Tom Smith – March 25th, 2009

GEDC0131I met with near neighbor Tom Smith at his home on Gschwend Road and after a brief talk about the prospects of the J.H. Soccer team in their upcoming season we got around to discussing his life story…
Tom was born in Sacramento in 1948 to parents Leona Geoffroy and Kenneth Smith. His father was born and raised in Placerville, California whilst mother Leona was born in Oklahoma, moving to California at the age of twelve. Tom had a ‘normal’ childhood and graduated in 1965 from McClatchy High School where had particularly enjoyed science and math. “It was a big school, perhaps 850 in my class, so when I went to Harvey Mudd College in Pomona, CA to study engineering it was strange – there were only 81 freshmen.”
During his time at college Tom, who had been a Republican, became involved with politics and changed his views dramatically. In his freshman year he attended perhaps the first anti-war rally – “We heard there was to be one at Berkeley on the Sunday so we had ours on Saturday….”In the next election, in 1968, I campaigned actively for Humphrey against Nixon but I knew we were going to lose – everywhere we went there were always two Republican campaigners to every one of us.”
Tom graduated in 1969 and went to work for G.E. “I was offered a job on the team that was to introduce the Orbiting Laboratory Project but, due to the war in Vietnam, N.A.S.A. made severe cutbacks and the project was cancelled. I was offered three alternatives – working on Gattling machine-guns in Vermont, light bulbs in a dingy factory in Cleveland, or appliances in Louisville, Kentucky. It was a poor choice but the last one was by far the better as every six months I would be moved to another department so it would be more interesting and offered me greater experience.”
Tom was in Kentucky for about a year when he was drafted and his number was 153. “They immediately took the first 150 but then over the next year they slowly took a few more and finally my number was called.” Just before his induction Tom went on a fishing trip and on the way he developed a sore on his backside from driving on rough backroads. When he arrived in Oakland to be inducted he was anguishing about whether to sign up or not, but the doctor for his medical said the sore was too bad and deferred him to a classification of 1Y, meaning he would be called back in a few months. “I was just not sure what I was going to say – I was strongly against the war but it was very difficult to prove that you were a conscientious objector and I would have had no chance…I returned to work in Kentucky and never heard from them again!”
Tom knew the job was not for him but he didn’t have many alternatives. In early 1971, he went to Mardi Gras in New Orleans and following a few days of partying he suddenly felt ill and was hospitalized. After a few tests he was diagnosed with Hepatitis yet the doctor told him in 99% of cases it clears up after a few days of treatment. It didn’t and he was told he had chronic hepatitis – one in a hundred cases and life-threatening. He was put on Prednisone and had to quit his job, returning to live with his parents in Sacramento at the age of twenty-three and remaining seriously ill for some time.
He gradually recovered and with his savings and money borrowed from his grandfather he bought a two-storey house for $16,500, fixing it up and renting out rooms to supplement his insurance from G.E. He paid his grandfather back and found himself doing well enough financially to go on a vacation to Mexico with friends. “We drove around, hung out, slept on the beach, then one night as we drove along I awoke from a light sleep – I knew something was up – I saw some headlights heading straight for us. Our driver had frozen with fear. I grabbed the wheel and pulled us over, missing the other vehicle by inches. We were shaken up – and could easily have been killed – yet this trip gave me the travel bug which I’ve had ever since.”
“Not long afterwards, my brother Ken was visiting in a Porsche he had borrowed from a friend. I was driving it at about 60mph on a country road when someone pulled out in front of me. I should have been seriously hurt or worse but the embankments on each side of the road in that particular spot meant that the car swerved from side to side, hitting the embankments but not going off the road. The car was wrecked but I was left with just a few scrapes and bruises. I spent a lot of time fixing that car up for my brother’s friend but was grateful for surviving my third near-death experience!”
Tom’s life became a balance of fixing up his house and traveling. In late 1973 he was in Mexico again, this time on Los Cocos Beach near to San Blas in the state of Nayarit, where the police were notorious for extracting bribes from travelers. “We had just met these two people, a woman called Val and her brother, when the police approached us and searched our vehicle.     They found some marijuana seeds in the car but that was it – we had just shared a joint with these people a few minutes earlier. In those days you had to ‘clean’ your dope – it was not seedless. Anyway, they found the seeds and told me I was going to jail. Now normally at this point tourists would be expected to offer some bribe to the cops but I didn’t. I had never been to a Mexican jail and agreed to go with them, even telling them, ‘let’s go!’. Val was also saying that I should not pay them anything. The police were obviously surprised but began to laugh and they let me go.”
