As he rode the service elevator in the backway of a convention hotel here, the snowy-haired African American operating it turned suddenly. He held out a black-and-gold bit of fabric embroidered with a screaming eagle.
“Senator Obama, I have something I want to give you,” the man said. “I’ve carried this military patch with me every day for 40 years, and I want you to carry it, and it will keep you safe in your journey.” Obama tried to refuse, but the older man persisted.
Big endeavors can find their meaning in small moments.
Later that day, Obama and his aides discussed the encounter. The future president pulled the patch from his pocket, along with about a dozen other items people had pressed upon him.
“This is why I do this,” he said. “Because people have their hopes and dreams about what we can do together.”
Two American stories intersected that morning in that elevator. The more famous, of course, is the one that begins its next chapter on Monday, as the nation’s first black president takes the oath of office for a second term.
But the other story also tells a lot about where this country has been and how far it has come.
No one in Obama’s small party that day noticed the man’s name tag or, if anyone did, the fact that it said Earl Smith was quickly forgotten.
No one knew how much of Smith’s life had been woven into a patch that, over four decades, found its way from the shoulder of an Army private to the pocket of a future commander-in-chief.
It was the only shred of cloth he had saved from the uniform of a nightmarish year in Vietnam. Smith fired artillery with a brigade that suffered 10,041 casualties during the course of the war. The brigade’s soldiers received 13 Medals of Honor.
The patch was waiting among his possessions when Smith was pardoned by the state of Georgia in 1977 after spending three years in prison for a crime he claimed was self-defense.
Smith kept it close as his lucky charm while he rebuilt his life and his reputation, starting with a job vacuuming hallways and changing sheets in an Atlanta Marriott. He carried it with him as he traveled halfway around the world again, to positions in hotels far from home, Riyadh in Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates.
Along the way, as he tended to travelers and made sure VIP gatherings went smoothly, he met three U.S. presidents.
His instincts told him Obama would make it four.
Like just about anyone else who was alive on Nov. 22, 1963, Smith can describe exactly where he was when he heard the horrific news: He was coming off a high school football practice field in his home town of San Benito, Tex.
Though not yet old enough to have voted for the man slain in Dallas, “I was devastated — a lot of us young people were — because John Kennedy was the young president,” recalled Smith, now 68.
“When I met Senator Obama, that feeling I had when I was 19 years old.That feeling was there. I thought I would never live to see such a feeling again.”
In that short ride between hotel floors, Smith did not have the time or the words to “say a lot of the things that I wanted to say.” So he offered a gift and a wish — that the badge of his resilience might lend its protection to another generation’s young president.
“I thought he might put it on his desk, and every once in a while, he would look at it,” Smith added. “And if he got in a situation where he was not feeling well, or some troubled times, I wanted him to be able to look at that patch and see we, the American people — we’re here.”
Totems from supporters
Obama carried the patch in his pocket, said his close friend and top adviser Valerie Jarrett, until the end of the campaign.
He had an almost-spiritual regard for the totems and trinkets that people gave him as he made his way to the White House.
When Time correspondent Jay Newton-Small asked Obama late in the 2008 campaign to show her the contents of his pockets, they included a memorial bracelet for a son fallen in Iraq, a gambler’s chit, a silver charm engraved in Braille, a tiny Hindu monkey god, a Madonna medal.
Jarrett first told me the story of the patch a few days before that election, in an interview aboard Obama’s campaign plane.
As the second inauguration neared, I wondered what had become of the generous stranger. Had the reality of the Obama presidency matched his hopes for it?
The chances seemed great that the man had long since retired or moved on. Jarrett said she had never known who he was and had no idea where he might be.
Through reconstructing Obama’s schedule from five years ago, aides offered one possibility where the encounter might have happened, and I put in a call to the human resources office of the Hyatt Regency in the Texas capital on Jan. 4. Yvonne Moore answered the phone. She never had heard the story, but 90 minutes later, she sent an e-mail:
“I am so excited to tell you that it is our very own Earl Smith / Director of Security. . . . It took a bit of convincing to get him to consider calling you, but he promises he will.”
I forwarded the news to Jarrett, and she sent an emotional letter to Smith that day. She told him she thinks of him every time she drives through the White House gates. Jarrett has often cited him in commencement addresses and political speeches.
“I challenge myself to try to do something in the course of the day that would make you proud. I often have wondered how you are doing and regret that I never learned your name so that I could thank you for the joy your gift has given me every morning and each time I repeat the story of our brief encounter,” Jarrett wrote.
“Of course, the President remembers you too,” she added. “We are in Hawaii enjoying a short break and he asked me to invite you to Washington so that he can thank you for believing in him. Please let me know if you would like to come. It would be such a thrill to see you again!”
To Obama and the others who had been on the elevator that day, the patch retained a special significance.
But they never learned the story that went with it.
