able to see the world in motion with news reel service announcers intoning how their cameras “circled the globe.” By the time World War II broke out, he got his chance to do just that.
With the war effort eager to get trained pilots, Tom went into the Air Force, commissioned as a Lieutenant for the Military Air Transport Command Service (MATS) just months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The assignment entailed flying planes to wherever they were needed, giving the chance to go around the world many times over. If the Air Force had something with a prop, chances are that Tom Smith flew it.
He and Gloria, his wife of nearly 67 years, were both born and raised in Placerville and they had no doubt where they would go when the war and military service ended. Honorably discharged in 1953 after reaching the rank of Captain, they returned to Placerville where Tom purchased the Shell service station on lower Main Street. And a number of years later, he bought and operated the Drive In Market in partnership with his brother in law.
Meanwhile, Tom and Gloria continued to acquire residential and commercial rental properties and over the course of more than half a century helped a large number of residents get their start in business. For decades the words Tom Smith and Main Street where all but synonymous — a fixture like street lights, ready to swap stories and offer business advice, famously known for often being unsolicited. His roots in this community went back many generations, giving him lots of stories to share like the days as a child when he could go to the front of the Placerville Hardware Store very early in the morning to pick up a case of dynamite his father used in mining before the DEA, FBI and a dozen other agencies would more than frown on explosives left unattended on a sidewalk … a time, Tom quickly noted, when your word was your bond.
He carried those values of old small town Placerville with him all his life, never requiring a written contract — only a hand shake — even for major transactions. City Attorney John Driscoll recalls the time when the city took property Smith owned for public use through eminent domain and Tom insisted that a written agreement was not needed, just that famous Tom Smith handshake. His family believes those old town ways may have passed with that of a man who for nearly 95 years, up to the 18th of July here, proudly described himself as “a Placerville boy.”
Visitation with the family for a closed casket viewing is scheduled for the Chapel of the Pines on Cold Springs Road from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., on Sunday, July 29. Memorial services at the Chapel of the Pines are set for Monday, July 30, at 10:55 a.m., which will be followed by burial with a U.S. Air Force honor guard at Union Cemetery on B Street and a fly over by a biplane like the one Tom flew more than 75 years ago. The cemetery is just behind the home on Canal Street where Tom and his 97 year old sister, Helen Petersen, were raised.