“This woman, Val, had peeked my interest and when we went our separate ways I got her phone number in the States…. When I returned to Sacramento I got in touch with her – she was in Los Gatos with her parents – and went to see her. She had already told her mother that she had met the man she was going to marry and she returned with me to Sacramento that day and moved in!”
Over the next few years, with Val having graduated from Stanford and pursuing her teaching credentials, they got by with the rent from the house and by ‘dumpster diving’ at the back of grocery stores for food. “In those days it was amazing what they would throw away. Not just T.V. dinners – all kinds of good foods, stuff that there was nothing wrong with but was past the sell-by-date and frozen foods that had perhaps defrosted a little. We learned to live very frugally and yet still had enough money to visit Mexico nearly every fall.”
By the late seventies, Tom and Val had put enough money aside to buy two more houses – very cheap fixer-uppers but that was Tom’s forte so soon they had rented these out too and lived off the rental income…In November 1977 Tom and Val hitched a ride out of Sacramento and set off on what was to become a year-and-a-half journey around Central and South America, taking in many memorable events and moments, including reaching the southernmost tip of the continent at Terra del Fuego, the Carnivaal in Brazil, and the Galapagos Islands, scene of many of Charles Darwin’s experiments included in his landmark book “The Origin of Species’.
It was during this trip that Tom and Val had a narrow escape with death when the bus they were on was hit by a truck and headed over a cliff. It came to a stop and balanced shakily on the edge for a time as people slowly moved to the top-side of the bus to ensure it did not tip over with their weight and then down the ravine. They survived – Tom’s fourth close shave…Soon after he became quite ill in Chile and had to fly home. The hepatitis had flared up again, as it would do every year or so ever since, and he was very sick for a few weeks.
Following yet another trip south of the border, Tom proposed to Val in January 1980 and they were married in Fortuna, northern California in July of that year – “it was supposed to be in Ferndale but there was no Justice of the Peace there.” The following day they drove down the coast and cut in land on Highway 128, staying that night at the Dimmick campground, west of Navarro. Tom knew he wanted some rural property and when they got to Boonville they met realtor Cheryl Schrader at North Coast Realty and she showed them a spot on Gschwend Road. It was more land than they wanted and more than they could afford so they kept looking, but could not forget about the beautiful place they had seen. Shortly afterwards, when they returned to Sacramento, Val found out that she had inherited some money from her grandfather who had died a few months earlier. It was enough to afford the property in the Valley and they moved to here in the summer of 1981, buying the twenty acres with a cabin for $87,000.
“We had fallen in love with this place – this individual spot was perfect for us. We didn’t know anybody in the Valley community but knew that a rural place in northern California was all we could tolerate…And it had to have the climate where I could grow melons!”…They sold two of the houses in Sacramento but kept tenants in the other and carried the loan themselves on the two sales – thus providing a steady income and they started a family – Olie being born in 1982 and Jesse in 1984. They continued to make their visits to Mexico, now taking the kids too, and over the following years Tom began work on a house he had designed – “the first plans were submitted in 1985 and it became the longest running set of plans in the County by the time I had finished!”
In 1990 Tom became seriously ill once again. “I was sent to U.C. Davis and then sat in the emergency room for hours. They forgot about me. Val could not get anyone’s attention and I thought I was dying – I was as it turned out.” Val drove him to her parent’s home in Los Gatos – her father was a doctor and he arranged for Tom to go first to Los Gatos Community Hospital, then to the U.C. Hospital in San Francisco, where he was seen by Doctor Ascher. His liver was failing and he was told that it would last for perhaps two more weeks. He had an infection in his spine and they could not operate until it cleared up – he was told the antibiotics needed to do this would take about a month to work. “I commented to the doctor that therefore this didn’t add up. ‘No, it doesn’t’ was her reply…They did not expect me to live. I just had to hope that this would be a fifth near-death experience and not the real thing.”
“A couple of weeks later I did not get any lunch and asked the nurse if that was significant. It was, a donor had been found, and on April 11th, 1990, I was operated on even though the infection had not cleared up. During the procedure my heart had stopped and when I woke up there were bruises all over my chest – the doctor had jumped on me to revive my heart…. The ‘new’ liver was working, I recovered completely, and after a few months we went to Mexico for a vacation.”

