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A Life: Samuel Smith, 1955-2017; ‘He Had a Real Ease and Charm to Him’

  • Sam Smith, of White River Junction, Vt., was shocked when he saw a Confederate flag flying in a yard on Latham Works Lane in White River Junction. "It's a flag of intimidation and horror," he said on March 4, 2016. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Sunday, February 18, 2018

White River Junction — There is a footpath particularly dear to Sam Smith that passes by his best friend’s house and, winding through a grove of plum trees, allowed him time to free his mind from the worries of the material world.

Each time he wandered down the trail, he would come back with pockets full of fruit that he gave to Karen Ganey, who lived nearby. Days would pass as Ganey became absorbed in work and worldly cares before Smith, ever concerned with things spiritual and unseen, would ask, “Have you checked on the plums?”

He seemed more concerned by the potential tragedy of fruit left to molder than by whatever real-life events may have taken place in the meantime. And, knowing him, “it made sense to me,” Ganey said.

A lifelong student of philosophy, writing and psychology, Smith was known to his friends as a mystic who devoted himself to the teachings of Carl Jung, a person ever inquisitive about life and the hidden symbols that drive it. Many Upper Valley residents knew him as the stylish and urbane desk manager at the Hotel Coolidge in White River Junction, a man who could chat with anyone about anything and come away with a friend.

Yet despite his fascination with the collective unconscious, Smith was far from disconnected from issues that affected people’s lives. Whether it was by telling the story of Crispus Attucks, the black man whose killing in the 1770 Boston Massacre helped spark the American Revolution, or by confronting racism in his own backyard, Smith used his talents in communication and storytelling to confront injustice wherever he saw it.

“He really had a strong sense of the need to correct blind spots in the vision of history,” said his friend Julie Puttgen, an artist from Lebanon.

Smith died on Halloween last year, having fought prostate cancer with every ounce of his strength and every treatment at his disposal, friends said. He was 62.

Although he was known in life as Samuel Chesney Smith, he was born with the middle name Owen, to Rachael Frances Chesney and Samuel Nathaniel Smith on March 28, 1955. He grew up in Guyana, the South American country east of Venezuela that was a British colony until 1966.

Smith was born with a caul, a piece of membrane over an infant’s face often referred to as a veil — a sign that marked him as different. Other children would come together to play after school, but Smith would head into the jungle alone, sometimes bringing a stick and cage that he would use to capture rare birds.

From his grandmother he gained a deep knowledge of spices and herbs that he used throughout his life; decades later, friends from White River Junction recalled how he used to munch on a stick of cinnamon or sip an exotic tea behind his desk at the Coolidge.

After a stint in the Guyana Defense Force, where he worked in an armory, Smith became the first member of his family to move to the United States, in 1978.

In New York City, he threw himself into the arts, charity and LGBT communities. He worked as an electrician and building manager, among many other jobs, and on the side penned screenplays and organized for gay rights.

He also earned a bachelor’s degree in English literature at the City College of New York and a master’s in screenwriting at the School of Visual Arts.

He left New York for New Orleans in the 1990s in search of a “warmer climate and culture,” Ganey said, and once there, created after-school and storytelling programs that taught children about civil rights history and helped everyday people tell their stories to larger audiences.

When Hurricane Katrina swept over the city in 2005, Smith responded by creating the Katrina-House Project, a housing and healing initiative that offered group therapy, art programs, education and job referrals, and many other resources to struggling residents.

Smith’s family had followed him to the United States over the past few decades, and, in the mid-2000s, he moved back to the Northeast to be closer to them. He settled on a goat farm in Poultney, Vt., tending the animals for the owner, who also engaged him as an editor for the spiritual texts she published.

In 2010, he moved to White River Junction, a hub of artists and intellectuals who supported and inspired him. He worked a series of jobs, including at the Parker House Inn and Ibex Outdoor Clothing, until settling in at the Hotel Coolidge, where he lived and worked in his final years.

In April 2012, a strange burst of violence rocked downtown White River Junction. A 26-year-old man named Lucas Dennis-DeVries was walking outside Tuckerbox Cafe when, apparently unprovoked, a stranger came up from behind and shot him in the rear.

Dennis-Devries survived with minor injuries, but police were not able to identify a suspect. The mood in town was unsettled.

One warm night soon afterward, Ganey wandered down South Main Street in hopes of spreading goodwill. It was then that she caught sight of Smith, who was standing near a street corner and gazing into the distance. She had time to observe him as she approached.

“He was this, like, beautiful man,” she said, “and he was beautiful like the dark night sky. I’m not used to seeing that.”

“What are you doing here?” he asked when he turned and saw her.

Ganey explained that she wanted to help calm the community after the shooting, and Smith said, “Me, too.”

The pair shared their stories as they picked raspberries at a nearby park that Ganey had helped to plant; later, they would visit and revisit their favorite natural areas as they grew closer. For a time, they were romantic partners before deciding to remain “best friends,” Ganey said.

