Bidding Aloha To An Old Pal
Wednesday - July 20, 2011
We’ve all received the phone call at an odd hour, especially if we’re over 60: “Hello, Jerry (you sorta recognize the voice but it’s been a while), this is (the wife of an old friend. She uses his endearing nickname for her that she knows I know). I just want to let you know Ron’s here in Scripts hospital ... cancer in several parts of his body ... diagnosed only two weeks ago ... spread so rapidly ... doesn’t look like he’s going to make it out of here. I thought you’d want to know.”
“Oh God, yes!” Ron Smith, my dearest, living, longtime friend was literally on his death bed.
Ron hailed from Red Bluff, a Northern California town up near the Oregon border. We were teammates on the Modesto Junior College swim and water polo teams. Together, we lifeguarded at the municipal pool during the summers. Both spring board divers, we’d spend our breaks on the three-meter board encouraging one another (daring, actually) to try new dives with more front and back somersaults and more twists ready or not and entertaining the little kids with goofy clown dives.
On off weekends we’d hop into Ron’s beat up Model “A” Ford coupe with an open rumble seat, with our girlfriends, water skis and a cooler of beer and head for our favorite irrigation reservoir to trade beers for ski rides behind our friends’ boats.
When I went south to UCLA he went north to a football scholarship at College of Pacific (now Pacific University). We both graduated and pre-empted our respective draft notices by joining the Navy him to San Diego and UDT (underwater demolition, the SEALs of that day), and me to Pensacola for flight training.
During the early years of our Navy careers he made several trips to Hawaii on training exercises and dove for black coral about the same time Maui Divers was making it popular for jewelry.
While ferrying a Navy jet from Florida to Japan and then to an aircraft carrier in the Tonkin Gulf, I had a stopover in San Diego. “Hey, Nosey (his nose was always in a state of peel or covered in white zinc oxide), I’m on my way to Vietnam, but have a one night stopover. Are you available for dinner?” “Gosh, Ears, the wife has me plugged into some charity thing tonight, can I catch you on your way back?” “Sure thing!”
Neither of us dreamed it would be seven years before that could happen. He never forgave me for making him feel so guilty. I have many snapshots of him spending time with my kids during my POW years.
During that time he left the Navy and (with some other ex-UDT buddies) became one of the founders of the Chart House restaurant chain. He personally chose the sailing, surfing, skiing, “go-for-it” attitude of the restaurants, and became the chain’s president.
Ron was involved in the early Ironman triathlons. He trained dozens of triathletes, eventually specializing in biking, during which he survived multiple crashes, but garnered extra pounds of steel plates and screws to repair his broken bones.
In more recent years, from his home in Delmar, Calif., he continued to surf most mornings, and teach history and coach football at the Army-Navy Academy in Carlsbad. An alum from the academy said, “I don’t remember squat about what Ron taught me in history, but I’ll never forget his life lessons through football.”
This week, Ron’s exwives, four children, several grandchildren, friends and former students from various communities UDT, SEALS, surfing, restaurant, triathlon, biking will join at the Army-Navy Academy for a poignant celebration of his life. Few individuals have touched so many individuals with such positive results.
The last time Ron was visiting us here on Oahu he was surfing at White Plains Beach on Barbers Point where my son, Steve, was lifeguarding. While surfing, he lost his Rolex watch. When Steve naturally expressed dismay, Ron said, “Hey, no worries. If it can be replaced with money, it’s no big thing.”
That’s my friend Ron.
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