Smitty’s gentle smile popped into my mind late one night when I was thinking about my sudden symptoms and upcoming heart procedure.
Leonard Smith was about 60 when I met him. We worked together at a large CBS-TV station in northern Indiana. I was the 11 p.m. TV news anchor, and he ran the film processing machine in the basement.
It was 1971. I was 23.
Everyone called him Smitty, and everyone liked the slim, erect, unassuming man who usually walked with his head down. He would return your greeting with his smile and a word or two. He kept mostly to himself.
I noticed that the only people he actually talked to were the two other black employees at the TV station, a news photographer and a floor manager. The rest of us got the quiet, calm, unassuming Smitty.
Curious, I would go down to the basement, where the large, noisy film processing machine was running, and try to start a conversation with Smitty. Eventually he responded to the young, brash, college-educated, somewhat radical youngster in front of him.
We’d sit on the front porch of his little frame home in the mostly black section of the city, sipping beer on warm Saturday nights, talking about the world. My world was mostly theory. I hadn’t really done much by then except being raised by Holocaust survivors, delivering the morning paper from age 12, working in a supermarket while editing my high school newspaper, working my way through university with the help of a scholarship, and getting two jobs as a TV news anchor.
Smitty, by contrast, never graduated from high school. He told me, through his own experiences, what it was like to grow up black in the 1920s and onward, through the Depression. Black kids, even smart ones like him, didn’t finish school back then.
He calmly described the discrimination he faced every day of his life. He was born and raised in this city, far up in the North. Even here, the prejudice and mistreatment were constant, pervasive, so much so that they just became a way of life. He said he didn’t think much about it — that’s just the way it was back then.
Smitty worked at a series of unskilled jobs, and then he taught himself photography and hooked on with the TV station.
One day I noticed that as he walked down the long hall from the TV end to the radio end of the station, Smitty was slowing down. I asked him what was wrong, but he just waved me off.
As the weeks went by, it got worse. Finally I saw him leaning on a wall partway down the hall, and I got him to tell me.
He had developed a circulation problem in his legs, he said. He needed an operation.
OK, fine, I said, with all my white self-assurance, so go get this fixed.
He looked at me for a few seconds, and replied quietly, “I can’t. If I tell the boss that I need time off for an operation, I’ll lose my job.”
The boss was a white, middle-aged, decent if somewhat unenlightened newsman. We didn’t get along all that well, especially after my TV ratings passed his, and because I brought in all these ‘60s radical ideas like covering demonstrations, not just news conferences, pointing out that they’re actually the same thing — trying to get on TV.
I knew the boss was no bigot, and he liked Smitty in the same way the others did — in a “Hi, Smitty, how are you?” “Fine, thanks,” kind of way.
I told Smitty that he had a right to sick leave, and that no one was going to fire him, that didn’t happen anymore.
In 1971, the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act were fresh in our minds. The ‘60s had just ended, and the various movements, like civil rights, feminism, anti-war, were still very much active and public.
But that didn’t touch Smitty personally. He was adamant, frightened. What I was saying went against a lifetime of his experiences. He wasn’t willing to take a chance of losing a job at his age, convinced that no one would hire a 60-year-old black man with no education.
I kept up the gentle pressure, but probably what softened his resolve was the steady deterioration of his condition. He was finding it harder to walk, and more important to him, harder to hide his limitation from others, always fearing that if it came out, he’d be fired.
Finally I persuaded him to go to the boss together with me, and we’d ask him for time off for the surgery.
We walked slowly into the newsroom, approaching the boss’s desk. Smitty looked at the floor. I did the talking. Of course there was no problem. The boss told Smitty to get the operation done as soon as possible, take as much time as he needed, and his job would be waiting for him when he got back.
I don’t remember exactly what operation he had, only that it was not all that complicated. I don’t think it was angioplasty (that’s mine), because that was a new, state-of-the art procedure four decades ago.
All I remember are the results. After a couple of weeks to recover, Smitty ducked into the newsroom, called me over, and said, “Watch this.”
Then he went out into the hallway and walked quickly, firmly and confidently all the way to the other end, a huge smile on his face.
Smitty came to mind because all of a sudden I can’t walk very far, either, and I’ve got other symptoms that will get me into a Tel Aviv cath lab to open up a clogged coronary artery or two. Now it’s a common procedure, and I have every reason to believe that soon I’ll be back running up four flights of stairs two at a time to stay out of elevators, riding my bicycle, climbing up on the roof and doing all the other things I’ve been doing since forever.
It’s been nearly half a century since Smitty had his surgery. Nowadays running a catheter into a beating heart is routine. And here in Israel, every citizen has government-backed health insurance, so my biggest expense during this short but intense medical saga has been four bucks for the train ticket to Tel Aviv and back for a test. We senior citizens ride the train for half price.
And it’s been nearly a century since Smitty grew up in an atmosphere of oppressive, debilitating discrimination that led him to fear having that operation. Such fears, even then relics of a bygone era, are almost unheard of today.
That’s progress, too.