“We spread our love in those places,” she said.

Ganey believes that Smith’s many geographic moves and changes in employment were a quest to simplify his life and focus on the essentials — his reading, a few close relationships, and his work.

Writing from his studio apartment in the Coolidge, Smith drafted and re-drafted a screenplay on Attucks, whose story symbolized both the independent spirit of the Revolution and America’s original sin of slavery.

Attucks, a stevedore and freedom fighter born a slave in Framingham, Mass., was killed in 1770 when British soldiers fired on a Boston crowd protesting the Crown’s restrictive policies on colonial taxes and trade. Known as the first person slain in the American Revolution, he was lain in state in Faneuil Hall and buried next to the four other victims, all of them white — an unusual mixing of the races in that day.

Throughout Smith’s telling of his life, the young Attucks, known as “Cris,” probes his father, Prince, and others around him to understand the alien concept of one person owning another.

Particularly puzzling to the boy is the idea that he, himself, could “belong” to his master, Col. Joseph Buckminster, given that his father’s ownership papers changed hands before Attucks had even been conceived.

“If I wasn’t born then, how can I belong to the colonel now?” he asks.

Smith didn’t limit his social commentary to historical events. In March 2016, he spoke out when a resident of Latham Works Lane, a neighborhood across the tracks near downtown White River Junction, ran up a Confederate battle flag in his front yard.

“The flag is basically a symbol of oppression, intimidation, hate, slavery,” Smith told the Valley News at the time. “These guys lost the war. They were on the wrong side of history. They wanted us as slaves.”

Smith arranged to meet the flag’s owner at home, together with town officials, for a conversation about race and heritage. Although they didn’t come away in agreement, the two men said afterward that they respected each other.

Throughout his time in the United States, Smith grappled with the contradictions of living as a black man thrust into the centuries-old baggage and assumptions of a national race politics that he hadn’t been born into.

The notion of racism seemed distant while growing up in Guyana, in the port city of New Amsterdam, where being black did not mean being in the minority, he told the Valley News around the time of the flag incident.

“It was a magical place, because there were all sorts of people, speaking different languages,” he said. “I don’t have any anxiety with white folks because growing up, it was lovely.”

In January 2015, Smith was diagnosed with late-stage prostate cancer. He took the news as an opportunity to once again correct the record — his genetic profile gave him an elevated risk for the disease, and, having failed to catch it earlier, Smith wanted others like him to get tested.

About a year ago, Smith appeared in a public service announcement on the local cable access channel CATV to warn African-American men — especially those living in cold climates, where the risk is even higher — to undergo screening and increase their intake of Vitamin D.

“If I had known then what I know now,” he said, looking burdened but resolute, “I would have been proactive. But I didn’t. It’s time, brothers: get screened and make sure your sons, fathers and friends do, too.”

“That’s a great gift,” Puttgen, the artist, said of Smith’s decision to make his own illness a teachable lesson. “A lot of people, when they get ill, they just sort of disappear. But Sam didn’t do that.”

Instead, he fought the disease however he could, including with experimental and alternative treatments. He received a cutting-edge blood infusion therapy, an expensive new treatment called Provenge that was offered to Smith free of charge by its makers, who sent cars to ferry him to sessions.

The attention suited him. Puttgen, who accompanied him to some doctor’s visits, remembers that company representatives once arrived with a limousine to pick up the dapper Smith, cap in hand, and drive him to therapy in Manchester. He remained collected and debonair as he chatted with company phone operators, whom he sometimes casually addressed as “darling,” Puttgen recalls.

“He was like that,” she said. “He had a real ease and charm to him.”

Privately, he struggled to reconcile himself with the feeling that his own body was revolting against him. He wrote in his journal about fighting “invaders” inside him, Ganey said, but to her and others, he kept up a brave front.

Ganey recalled his answer when she asked him how he was doing, one day last year.

“Well, dear,” he said — he called everyone “dear” — “I listen to Nina Simone.”

He passed away on Oct. 31, 2017, without pain — practically a miracle, his friends said, given that the cancer had spread through his bones.

In Attucks, Smith devotes the last few pages of his screenplay to a funeral service for the fallen patriot, where somber crowds line up at Boston’s Granary Burying Ground to see the bodies interred. A fellow member of the Sons of Liberty named Curry speaks, followed by the presiding minister.

“If crisis make a man,” Curry says, “this Boston Massacre accounts for Crispus Attucks. It filled him with a passion for freedom; caused him to be intolerant of intolerance; endowed him with native daring; made him courageous to lead even under adverse conditions.”

“Let us pay solemn tribute to these men who died for us,” the minister entreats. “Remember that we came to these shores seeking freedom, yet tyranny exists here. Now, as we colonists struggle wearily under our cross of woe, a second Negro has come to the front to bear the cross and relieve our suffering.

“Let us now bow our heads in a moment of silence.”

Rob Wolfe can be reached at rwolfe@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.