Happy 100th, Smitty

Merriman Smith, the UPI White House reporter deemed by his colleagues to be the greatest wire service reporter ever, would have turned 100 years old on February 10, 2015.

The official records say Smitty was born on February 10, 1913. That’s the date etched on his gravestone at Arlington National Cemetery. But sometimes official records and gravestones are wrong.

Merriman Smith's headstone at Arlington National Cemetery. He shares the grave site with his wife and his son, who died in Vietnam in 1966.

Merriman Smith shares his grave site with his wife and his son, who died in Vietnam in 1966.

Smith’s family says that when he was in high school, a relative added two years to his age so he could get a summer job in a family business. The lie that he was born in 1913 stuck to the official record. It greatly bothered Smith’s mother, since the official record showed that Smith was born more than a year before she wed his father. She didn’t want anyone to wrongly think her only child was born out-of-wedlock.

Smith’s mom was still fussing about it in 1965, when her son turned 50. “Now really, Mother. Let’s let this one drop,” Smith wrote her. “I’m the one who should feel awful. I’ve reached that age.” Besides, he didn’t see anything to gain from the investigation that might arise when the Secret Service, the White House and who knows who else heard of this little falsehood.

By his family’s account, Smith was 26 years old when he began covering the White House in 1941, and 48 years old when he earned a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting of John F. Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas. Smitty was just two years older than the slain president. He died in 1970 at age 55.

Smith loved new technology — especially gizmos like walkie-talkies, radiotelephones and anything else that could get his stories out quicker. No doubt he would have been a master of Twitter and other social media, and a prolific blogger. Smith also had reporting and writing skills and knowledge of a beat that many of today’s online, click-seeking journalists lack. He’s worth remembering in this era of declining investment in news.