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John L. Smith inducted into Nevada Newspaper Hall of Fame

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John L. Smith

For more than three decades, John L. Smith was a daily columnist for the state’s largest newspaper, the Las Vegas Review-Journal, where he was considered a must read by R-J readers.

Born and reared in Southern Nevada, John’s deep roots in the Silver State provided context that no other columnist could draw on. There was not a topic or region of the state that John would not weigh in on from his unique perspective: Politics at any level, sports, obituaries, mining, gaming, organized crime, schools, tourism and art.

From Las Vegas Boulevard to F Street, from Winnemucca to Searchlight, John focused on people, their struggles and their triumphs.
A champion of the downtrodden and a thorn to the powerful, Smith could make you feel the pain of a victim, and he could crack a devastating whip when necessary. Always relevant and compelling, his work has been recognized accordingly.

In addition to many Nevada Press Association awards in various categories, John has also been honored by the Best of the West, National Headline Awards, National Society of Newspaper Columnists, and Batten Medal committee.

Some of the highest praise came from James J. Kilpatrick in his popular “The Writer’s Art” column.

John had written a column about an elderly former prizefighter named Eddie Simms. “Readers of Smith’s column could see the old man reminiscing of the time he took a punch from Joe Louis. Smith let us smell the smoky arenas of the 1930s. We could hear Simms playing his accordion for old friends. Here was a writer at work.”

He’s written dozens of columns while also acting as a primary caregiver for his daughter, Amelia, who was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2004. Whether writing by flashlight at her bedside or sitting in the parking lot of a doctor’s office between visits, he produced reams of copy in this manner – and the vast majority of the work never mentioned the circumstances under which it was produced. His columns about his daughter’s struggle, which inspired the community and helped raise funds for treatment and research, were collected in a book titled “Amelia’s Long Journey.”

Playing to the grandstands

Sherman Frederick, former publisher and editor of the Review-Journal, worked with John for 20 years. “I came to admire him as a newspaper columnist and a human being,” says Frederick. “It’s high praise in Las Vegas when you can drop John Smith’s name to a taxi cab driver and elicit an enthusiastic response. ‘You know John Smith,’ they’ll say. ‘How’s his daughter?’ John is cut from the Mike Royko mold of city columnists, always playing to the grandstands, not the box seats.”

Smith has written 11 books on Nevada subjects including “Las Vegas: The Story Behind the Scenery” and “Of Rats and Men: Oscar Goodman’s Life from Mob Mouthpiece to Mayor of Las Vegas.”

With more than 5,500 columns to his credit over parts of four decades, Smith might be the most prolific columnist the state has ever known.
To leave it at that, though, would do him a disservice. The consistency of Smith’s work and his compassion are what really stand out.

Text of John’s speech on Sept. 24 at the CasaBlanca in Mesquite

Thank you, everyone. I first want to thank the Nevada Press Association for this honor and express my appreciation to Barry Smith for his strength of character in following the best traditions of the association. If there’s one  thing spending my career as a newspaper columnist in Nevada has taught me, it’s that speaking truth to power and standing on principle comes at a cost. Thanks again, my friend.

I started my column at the Las Vegas Review-Journal in 1988 following the death of the intrepid Ned Day, who is a deserved member of the NPA Hall of Fame. Ned was a real character and a fine writer. A few months into my tenure, I was approached by a reader at a public gathering who was excited to meet me and tell me how much she admired by stories. She said. “Oh John, I love your work. You’re just like Ned Day incarcerated.”

I tried to take that it as a compliment.

When you write a daily column you soon discover that just about everything is grist for the deadline mill.

Through the years, the columns piled up by the hundreds, the stories never ending. While some may have wondered about the method of the daily grind, I longed to be given one more day of the week. The truth is, for better or worse, I have never run out of ideas. Not all of them A material, I’ll grant you, but the characters and issues just kept coming.

And those characters. Unless you met them, you’d surely have found their existence hard to believe. Many, perhaps most, of the names are lost to history. But I must mention a couple.

There was Johnny Tocco, the boxing trainer whose name still graces the old downtown gym he once owned. Johnny was from St. Louis and came out in part to train a generation of fighters and for a while keep an eye on Sonny Liston late in his career. Johnny’s gym was brimming with hoodlums and troubled souls and some very good pugilists.

When one would get arrested and thrown in jail, Johnny would call a friend of a friend and get them released, as he would say, “on their own reconnaissance.” He was a king of the malaprop, Johnny was.

While we’re in a pugilistic mood, I was channel surfing the other morning and came across an old Bowery Boys movie featuring Lou Nova. He was a former heavyweight contender who once fought, and lost, to Joe Louis.

Lou made a living playing palookas and mob heavies in Hollywood for a while, then eventually retired to Las Vegas, where I found him shooting dime dice at the Union Plaza and living in a double-wide trailer on Valley View. Above the door hung a sign: Casa Nova. Lou was a one-in-10-million character who told me he lost every time he played craps, but would win it all back with interest “as soon as I figure out my system.”