In 1990, following his fifth near-death experience and the installation of a new ‘used’ liver, Tom felt well, but was too weak to do much work on the house he was building for the family. As a result he began to spend time regularly watching elder son Olie play soccer with the Youth program being run by Palmer Toohey and he asked if she wanted any help. She agreed and he worked on the defense of the Under-9 team, with Olie, Paulen Severn-Walsh, and John Toohey in goal and they were successful. The following year a new coach was needed so Tom took over. He immediately reduced the fees charged to parents for their kids to join the program and then used the money they did collect for new uniforms for every single kid who wanted to play instead of it going to a post-season party. “Initially there were more Anglo kids than Mexican but by reducing the fees many more Mexican kids were able to join in and the program greatly improved. We had a great team and one group, led by Vidal Ferreyra and Manuel Eligio, went undefeated for five years!”
There was still no High School program and so in 1994 Tom approached Principal J.R. Collins and Athletic Director Robert Pinoli to ask if one could be started. “They looked at the list of names I had compiled and when they saw there were no football players on it they agreed!  We had a J.V. team that year and then in 1995 the first A.V. High School Soccer team took the field – we won the championship in our first year after a play-off with Calistoga and have been winning ever since”…With a big grin Tom added, “I was then very fortunate to get a ‘pro’-coach in 2003 who has helped us to achieve even more success in recent seasons.”…(Modesty prohibits me from mentioning who that is)…
“In 1997 it was very apparent that the lack of a program between the Youth Program and High School soccer was detrimental to the kids’ soccer development so I started the Junior High program and invited three other schools to join in, I am very happy with how this has progressed over the years and we shall have nine teams who will be competing this year.” In acknowledgement for all of Tom’s work with the soccer program the High School Soccer Field that he and others installed was named after him a couple of years ago.
Besides the Soccer program, Tom’s other long-time contribution to the Valley has been his work with the Variety Show, something Captain Rainbow dreamed up in the early 90’s and which actually began with Tom and others in 1992. Tom has been involved with every show and I believe he is perhaps the only person who can say that. “Rainbow is the core, and the Magic Company got it all started to raise money for the Grange. I ended up doing all the backstage work and I get involved with the opening act that has taken on greater significance over time – it’s always connected in some way with the political or social issues of the time.”
In the summer of 2002, the Hepatitis returned and attacked Tom’s “recycled liver”. He became very ill and on July 1st was airlifted to Ukiah and then traveled to U.C.S.F. by helicopter. “I asked a doctor what were the chances of a second ‘new’ liver and was told, ‘we find with Hepatitis C that a second transplant is not very successful and we don’t really do them.’ A little later another doctor showed up – it was Dr Ascher, the woman who had performed my first liver operation. She remembered me well because during my first transplant she had to leave near the end to give birth! She asked me if I thought I could take it and I said, ‘Sure’. And she said to those around her, ‘this man gets a new liver’. If there is a god I believe it’s Dr. Ascher.”
Tom’s kidney had also failed at this point so he would need another one to be added, along with the liver transplant. Following a couple of months back in the Valley, with his health deteriorating as he waited for both a donor and also to get ill enough to justify the second transplant, Tom returned to the hospital in a bad way. “I really thought I’d be dead by the end of the week.” He was told that a donor had been found. The operation took place on September 30th, 2002 and it was a complete success – Tom had narrowly avoided death for the sixth time. After the operation Tom checked in by phone on the High School soccer team who had played a big game that day. He had told the hospital staff of his involvement with the soccer program and it seemed that they were all rooting for the Panthers. Temporary coach, Franz Schulte-Bisping’s wife, Monica, gave him the good news –A.V. had won – the whole room in the hospital erupted in cheers and Tom still gets emotional when he remembers that remarkable day…
Over the past few years Tom has continued to have his ups and downs with his health but it has not curtailed his traveling, nor his amazing sequence of near-death experiences, which reached number seven in December 2004. The family was visiting Thailand and on Railay Beach when the tsunami hit. “I could see this big wave approaching and foolishly felt I could help some kids who were in the water. They were much quicker than me and ended up way past me when the wave hit. I was driven into a retaining wall on the beach and then up and over into a swimming pool. I dove down to avoid the following waves before surfacing when they had passed. Val and the boys had gone ashore earlier and were safe, although we did not all hook up for some time. Ten minutes before the wave hit we had been paddling in kayaks in the ocean – right in the path of the wave. If it had come then we would have been caught and probably drowned like others.”
Following the tsunami, Val and Jesse returned to the States, Olie went on to China, and Tom continued on his travels alone. He was in Vietnam on a bus when once again he felt something wasn’t quite right and looked ahead out of the window. “There were the proverbial headlights heading straight for us. The bus went into the slowest fishtail I’ve ever been in. It was pitch black and I had no idea what was going on until we crashed into a wall at the side of the road. People were screaming. I shouted, ‘Shut up!!’ and they calmed down. We all calmly got off the bus. I looked around – we had hit a short wall that was protecting a power pole – either side there was nothing and we would have gone off the road down a ravine and then over a cliff. I guess that was number eight and now I’m on life number nine!”
“Despite all of these events I still love to travel and we are really glad to have instilled that love of travel in our two boys. My favorite place of all? – Koh Lipe Island in Southern Thailand…The soccer has been a wonderful experience too and of course the Variety Show is always fun…I love the Valley and have been fortunate to live here – just sitting here and looking out across the land seeing the trees and hills, not another house in sight. It’s beautiful and although there are other places in the world where I could live Val wouldn’t go so I guess I’m staying!”
I now asked Tom for his responses to various hot topics of conversation in the Valley, starting with the wineries – “I am perturbed by how we have been dictated to by interests with money, wineries owned by people not living here particularly disturb me. A couple of wineries would have been enough for me – we need more diversity in our agriculture. I do like Milla’s ideas at Handley Cellars but too many seem to be what I refer to as ‘ego-vineyards’. My grandfather would have said, ‘They are not farmers, they are entrepreneurs and they don’t get their hands dirty.’ I’d agree.”… The A.V.A.? – “I read it selectively. I like that Bruce Anderson has stirred some stuff up in the past – we need that around here sometimes. I recently enjoyed Mark Scaramella’s article about the school’s silver award – that award was very questionable and I agree with Mark’s column 100%. I like his stuff and read it all”…The School system? – “It’s a shame that in a basically very liberal Valley we have a school system run by a Board that is a cabal of conservatives. It seems that they are all in complete agreement on everything; when I was on that Board at least we had some debate and disparate views on the issues before us. As for the High School, there appears to be a lack of leadership there.”…And whom would you vote for Mayor of the Valley if such a position were created? – “Henry Hill – because I know he’d wouldn’t do a goddam thing and that’s just what we want!”
To end the interview, as I have being doing each week, I posed a few questions to Tom from a list originally devised by French Interviewer and Culture “Expert”, Bernard Pivot, and featured on television’s “Inside the Actors Studio with James Lipton”…
What is your favorite word or phrase? – “Goal!”

