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Rod Smith: Family footsteps, then a turn into politics

A chatty guy who can quote Shakespeare or Caddyshack, he worked on the family farm.

By JENNIFER LIBERTO
Published August 26, 2006


In late September 1993, state prosecutor Rod Smith walked into a Gainesville hospital room to chat with 24-year-old Jena Hull, a college student who was recuperating from 17 stab wounds by a kitchen knife.

Hull's roommate had been murdered and Hull was found bloody and clinging to a second-story balcony railing.

Smith, now a state senator from Alachua who is running for governor, stood close beside her bed, just as her friends did, and talked with her about her hometown of LaBelle. Until then, interviewers had barked sterile questions about the assault from the foot of her bed.

"He wanted to get to know me as a person, and I felt comfortable immediately," said Jena (now) Wilson whose assailant Smith convicted at trial and put behind bars for 75 years. "It was the first time I thought, 'Things are going to be okay.' "

That moment captures what strangers, friends and family first notice about the 56-year-old Democrat from Alachua.

Smith is one of those witty, chatty, outgoing people who can put a stranger, or even a political enemy, at ease. Monday, Smith was seated next to his primary opponent, U.S. Rep. Jim Davis, as the two engaged in a fairly vicious taped debate. When Davis touted his support from an Orlando newspaper columnist who had recently eviscerated Smith's environmental record, equating a vote for Smith with taking a "bubble bath in Red Tide," Smith quipped: "Well, I actually have the guy down as a 'Maybe.' " Even Davis had to laugh.

Smith can quote Shakespeare and Caddyshack. He's a wealth of geeky, bizarre information like 1940 statistics about the Cardinals and the Yankees, though his favorite team now is the Atlanta Braves. Nearly anyone who has known him says he's the type of guy you want to invite to dinner or grab a beer with. And, yes, the avowed Baptist does drink on occasion.

He has a weakness for fried chicken, pricey coffee and chocolate ice cream and spoonfuls of peanut butter - sometimes together.

He is a morning person whose predilection for running at the mouth slows as the clock ticks toward midnight. He rarely goes to bed without reading. On his bedside table recently: Conspiracy of Paper, a historical British novel by David Liss and Mayflower, historical nonfiction by Nathaniel Philbrick.

If he wasn't running for governor, he would have spent more time this summer doing far less glamorous things: playing golf (he can drive a ball a good 280 yards), horseback riding, scalloping, fishing the pond on the family's Alachua County farm or taking trips to his family's vacation spot in the cool mountains of North Carolina.

Smith is fiercely devoted to his family, none of whom is quite the natural speaker he is. They have slogged it out giving speeches and interviews and traveling with him all summer long. Smith's desire to protect them is part of why he took so long to decide on this gubernatorial campaign. (Davis, by comparison, held very public "exploratory" forums many months in advance.)

Ultimately, his family nudged him into the race, despite being so unknown.

"My wife came out on the porch, and she said, 'I don't want to sit around with you and have you worry the rest of your life that you should have run for governor,' " Smith said. That was in the winter of 2004. " 'It's a hard job. It's a daunting task but if you're going try something, try for something you really want.' "

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Lately, the Smith home has been a two-bedroom apartment in suburban Broward County (close to campaign headquarters), but Smith spent most of the last 35 years on the family farm near Gainesville, which his dad bought when Smith went to law school.

Smith comes from humble beginnings. Outhouse and everything.

The Oklahoma native was actually born across the border in Southwest City, Mo., but stayed only "however long my mother was in labor." He was born with red hair and gold-brown eyes and lived his first few years on a dairy farm in the rolling foothills of the Ozark Mountains in Oklahoma. It was here that Smith developed what sounds like a Southern accent. Today, Smith's vowels lengthen when he visits Dixie Country in North Florida.

His father, Warren Smith, grew up a farmer during the dust bowl days of John Steinbeck. The elder Smith dropped out of high school to work.

Warren Smith farmed the rest of his life and died in 2001 from a painful blood cancer called multiple myeloma. Rod Smith is convinced it came from years of working around pesticides, and he often says in speeches that his father "worked himself to death for me."

Rodney Warren Smith has no brothers or sisters, because he was born to a diabetic mother who wasn't expected to be able to have children. Smith chalks up his chattiness to a quiet childhood, where he filled the silences left open by hard-working parents who spent their lives in the solitude of field labor.

The Smith family moved to South Florida in the early 1950s in search of a better life. Warren Smith had uncles, named DuBois (pronounced Doo-boys), who were having success farming in rural Palm Beach County. The Smiths eventually got their own 200-acre farm in Loxahatchee, where young "Rodney," as he was called then, grew up picking eggplants, bell peppers, squash and beans.

"He was a red-headed freckle face. Always full of energy. Well-liked and a smart little devil," said Joyce Haley, a (Republican) cousin of Smith's who grew up playing kickball with Rod, who is six years younger.

Smith went to public schools in Boynton Beach. At Seacrest High School, he played golf, served as student council president and, friends say, didn't have trouble finding a date for Saturday night. He worked weekends on the farm.