Willie Earl Smith Jr. traces his Texas roots to the black cowboys who rode the Chisholm trail after slavery ended. His forebears scraped together enough money to buy land at the bottom tip of the state, only to lose it when times got bad.
Work defined life. His mother, Rosie Josephine Lasley Oliver, worked in the kitchen of a rich family; family lore had it that a young Dwight D. Eisenhower once complimented her cooking. The only father he knew was Andrew Oliver, a laborer at a cotton gin, whom the widowed Rosie married when Earl was a baby.
The eldest of 10 surviving children in this blended family, Smith washed dishes at San Benito’s Stonewall Jackson Hotel before school and after football practice.
He also worked in Rio Grande Valley fields for 50 cents an hour. An older kid who picked cotton around the same time as Smith would become San Benito’s biggest celebrity. Smith knew him as Baldemar Huerta, but he later made Tejano-flavored records under the name Freddy Fender and topped the 1970s pop and country charts.
Smith was a veterinarian’s assistant when the draft caught up with him in 1965. His orders were to report to the 101st Airborne in Phan Rang, which is what earned him the screaming eagle patch. When he arrived in Vietnam in 1966, however, he got a new assignment.
Fresh troops were needed to replenish the ravaged 173rd Airborne Brigade. It had been created in March 1963 specifically for jungle fighting. The brigade members’ official military nickname was “sky soldiers,” but the 3,000 or so men of the 173rd called themselves “the herd.”
All told, the 173rd fought 14 campaigns in Vietnam and remained in combat longer than any other American military unit since the Revolutionary War, said Guy Nasuti, an information specialist at the U.S. Army War College’s military history institute.
More than 1,600 members of the herd did not make it back alive.
Smith declined to talk much about what it was like over there, although he said it gave him nightmares for 15 years. His exposure to artillery fire also cost him part of his hearing. Without his aids in, he is deaf to the tick of a watch, the rustle of paper, the song of a bird.
Smith has moved on from Vietnam in some ways; in others, he hasn’t.
It bothers him to see the criticism that is being aimed at another Vietnam veteran, the one who is Obama’s choice to head the Pentagon.
“Look at Senator Chuck Hagel,” he said. “All of a sudden, he’s got people taking shots at him, and there’s a possibility he may not even become defense secretary. Here’s a person that would be the first time in our history [someone who] came from the ranks of the enlisted persons to be a secretary of defense. Can you imagine how every service person now, male or female, or those of us in the past — can you imagine how we would feel if that didn’t take place?’”
Smith is a private man, who bears witness — to the war and the difficulties that followed — in a private way.
“I never went to Washington, to the wall, the Vietnam [memorial],” he said. “I never wanted to go, purposely, because I’d rather remember the guys that didn’t make it back in my own way. I thought that if I went to the monument, it would be too overpowering.
“I think I have enough strength to go now.”
A different kind of battle
A different kind of hell awaited Smith when he returned to the United States, after he was discharged at Fort Campbell, Ky., and found his way to Atlanta.
The court record of what happened on Aug. 16, 1973, describes a robbery and assault. In Smith’s version, it was an argument with acquaintances at an apartment complex that drew in a neighbor who happened to be an off-duty cop.
“He comes back with a gun, and he puts the gun to my head, and he says, ‘Boy, I’m going to kill you. N-I-G-G-E-R, I’m going to blow your head off,’ ” Smith recalled, spelling out the word he would not bring himself to say.
They struggled. Smith got the gun but not before he was shot in the hip and leg.
“I took the gun. I left the scene, and I went to a service station,” Smith said. “I said, ‘Look, I’ve got this gun. I want you to call the police.’ ”
It was the word of a young black man against that of a police officer. Among the lesser of five counts against Smith was stealing the Smith & Wesson .38 that was used to shoot him. A court document valued the pistol at $75.
“No money, no understanding of the court system — I had a lawyer that I thought was my friend, who entered a plea of guilty on me that I knew nothing about. And when I got to the courts, it was just too late,” Smith said.
Sentenced to five years for aggravated assault, Smith began writing letters — to lawyers, right up to then-Gov. Jimmy Carter.
“I felt bitter,” he said. “Coming from Vietnam, coming from a combat zone, you think, ‘You know, I deserve a little better than this.’ ”
Somehow, his plight caught the attention of Mamie Reese, the first African American woman named to the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles.
“Several of the parole board were political hacks, but Mamie Reese was really a decent person,” said Allen Ault, a former Georgia Department of Corrections director who is now dean of the College of Justice and Safety at Eastern Kentucky University.
The board was not known to be generous with clemency, especially in a case like Smith’s.
“Typically, they would just reject it on the face of it,” Ault said, recalling that one member insisted that petitioners prove they had a personal relationship with Jesus.
