In Memory

Elvin "Smitty" Smith (A-Mechanic -Electrician) - Class of 1979 VIEW PROFILE

Elvin Smitty Smith (A-Mechanic -Electrician)

Mark Twain's sage advice? Live so that when we die, even the undertaker will be sorry.

As much as anyone, Elvin A.D. "Smitty" Smith personified that maxim, and when he passed on May 5, 2010, even the nurses wept alongside his wife and children.

But Smitty's legacy resonates far beyond the Missoula hospital where he spent his final days, telling spirited tales, talking life, singing songs, and plotting ways to enrich his golf game.

"He started making noise about buying this Ping 350 driver, saying, ‘I hear it adds a little bit of yardage,'" said Smitty's son, Doug Smith, of Missoula. "There's my 86-year-old dad on his deathbed talking about buying a new driver to improve his game."

That was Smitty.

Born on the open prairies of northeastern Montana, in a ranch house outside of Plentywood, Smitty moved at a young age to the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation to live near his great-grandmother, a full-blood Narragansett Indian he called "Ya-Ya." He began work at the age of 12, riding fenceline and shoeing horses with equine dreams of one day climbing atop a bucking bronc and making a name for himself in the rodeo circuit.

Instead, after moving briefly to Washington where he worked in the shipyards, Smitty enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard and, following the attacks on Pearl Harbor, fought in the North Pacific, South Pacific, North Africa and the Philippines.

"He joked that he saw every coast but his own," said Carolyn Glidewell, Smitty's daughter, who also lives in Missoula.

Fortunately for Smitty's family, he glimpsed enough of his own coast to meet June Harding while he was on leave in Boston, sweeping the young woman off her feet one night at a Buddy's Club dance. June frequented the club so she could dance with the servicemen, and was cutting the rug with an Army man when Smitty sauntered into the club and announced, in his characteristically booming voice, "Here I am, you lucky people."

He then strode across the dance floor toward his future wife.

"He said, ‘Move over soldier, the Navy has landed,'" Glidewell said.


After that six-week leave and a whirlwind romance with June, it's nothing short of a miracle that Smitty ever returned to his own coast.

While overseas, he was instrumental in the liberation of P.O.W. camps on the Philippine island of Leyte, surviving booby traps and hand-to-hand combat.

Once when his boat was torpedoed in the Pacific, Smitty and more than a dozen shipmates clung to a rescue raft that was too small to support the entire crew. To stay warm, the soldiers clung to the edge of the boat, swimming in circles and alternating directions whenever their arms grew tired. They were in the water for 36 hours before rescuers came to their aid.

Those trying times defined Smith, in war and in life, and Glidewell says her father was an ideal ambassador of the Greatest Generation.

Earlier in life, Smitty lived through the Great Depression, wearing bicycle inner tubes for galoshes. Years later, when he'd settled into a career as an electrician in Missoula, he received an 8,500-volt shock that burned his heart and forced him to wear a pacemaker.

Fortunately, Smitty was surrounded by enough loving people in life to mend that wound, including the six children he had with June. After the couple separated in 1977, Smitty met his true soulmate, Mona Bryant Young.

The couple met while Smitty was competing in a black powder shooting competition. She came to watch the show, and was struck by the hulking man dressed in traditional "buckskinner" clothes. Mona's children ran up to meet the mountain man, and they began a romance.

Smitty still had a lot of life in him when he contracted a blood disease during an elbow surgery four months before his death. The infection would eventually kill him.

In the hospital, however, Smitty remained strong and confident, and never lost the brawn that defined him, both physically and mentally. He could carry a 100-pound sack of grain in his teeth, and once lifted a piece of equipment at work that weighed 465 pounds, Glidewell said.

Once, when Glidewell went to visit her father, she encountered him sitting upright in the hospital bed, his legs dangling over the edge, loudly singing "Rye whiskey, rye whiskey, rye whiskey, I cry. If you don't give me rye whiskey, I surely will die."

Perhaps the biggest vote of confidence was Smitty's own certainty that he would overcome the illness, telling concerned family members that "I've been in tighter spots than this." He meant it.

Indeed, the man who wrote the book "How to Survive in Your Vehicle Under Emergency Conditions" clearly had the survival expertise that can only be gleaned from raw life experiences.

"We all thought that Dad would win this one last battle," Glidewell said. "He still had a mission in life. But all five of my brothers have turned into wonderful, godly men. Good men. I think Dad could be very proud of his legacy."

Glidewell said memories of her father were especially poignant on this Father's Day, which the family would celebrate by taking a drive to the National Bison Range and enjoying a picnic lunch.

Always the mountain man, Smitty remained larger than life right up until his last day alive, prompting his family to marvel at his enduring strength.

"I'm sure going to miss these big paws," said Mona, holding her husband's hands shortly before he died.

On that final day of Smitty's life, he was surrounded by family and was enjoying himself thoroughly when he decided it was time to catch a wink of sleep.

"He said, ‘And now I am going to take a 15-minute power nap. Don't anyone go anywhere,'" Glidewell said. "And he's still napping, that little liar."

-by Tristin Scott, Missoulian, June 2010

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