At the Tuesday funeral of former Topeka Capital-Journal writer Gene Smith, a slideshow of photographs traced many aspects of Smith’s 80 years of life. The opening slide stated that many pass away without their story being told. Many of you might not know the full story of Gene Smith’s life. This is what is important. Smith was a gifted writer who made sure the stories of the people he wrote about were well told.
Over many years, it was my pleasure to make photographs to go with Smith’s outstanding stories. I so respected the way Smith went about his work. Whether it was interviewing wildcatters left filthy by their work on oil rigs in central Kansas or chatting with a Governor, Smith was always ready with a wealth of questions that came from careful research. Many interviews came with a phone crimped between ear and shoulder at his desk while he pounded away on a typewriter getting every important quote. In the field, he was ready to get his hands dirty if that is what it took to understand every aspect of a story. He was just as meticulous writing the stories. His style was to let the subjects of the article tell their story. There was no need for a flourish of words from the writer. His subjects knew the real story.
The only time his style changed was when Smith wrote about flying. He loved airplanes and the wonders of flight. You could feel that love in his writing. Smith owned various airplanes during his life. He hated to waste time, so he often offered photographers opportunities to fly with him to the story site. Not every photographer wanted to fly with Smith, but I never hesitated, even after fellow photographer George Olson warned me that Smith was not above a few flying stunts to test the mettle of young photographers. Olson knew this from experience.
Smith soon tested me. He owned an acrobatic plane at the time. Shortly into our flight, and without warning, Smith rolled the plane and flew for a length of time upside down to see if I would flinch. I was enjoying the ride. I will always remember the smile on his face when I looked at him as we both hung from our seat belts.
Only once did I hesitate to fly with Smith. He wanted to fly to Missouri in 1983 for part of a story on survivalist groups actively preparing for emergencies that could eventually include social or political chaos. The group in Missouri was more than ready with their bunkers and shelters. Smith convinced them to let us spend a day with them. Getting there required landing on a freshly plowed farm field in the Ozarks region of the state.
Before we left, I expressed my concerns over the field landing to photographer John Bock. As I left, he wished me luck and jokingly said, “Hope you don’t crash.” Sooner than either of us imagined, I snuck back into the darkroom and surprised Bock. His surprise turned to shock when I told him I was back so soon because we had crashed, not landing in the plowed field but on take-off from Topeka’s Billard Airport.
Sitting beside Smith in another of his single-engine planes, we accelerated down the runway that morning. Just as we began to lift off the ground, the plane lurched hard to the left. I was sure this was just another Smith prank until we touched down with the left wing hitting the grass on the side of the runway and the left wheel buckled under us. That set the plane spinning wildly and with a final cartwheel, we came to a grinding halt with the right side of the fuselage on the grass and Smith on top of me cursing as he beat the control panel of the destroyed plane. I yelled at him, “Gene, Gene! We need to get out of here.”
Pushing Smith up with my arms, he managed to open his door, now facing the sky. Loosening his seat belt, I gave him one last shove up and through the door. I quickly followed. Airport fire trucks were already spraying foam on the engine in case of fire. I stood there in amazement watching a scene beyond belief with both of us completely unscathed other than for some bumps and bruises.
It all seemed like a carnival ride. Everything happened so quickly. There never was time to be scared. The investigation revealed the pilot’s seat either broke or was not secured properly. As the plane accelerated, Smith’s seat slid back pulling his hand off the throttle control that would could have slowed the plane. While I never flew with Smith again, there would have been no fear taking off with him. The newspaper put an end to Smith’s flying with staff, though Smith often bucked that edict.
In December of 1996, the newspaper and I parted ways on less than good terms. Smith retired from the paper in 1999. Smith called asking me to attend his retirement party at the paper. I tried to politely decline. Smith was an outlier like me. He made it clear my attendance would mean a great deal to him. He also told me, “It would be a perfect way to stick it to the man on my last day.” How could I refuse?
The same goes for being there at Smith’s funeral on Tuesday. How could I refuse.