But when Reese, then the board’s chairman, submitted Smith for a pardon under a special program for first offenders, he won it, two years before his scheduled release.
Smith had cleared his record, and he was determined to clear his name. His mother, however, counseled him against it.
“I said, ‘Mom, I want to spend the rest of my life trying to show that this just didn’t happen this way,’ ” Smith said. “She said, ‘Son, look. I know your heart. I know you. I believe what you said. Let it go. It’s just not worth it.’ ”
He hopes that the way he has lived is the proof that will matter.
“I’ve always tried to [focus on] character and honesty and sincerity and being a good person,” Smith said. “Since that time, I think the only thing I’ve ever gotten is a traffic ticket. Sometimes, you could be at the wrong place at the wrong time. Sometimes, innocent people — I’m blessed that my life is preserved. I’m blessed. I could have died back there.”
Smith moved forward, carrying his patch and keeping close a precious piece of paper.
“ORDERED that all disabilities resulting from the above stated sentence(s) be and the same are hereby removed,” reads the pardon certificate dated March 28, 1977. “And ORDERED FURTHER that all civil and political rights lost as a result of the offense(s) be and the same are hereby restored.”
A new career path
The hotel business — which Smith prefers to call “the hospitality industry” — turned out to suit him. And he suited it.
His job as a “floor houseman” at the Marriott led to one as an attendant cleaning 16 to 18 rooms a day. Sorting dirty sheets and towels set him up for his first management position, as a laundry manager with a Marriott in Chicago. Eventually, he became what Marriott called a director of services, supervising a range of operations from the laundry to the health club.
One job that he could never do, however, was the front desk. Not with his hearing being what it was.
There was the stint in the Middle East. “Abu Dhabi was just the sticks. Now it’s not that anymore,” he said. Smith met Gerald R. Ford and George H.W. Bush while he was working in Atlanta, and then-Gov. George W. Bush in Austin.
At the Hyatt, which hired him in 1998, Smith has made fans among less-famous guests ,such as Canadian businessman James Thomas.
“Earl Smith at Austin Hyatt rocks!” Thomas tweeted on March 1. “@hyattconcierge Thanks for the awesome above and beyond service!”
When a bleary-eyed Thomas accidentally dropped off his credit card instead of his room key at a pre-dawn checkout last year, Smith was dogged in his efforts to get the card back to its owner.
“There’s something about him that restores your faith in humanity,” Thomas, the marketing vice president at recruiting software firm Talent Technology, said in an interview. “I don’t know where people like him come from.”
Smith’s life outside of work came together nicely, as well. A brief early marriage had fallen apart. Then came one night when Smith saw two women stranded next to a broken-down car by the roadside.
Smith fixed their tire and was smitten by one of the women. “I told her, ‘Look, I know you don’t talk to strangers, but you seem to be a real nice lady. And I know you don’t give your number to strangers, but I’m going to give you my number, and tell you where I work and where I live, and if you foresee that you want to call me, maybe we could go have a cup of coffee or a cup of tea,’ ” he said.
It took Claudia Howard six months to phone. They have been married 32 years and have two grown children, a daughter and a son.
The Obama years have been good to his family, Smith said. Claudia is retired from teaching. His kids are working.
If he is disappointed, it is not with the president but with politics.
“It’s not like it used to be,” Smith said. “Now you’ve got red states, blue states. I’m a Democrat; I’m a Republican. We’re Americans.”
Connecting with Americans
There are two ways to measure how the country relates to its president. One is polling, the amalgam of the masses, pored over and picked apart by operatives and pundits. The other is a bond forged one American at a time.
With all the noise coming out of Washington, it is easy to overlook the fact that most Americans want to see the president succeed, regardless of whether they voted for him.
One measure of that connection is how many Americans feel compelled — as Smith did — to give the president a tangible piece of themselves. The 13 presidential libraries have catalogued nearly 600,000 such “artifacts,” said Diane LeBlanc, a spokeswoman for the National Archives and Records Administration, which oversees the libraries.
Among them are the badge of a Port Authority officer who fell on 9/11, given by his mother to George W. Bush. Herbert Hoover’s library displays hundreds of decorated flour sacks sent to him by Belgians grateful for shipments of food he had organized during World War I, before he was president.
With Obama, there also is the thrill that Americans of all colors have felt at the proof that a person doesn’t have to be white to sit in that office.
As Smith put it: “There’s a person who is one of us, even though he’s well-educated — gone to Harvard, gone to Columbia University. And I had that feeling. That’s what motivated me. . . . I’ve always had this feeling you always want to protect your president.”
The president keeps the patch in what a White House official described as a “safe place” in his Chicago home.
As for Smith, he still rides that service elevator almost every day.
Research editor Alice Crites contributed to this story.
Earl Smith and Post reporter Karen Tumulty are scheduled to appear on NBC’s “The Today Show” on Monday morning.