Odell M. Smith, 98, reporter for Sun and aide to Tawes

May 06, 2006|By FREDERICK N. RASMUSSEN | FREDERICK N. RASMUSSEN,SUN REPORTER

Odell M. Smith, a former reporter for The Evening Sun and The Sun who later became an assistant to Maryland Gov. J. Millard Tawes, died of complications from a broken hip Monday at Genesis ElderCare's Spa Creek Center in Annapolis. He was 98.

Born in Kernersville, N.C., just east of Winston-Salem, Mr. Smith was raised in Guthrie, N.C., a Southern Railway whistle-stop.

After graduating from high school, he studied journalism for three years at the University of North Carolina before dropping out during the Depression to take a job as surveyor on the Blue Ridge Parkway highway project. He eventually returned to Chapel Hill, where he earned a bachelor's degree in journalism in 1936.

"The Depression was the worst time of my life. It was a dreadful period," Mr. Smith said in an interview last month.

He worked for a rural weekly and a small daily in North Carolina as a reporter and editor before joining the Greensboro Daily News.

In 1942, he enlisted in the Army and served as an artillery captain in North Africa, Italy and France. After the fall of Italy, he was assigned to the Allied military government in Rome.

Mr. Smith joined the staff of The Evening Sun in 1946 as a reporter and five years later moved to The Sun, where he worked as a reporter, rewrite person and, for a brief period, an editorial writer.

As a reporter, he covered City Hall during the administration of Mayor Thomas J. D'Alesandro Jr., and reported on state government and politics.

"He was in the tradition of the tall, handsome Southerners who appeared at The Sun in those years, and he became a rising star. He was on course to become an editorial writer when the job was given to someone else," said James H. Bready, a retired Evening Sun editorial writer. "And then he decided to look around, and because he had lots of connections and was a political animal, that's where he found his ultimate career."

After leaving The Sun, Mr. Smith was briefly a partner and president of the Baltimore public relations firm of Jabine, Yingling, Smith and Goff Inc.

He joined the staff of Governor Tawes after his election in 1958, where he served as the governor's principal speechwriter -- he wrote an estimated 600 speeches during his administration -- press secretary and liaison between the governor and budget officials.

"Odell demonstrated that there were other ways of earning a living and finding satisfaction. He had stories, a great memory, a broad acquaintance and a mental file on scores of politicos," said Mr. Bready, who recently had lunch in Baltimore with Mr. Smith and several other newspaper colleagues.

"I've known Odell since 1955, when I first went to the state legislature. He was a very interesting and likable guy, and a good writer. He had pretty firm views, was very liberal, and as Tawes' speechwriter worked out of a cupboard of a room that was not much bigger than a restroom," former Gov. Harry R. Hughes said yesterday from his Denton home.

He added, with a laugh: "I don't think John R. Hargreaves, who was chairman of the Appropriations Committee, ever said anything on the floor of the House of Delegates that Odell hadn't written for him."

"Odell was the kind of press secretary who should be the role model for press secretaries all over the country," said former state Sen. Julian L. Lapides. "He was always a gentleman, discreet, low-key and never adversarial. He had every skill for the job that was imaginable."

After Governor Tawes stepped down in 1967, Mr. Smith worked for another decade for the state Department of Fiscal Services, where he created and served as editor of the first Legislative Handbook. He retired in 1978.

"He was a grand fellow, and the Legislative Handbook was one of his major accomplishments. It introduced the legislative process to the new legislature," said William S. Ratchford, the former director of fiscal services for the General Assembly. "The handbook is amended every four years, but I think it still follows Odell's basic ideas. He enjoyed the camaraderie of his co-workers and worked well with legislators."

In his retirement, Mr. Smith, who had lived in Annapolis since 1959, actively pursued his lifelong interests in literature, travel, fine dining and rare wines.

As he entered his 90s, Mr. Smith remained a robust and vigorous figure. A voracious reader, it wasn't uncommon for him to be reading five books at a time.

He was in his 90s when he learned how to use a computer -- wearing out two of them in the process.

"People ask me if I am lonely -- no, never ... as long as I have a book," Mr. Smith said in a recent interview.

"He was always beautifully turned out, and being with Odell was always a lot of fun. He was a real Renaissance man who loved Italy and Greece," said longtime friend and retired Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Elsbeth L. Bothe.

"Odell was urbane, engaging and scholarly without being stuffy. He enjoyed his computer, and despite the grim path the world has taken, he still wanted to keep up with it," said Lou Panos, a former Evening Sun columnist who now writes for the Towson Times.

"It was a point of pride with Odell that he had known every Maryland governor for the last 60 years. Last December, he went to the State House and met Governor Ehrlich, with whom he had his picture taken in front of Governor Tawes' statue," said Leon Howell, a son-in-law and a retired magazine editor. "And while making his way home, he fell and broke his hip."

Services were private.

Surviving are two daughters, Barbara Smith Howell of Silver Spring and Martha Smith Squire of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; two granddaughters; and two great-grandsons. His marriages to the former Ruth D. Mitchiner and Marjorie M. Cloke ended in divorce.

fred.rassmussen@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Jamie Stiehm contributed to this article.

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