The Observer lost a friend and colleague over the Thanksgiving holiday: Doug Smith, the long-time Arkansas newsman and editorial writer, who retired from the Arkansas Times in 2013 and died on Nov. 26 after a long struggle with heart ailments. He was 74.
The Observer is the caretaker of Doug’s old office, in fact — one exposed brick wall, a door that shuts mostly tight, carpet the color of sodden newspaper, and a big window that looks down on the corner of Scott and Markham, where drivers regularly entertain Yours Truly by playing smash-’em-ups in the intersection. It’s a good lair for a newspaper fella to call home base.
Doug, like several of the inmates here, was a refugee from the old Gazette, starting there all the way back in 1963 and coming to the Arkansas Times only after the conquering horde drove him away from his desk with rocks and sharp sticks. From 1992 until his retirement, he was a reporter for the Times, and wrote most of our unsigned editorials, lending a voice that sang in harmony with the long-gone Gazette. He was also our main copy editor, looking over proof pages and scrawling his “DS” in the corner in red pen to show he had somehow managed to machete his way through the kudzu of The Observer’s prose, killing off our ferocious, dignity-eating typos along the way. He saved Yours Truly from embarrasing embarassing embarrassing myself many a time.
Doug was already a fixture here when The Observer arrived in 2002, all of 27 years old and greener than gooseshit, having last written a newspaper story during an Intro to News Reporting class I took back in college before coming to my senses. He was impressive, the stoic sort, always in a suit and tie, always carrying a sensible black umbrella any time there was more than a 20 percent chance of rain. It took a good five years here before we heard him speak 10 sentences, and another five before we heard him speak 20 more. He kept his office, which The Observer has since turned into a den of filth and iniquity, like a monk’s cell: a small desk against one wall, uncluttered except for a telephone, a Rolodex, a computer screen, a keyboard, a pad and a pen. No pictures on the walls, no rug on the floor, no stained-glass lamps and red velvet cushions around a hookah pipe like The Observer has installed. Just the no-nonsense tools of the journalist’s trade. We were not surprised when his niece said about Doug at the memorial service last Monday afternoon that his tidy bachelor’s apartment in Hillcrest was just like that: a few sticks of furniture, a lamp, a bunch of books, a pile of newspapers. A no-nonsense life, dedicated to the mind, the news and the written word.
His work ethic was a lot like that, too. Reporters, we’ve learned from working here and personal experience, are notorious gripers. We complain about stories that just won’t come, about the boss, about deadlines, about brilliance skewered by an editor’s red pen, about sources who just won’t call us back for a nice, leisurely chat between friends that will be printed verbatim in the newspaper. Doug, though, seemed to hover outside of all that. He did not complain and did not explain. He reported and wrote without complaint, and when the copy was due, he turned it in without the need for commiseration.
The Observer doesn’t have one role model we look to for hints on how we should spend this life. We’ve got a couple dozen. From our father, we get the ability to find beauty in every crack in the sidewalk. From Ernie Pyle, we get courage. From Bob Lancaster, we get how to spin golden thread from the straw of existence. From Max Brantley and Mara Leveritt, we get bulldog tenacity. From Flannery O’Connor, we get faith. From Eudora Welty, we get how to write the senses. And from Doug, we got what it is to be someone who makes the phone calls, takes good notes, puts pants to chair, shuts his mouth and does the job. That’s so much more valuable than you might think.
They just don’t make ’em like you anymore, Doug, but we’re trying. Goodnight, Mr. Words.