What is your least favorite word or phrase? – “Take my word for it.”

What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally? – “Watching young kids performing to the best of their ability.”

What turns you off creatively, spiritually or emotionally? – “Holier than thou people who try to tell others how to lead their lives.”

What sound or noise do you love? – “The unique sound of waves lapping on to a tropical beach.”

What sound or noise do you hate? – “Dogs barking.”

What is your favorite curse word? – “I use them all.”

What is your favorite hobby? – “I guess that would be gardening.”

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt? – “I would have liked to have been a full-time teacher.”

What profession would you not like to do? – “There are lots of horrible jobs in third world countries that I would not want to do.”

What was the happiest day or event in your life? – “The births of our two children.”

What was the saddest? – “Anytime I hear about a friend who dies unexpectedly – I was really shaken by the tragic death here in the Valley of Hunter Hill, son of Henry and Lady Rainbow. He was a contemporary of my boys and thereafter they had a picture of him taped to the speedometer in their car to remind them not to drive too fast.”

What is your favorite thing about yourself – physically/mentally/spiritually? – “I suppose I like it that I usually tend to side with the underdog.”

Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? – “Perhaps he’d say, ‘Tom – all those near misses – atheists are usually much easier to get rid of.”…Or may be, ”Welcome, Tom. As an atheist, you made it here based on what you have done, without expectations, which is much better than many believers who do things only in the expectation of coming here.”

Published in: on April 1, 2009 at 3:37 am  Leave a Comment  

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