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A Tribute to Smith Robinson

This column, written in the month of our town's 150th birthday, is lovingly dedicated to the memory of a man who, by many accounts, was the most beloved Healdsburger of all time: Smith Robinson. Smitty's face radiates love and pure kindness, perhaps offering some redemption for all of us at a time when the world seems fractured and exploding daily into more broken pieces. His time in Healdsburg was the shining time in our story. A time of unity, dedication, love and aspiration, due to one special man who walked the streets of Healdsburg.

Smith was one of originally ten children born to Jessie and Elzora Robinson who left Georgia for California following the 1903 racial riots. They eventually settled in Healdsburg in 1920, where the seven surviving children grew up and went through school. At that time the Robinsons were the only African American family in town, residing in a small home at 414 Grant Street. Smith's younger sister, Effie, who became quite famous in her own right as a social worker in San Francisco, was the first black child ever to be born in Healdsburg.

By all accounts this was an amazing family. Elzora was a powerful, remarkable woman. All the kids were hard working and motivated. Smitty graduated from Healdsburg High and SRJC, where he excelled at football. He then went off to Berkeley in 1930, eager to join the Cal Varsity, only to be diagnosed with a serious heart condition and sent back to Healdsburg to "live quietly." For 32 years he worked as a "handyman" at the old Healdsburg General Hospital on Johnson Street, but his real position was as Healdsburg's "Ambassador of Good Will", as he was involved in filling just about every niche that could be filled. It seems that knowing his life would be shorter than most, he made some clear choices as to how he would use his time here.

Just a few of Smitty's projects included organizing and directing a youth choir at the Federated Church which became a secure foundation and the main social outlet for many of Healdsburg's youth. He remained involved in HHS athletics as a coach and a mentor. He created a newsletter called "Smitty's Scoops" which he sent regularly and without fail to every Healdsburg soldier who fought in World War II or the Korean War. He brought the entire town together in adopting the First Battalion during the Korean War, as written up in Reader's Digest in 1953. Besides being profiled in national publications, Smitty was honored on the famous television show, "This is Your Life," in 1954. In 1960, at an all town fundraising party for Smitty, $5,000 was raised for a heart surgery which he was by then too ill to undergo. He died in 1963, with the entire town mourning his passing. Many locals, as well as columnists Gaye LeBaron and Chris Smith, continued to write of his legacy for years, taking up the cry, "Please don't forget Smitty!"

So now let's remember a bit of Smitty through the stories of those who loved him:

Bill Caldwell, former HHS principal and past president of the Historical Society, tells me: "My wife and I first met Smitty briefly when we came here on a fishing trip. Then after we moved here in 1954 and I was a new teacher with a new home, Smith welcomed me by calling and offering us all the plants from his yard because they were building a garage for the new car he'd won on TV. Later on when I was asked to sing The Lord's Prayer at a wedding, I didn't have the right music, so he loaned me one of his song sheets and wouldn't take it back. I still treasure it because he had signed it."

Current Mr. Healdsburg, Bill Wendt, has fond memories of his days in Smitty's youth choir: "At that time there were 32 of us kids in the choir. Smitty knew everyone's birthday and he'd always bring a cake and have the group sing 'Happy Birthday' to you on your day. Yearly, he took us to the the coast where we sang at the little church in Tomales and then got to stay overnight and play on the beach. We went to Chinatown every year for dinner and we'd do a yearly choir exchange with his brother-in-law's all black Baptist church in the City. At our rehearsals, he'd always tell us, "Put a little 'pathos' in your voice..." I think he meant 'soul.'"

"I was in the choir from age 13 to 17," Marian Hoy Jones recalls. "Smitty knew I was very shy and he helped me feel that I was worth something. He singled me out for solos to build my self-esteem. We'd all ride in the back of someone's big truck going out to the ocean. Those times meant so much to me. It was probably the only time I got away from home. Smitty was such an important part of my growing up."

Clarence Ruonavaara recalls: "Smitty was a catalyst in so many worthy causes. He took leadership when it was called for and he had the personality that made him a natural leader. His willingness to serve gave him the support of volunteers who could never refuse him. He was the most unselfish individual I have ever known."

As chairman of the famous adopted First Battalion Committee, Smitty excelled at securing contributions from virtually everyone, including Healdsburg's children. For example, Fraser's Shoes on Center Street shipped cartons of good used children's shoes for the Adopted Battalion to distribute to Korean orphans. This good will reverberated to Healdsburg with the Battalion donating funds to HHS and establishing a trust fund for our kids. Ghirardelli Chocolate Co. gave Smitty chocolate bars, and Hill Bros. Coffee donated empty coffee cans for shipping the prune cookies and dipped prunes that local women made for the troops. Mary Barry recalls: "Smitty would bring the donated prunes and hard chocolate bars to wherever we were cooking. We'd heat the chocolate and dunk the prunes. Then we packed the cookies in popcorn so they wouldn't break. It was all Smitty's idea. He was the most thoughtful and humble person I've ever known."

In March of 1954 Healdsburgers managed to keep a big secret from Smitty. Sent to Los Angeles under false pretenses, he was given a ticket to be in the audience of Ralph Edward's "This is Your Life" TV show. When the sweeping camera landed on Smitty and he heard "It is you, Smith Robinson of Healdsburg, California! This is Your Life," Smitty felt like he'd been 'kicked by a mule!' Back at home, the whole town of 3,500 gathered around a few strategically placed black and white TV sets to cheer on their beloved hero.


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