Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2011 | 2 a.m.
I met Arnold Smith in April 1969. The Smiths were guests at my sister’s wedding.
I remember Arnold very clearly because he embraced me as a son. And he never stopped that embrace until he died Saturday, two months shy of his 90th birthday.
I was introduced to Arnold by his wife, Rachel, who, as it happens at many Jewish weddings, picked me out as the young man who would marry her daughter, Myra. Naturally, she had to make sure it was all right with Myra’s father.
I have always assumed that Rachel first took to me because I had laryngitis. I couldn’t utter a word. Given the way Arnold ruled the roost at home and was never a shrinking violet when it came to expressing his opinion, I believe that Rachel saw my inability to voice my opinion as a real attribute for a successful marriage to her daughter.
For Arnold, though, it was different. I was a nice Jewish boy from a good family. That was a good start given his daughter’s hippielike proclivities. Plus I played golf, a sport Arnold loved with a passion as he did his tennis. He was a much better tennis player than a golfer, but he loved the fellowship that golf provides. That we played so much golf together told me he enjoyed being with me as much as I enjoyed being with him.
My courtship of Myra was not long, mostly because it was long distance. Myra was in Los Angeles until Arnold had heard enough about her “looking for a job” and yanked her back to Phoenix. Something about getting a real job and paying her own bills instead of just accumulating them. And I was still in law school back East. I did, however, have the opportunity to visit the family in Phoenix and that is when I learned a very valuable lesson that I wish I had heeded so many years ago.
The lesson began when he took me on one of his classic tours of Phoenix, which focused on Smith Pipe & Steel and myriad incredible industrial buildings, land, cotton fields and whatever else he had collected in his 40 some years in Phoenix at the time. He made it clear that it was his business success that allowed him to be a community leader and philanthropist, endeavors that brought him real joy. There was barely a worthy cause in Arizona that did not have Arnold’s fingerprints on it. And, certainly, there wasn’t a Jewish cause that did not have his entire being imprinted in its founding.
He then confessed to me that he would probably never be a wealthy man. I told him that I wanted to get out of the car right then because, after all, I was marrying Myra for her money. Arnold got the joke. He knew long before that car trip that Myra and I were meant to be together, even though it would take a bit more persuading to get Myra to come around.
He explained what he meant and that was the message he needed to impart. As a child of the Great Depression, one who saw his parents lose almost everything they had, Arnold grew up believing that overextending oneself was imprudent and unwise. He explained that he would never be wealthy — compared with all these young lions who believe that leverage is the key to wealth — because he believed that whatever he buys, whatever he builds, whatever he consumes, is to be paid for with cash. “When the bad times come — and they will — I will be able to hold on because I won’t owe any money. I will be able to respond when the guy who owes too much will not be able to survive.”
How right he was.
Arnold provided very well for his family in terms of financial security. And, yes, when he died he was a wealthy man. Maybe not as wealthy as the next guy, but as Arnold was fond of saying, he slept well every night.
But, Arnold never counted his wealth in dollars. He felt blessed every day, along with Rachel, to have two fabulous daughters, Myra and Madeline, five incredible grandchildren, and seven of the most precious great-grandchildren anyone could ever ask for.
He also had more friends who cut across more generations than anyone else I have known. That is because he was genuinely interested in other people’s lives, their stories, their families and their desires. And he never forgot a one of them. But, his special love was always for children. I can’t tell you how many times Myra and I thought the police were going to pinch him because he couldn’t resist pinching a complete stranger’s baby. No matter how many times we explained the law, Arnold would have none of it. That baby was cute, and he needed to touch him!
It would do a disservice to all of his friends if I named some and not all of them because they were all very important to Arnold. And he would never slight them in any way. So please forgive me if I mention just one man who thought the world of Arnold Smith.
In 1992 when Gov. Bill Clinton was running for president, Myra and I called Arnold and Rachel to see if they could put a few friends together in Phoenix to help this unknown governor in his quest for the presidency of the United States. Arnold asked one question: “Do you like him?” Of course, the answer was “yes.” Then, he would do what he could was the reply. Actually, Arnold asked another question which was his only litmus test for any candidate, “Where is he on Israel? “Aces,” we replied.
That night in Phoenix was one of those spectacular nights for which that city is known. Inside Arnold’s house he had gathered not just a few friends but, it seemed, the entire state. People came from all over to meet the man Arnold Smith was supporting for president. It was instant love between those two men. And it was a relationship that lasted until Arnold took his last breath. They would run into each other frequently and President Clinton always made a point to stop by to see Arnold or, conversely, Arnold would always make sure he was there to support his president.
By the same token, the bellmen, parking attendants and hotel staff who grew to love Arnold during his medical visits to Los Angeles all cried real tears when they learned of their friend’s death on Saturday. His love, his warmth and his incredibly positive attitude about life and family was infectious, and everyone he met was better off for knowing him.
President Clinton said this week that Arnold was the “most positive, principled and good-hearted man I had ever met. If we had more men like Arnold Smith, we’d have fewer problems in our country and in the world.”
In the end, though, Arnold’s 5-year-old great-grandson said it best. Explaining to his 3-year-old sister what it meant that Poppa Arnold had died, the little guy said, “His body died but his soul will live forever. I have known that since I was 3.”
That’s your great-grandson, Arnold. He’s a chip off the old block.
Rest in peace.