One last little story: As a columnist, I went out of my way to cross paths with a generation of Las Vegas hoodlums, many of whom wound up in Nevada’s casino Black Book. One was Salvatore “Springfield Sam” Manarite, as proud and unsuccessful a gangster as ever set foot on the Strip.

Sam was about to be sentenced to more federal prison time for a lame caper and was at the courthouse with his lawyer. Sam was such a dedicated mob guy he spent most of his adult life in prison. The rest of his time he spent in Las Vegas as a made member of the Genovese crime family.

In his latter years, Sam was having trouble with his health and found that one of the advantages of an extended engagement at government expense  was free medical care: And so when his heart went bad he had surgery. When his stomach ulcers and spleen went fritzy, he had more surgery. He lost this part and that part and complained to me about all his surgeries and all trouble he was getting from the marshals.

At one point in my interview, I said to him, “Sam, it sounds like you’re trying to escape from prison one piece at a time.”

He laughed, but only a little.

Now, to the matter at hand. The Hall of Fame.

As I believe there is no proper way to discuss the august group of mothballed, ink-stained scribblers who inhabit the Nevada Press Association’s Hall of Fame without mentioning the name of its most celebrated corpse, I will start with an oft-quoted witticism from the oil-anointed St. Mark of Missouri.

When it comes to Mark Twain, far too much has been said. And so I’ll say a little more.

Let’s face it, Twain had what can only be described as a downright dull writing career after departing Nevada newspapering at the Territorial Enterprise ahead of a pending duel, as legend has it. I mean, it’s easy to write a good stretcher and spin a yarn if no one is threatening to shoot at you or sue you into bankruptcy.

Despite his abbreviated tenure in the Silver State, Twain is the gold standard by which all scribes here are judged. And I suppose that’s only right. You may be as accomplished as Dan DeQuille, or Ned Day, Hank Greenspun, or A.D. Hopkins, or any of a few dozen other lucky stiffs and broken down deadline artists who are members of this Hall of Fame, but rest assured you’ll never be another Mark Twain.

After much study, I have no doubt who would prevail in a tarantula juice drinking contest followed by an arm-wrestling match and ending with a duel at a dozen paces if it were held today: I would.

First, I’m a practiced whiskey drinker — and once hit the broad side of a barn with a firearm. It wasn’t loaded at the time. It was in the pickup I was driving.

Second, and more importantly, if Mark Twain and I faced off in a battle of wits and whiskey and Smith & Wesson derring-do, I’d have the distinct  advantage of age. I am 56 years old. At last count, Twain would be nearly 182.

If I couldn’t out-write, out-drink him or out-shoot him, I should think at the very least I could out-run him.

With due respect to the Lincoln of our Literature, I purloin a piece of prose with due attribution and no further payment but a tip of my hat: The rumors of my death are greatly exaggerated.

Twain said that, or should have.

Of my career as a columnist at the Sun and Review-Journal, I will be brief.

So many people encouraged and inspired me along the way, both from inside the business as well as on the street, that to name them all would be impossible. The fact there are so many people in this room who deserve this honor is also not lost on me.

My grandmother Catherine Curtis taught me a love of reading and writing at an early age. My parents Jan and Prince Smith supported me without fail along the way.

From the academic side: At Western High, Sue Hughes, Pam Hicks; Everett Community College Eldon Coroch; Western Washington University,  Pete Steffens, Lyle Harris, and Gerson Miller.

From the Sun, all the Greenspuns, Mike O’Callaghan and Bill Guthrie and many others.

At the RJ: Mike Henle, Mary Hausch, Tom Keevil, Tom Mitchell, Annette Caramia, Sherman Frederick, Charlie Waters, and Mike Hengel.

To all the copy editors, thank you. You will remain anonymous because, well, let’s face it: That is your fate. And to name all those who saved me from immense embarrassment would only encourage the Nevada Press Association to rescind its generous honor.

I especially want to take time to thank my Amelia and Sally, who inspire me every day. And I want to thank my family, including my sister Christy and husband Herman who are here tonight, for encouraging me and enduring some of the heat I’ve taken over the years.

The press in the real West isn’t supposed to be muzzled, or corporately controlled. It’s supposed to be free-spirited and independent and capable of raising hell in high places.

A free and independent press isn’t a guarantee, it’s a goal.

Here’s to pursuing that goal like a sinking star on a new-moon night in Nevada, my favorite place in the world.

Thank you for your time, and I’ll see you on the road to Rhyolite, where I have it on good authority there’s a job opening for a newspaper columnist.

About Barry Smith

Barry Smith is executive director of the Nevada Press Association. Before joining NPA, he was editor of the Nevada Appeal in Carson City and has been an editor, columnist and reporter.

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