"He would have had more red hair back then, but otherwise, he's absolutely the same, very active doing the same sorts of things," said high school buddy Tom Smith, no relation.

Rod Smith was turning 16 in 1965, when a school bus pulled up to Seacrest carrying several wide-eyed new students. Mack McCray was among those joining a handful of black students at the mostly white high school that was starting to integrate.

"He came up, and he touched us and said 'We're going to get through this, we're going to make it,' " said McCray. "He was one of those who made the transition easier."

Smith got a two-year degree at Palm Beach Junior College and went back to Oklahoma to get his bachelor's in political science from the University of Tulsa. He had grown up traveling back and forth between Florida and Oklahoma, where his grandfather still owned a farm. His grandfather died in 2001, just shy of his 100th birthday.

Rod Smith married Susan Dunaway in Tulsa in 1971, after he had graduated from the University of Tulsa and was waiting to see if he would be drafted or could start law school. A decade later, while Smith was working as an attorney for labor groups, the two filed for divorce months after Jesse Smith was born.

In law school, Smith worked on the 400-acre cattle ranch his dad bought in Alachua. A law school professor once criticized Smith for sounding more like a minister than a lawyer, but he graduated in 1975 and later passed the bar.

Smith and his family still live on the same farm in Alachua, along with Smith's mother, Elda Lee, who declined to be interviewed for this story.

In 1982, Smith married Deidra Jean Painter, a few months after his divorce was final. (His ex-wife also remarried quickly.)

"He's just a comedian, very funny, that's the first thing that struck me about him," said Dee Dee Smith, who has a daughter Alison from a previous marriage.

Dee Dee is Rod's best friend, adviser and confidante. After a career in real estate, she went to law school and graduated at 39, intending to practice law with her husband. Those plans changed when Rod went into politics and Dee Dee changed course, too, deciding instead to pursue child welfare and advocacy law.

In 1987, Rod and Dee Dee had a son, Dylan. The Smith family was complete. As Smith likes to say, "Yours, mine, ours."

Alison Glover is 32, Jesse Smith is 25 and Dylan Smith is 19. All have worked on the campaign, and all speak in quieter tones then their dad.

Alison shocked her dad a bit when she fell in love and married a Republican Lutheran minister, Graham Glover. Smith joked that Alison shouldn't tell her grandmother the part about him being Republican or Lutheran until after the wedding.

Graham Glover has since changed parties and sometimes writes his Sunday sermons in hotel rooms while on the campaign trail with his father-in-law.

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Smith's easy manner and way with words are what have made him so likable to so many Democrats and Republicans in the Legislature. It's the secret to his "coalition building."

"You can't help but like him if you get to know him," said state Sen. Al Lawson of Tallahassee, a Democrat who parts ways with Smith on some issues and beats Smith regularly at poker. "After the day is over and all the competitiveness is gone, he's the type of person you want to be around, because it's fun talking to him."

Smith has told the story that when then-Senate President Jim King urged him to switch parties a few years back, Dee Dee Smith warned that he would sleep alone if he did.

Smith has a distinctive, fiery public speaking style. But in smaller groups he settles down and a folksy storyteller emerges. Occasionally, Smith sprinkles in embellishment for effect.

For example, when speaking to smaller groups of senior citizens earlier this summer, he criticized Republican efforts to privatize Medicaid through pilot projects starting in Broward and Duval counties.

"How are we going to do that in Holmes County and Washington County," Smith said in Altamonte Springs, "where I've met the only doctor they have. They used to have two, but his dad retired."

Holmes County has nine doctors and Washington County has about 15, all in good standing, according to state records and local hospitals.

Yet, when Rod Smith is sitting at his desk and his glasses have slipped down to the tip of his nose, his friends know not to bother him. He can bury himself in research for weeks or months, like he did before the trial of Gainesville serial killer Danny Rolling.

Lawson said Smith has befriended most of the late-night cleaning crew at the Capitol, while preparing for Legislative debates over the years.

His tools are notebooks and his near-photographic memory. He can rattle off names and statistics of most anything he reads. He has no Blackberry, unlike most of his staff and his wife. He doesn't care much for e-mail but he does use his cell phone. His calendar and most of his filing system are in his head.

"When we were preparing for jury selection for Rolling, we had so many potential jurors, had to be a thousand people, and he knew the difference between Juror 253 versus 153," said Jeanne Singer who was Smith's chief assistant state attorney at the time.

That same skill baffles his campaign staff constantly. When it comes to fundraising or finding volunteers, Smith will remember the name of some helpful person he met 15 years ago in a case. But he might not have a phone number written down.

He'll quote lines from movies or literature in speeches, without warning. In April, at a meeting of the Black Classroom Teachers Association in West Palm Beach, Smith followed a speech given by a notable educator, who had made a passing reference to A Raisin in the Sun.

When Rod got up to speak he recited the entire Langston Hughes poem that inspired the play.

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up

like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore-

And then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?

Or crust and sugar over-

like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags

like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

*   *   *

BORN: Nov. 15, 1949, in Southwest City, Mo.

Family: Married with three children, and one grandchild. He is the only child of a farming family.