By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 19, 2006
J.Y. Smith, 74, a former foreign correspondent who transformed the backwater reputation of The Washington Post obituaries desk as its first official editor, died Jan. 17 at his home in Annandale. He had lung cancer.
"Joe" Smith was a native of Brooklyn, N.Y., and a sinewy Marine Corps veteran of the Korean War. Fourteen months on the front lines proved a shattering experience that influenced a gruffer aspect of his personality. But he also was a graduate of the exclusive Choate private school in Wallingford, Conn., and Harvard University, and in middle age he developed a consuming interest in dressage and fox hunting.
Capable of displaying great courtliness, almost to the point of an F. Scott Fitzgerald hero, he also could be unpredictable and moody. Some colleagues joked it was risky to change his copy, if only because he let it be known that he really liked guns.
Mr. Smith arrived at The Post in 1965 after several years with the United Press International wire service, lastly as bureau manager in Poland. As an assistant foreign editor at The Post, he contributed admirably to coverage of the Middle East War of 1967.
Starting in 1969, Mr. Smith began long service on the metropolitan staff. Initially, he had great latitude as a "Virginia rover" and wrote about everything from the state Supreme Court to Franklin County moonshiners, bringing home a quart of the strong liquid given to him by a beverage control agent.
Later based in the District, Mr. Smith helped cover the trial of the Hanafi Muslims who in 1977 armed themselves heavily, took hostages and shot up a city government building, the Islamic Center and B'nai B'rith International. One person was killed.
Until that time, Metro editors routinely tapped young, inexperienced or bored-looking staffers to write the major obits that flashed across the wire. The "anybody free?" method had persisted even as The Post emerged as a national newspaper in the early 1970s by publishing the Pentagon Papers and breaking the Watergate scandal.
The Post's obit tactics at the time contrasted embarrassingly with policies in force at other leading papers, from the Times of London to the New York Times, which had dedicated staff members to craft prominent obituaries.
Mr. Smith had a complex history at The Post. He was admired for the crispness of his storytelling and the breadth of his capabilities, but he also was an alcoholic and his addiction made him erratic for years until he joined Alcoholics Anonymous and quit drinking in 1983.
Leonard Downie Jr., a younger colleague who is now executive editor, said Mr. Smith "could do anything" and retained the allure of a "gruff-voiced, hard-bitten veteran journalist" who had been a foreign correspondent and exuded an appreciation of history.
In 1977, Downie had a large part in Mr. Smith being named the obituaries editor.
The beginning was not particularly easy, with Mr. Smith writing on deadline about figures as diverse as silent-film genius Charlie Chaplin and Hitler associate Albert Speer. He managed many gems despite the immediacy of deadlines.
Of Harold Macmillan, the Conservative British prime minister, Mr. Smith wrote: "A figure of Edwardian elegance whose walrus mustaches and basset-like eyes gave much pleasure to cartoonists, Macmillan had about him the appearance of times past. This made him a reassuring figure in times of change."
His first paragraph for E.B. White's obituary called him "an essayist, storyteller and conservator of English who delighted, instructed and confounded readers both young and old with such books as 'Charlotte's Web,' which is about a pig and a spider, and 'The Elements of Style,' which is about the language itself."
The job was often filled with pressures, but he was attuned to the necessity of compassion and appreciation of a life. "The occasion for obituaries is death, which is sad. But the subject of obituaries is life itself, which is wonderful," he once wrote.
The son of an advertising executive, Joseph Yeardley Smith was born May 10, 1931. He had a comfortable upbringing, and among his finest memories was of riding horses at a local armory. A trainer told him he had great potential, and he spent a summer at a Montana ranch, but his parents disapproved of his ambition as a rider.
Mr. Smith left Harvard in 1951 to serve in the Marine Corps and then graduated in 1958. After school, he was briefly personal secretary for a man he described as a "semi-retired tycoon."
He later wrote: "I had a certain amount of time on my hands, and in the course of sitting around, it occurred to me that of all the things I had ever done, the one that I liked best was studying history and government at Harvard. That's why I always read newspapers. They have to do with people and events. So I became a newspaperman."
He joined United Press International in 1958, working in Atlanta, Richmond and Roanoke. He then was posted to Moscow, London and Warsaw, experiences that gave him an advantage when many world figures later died.
His tenure as The Post's obituaries editor from 1977 to 1988 coincided with the first deaths from AIDS. Mr. Smith retained a staunch belief that "the newspaper has a duty to reflect the world as it really is," he wrote in The Post in 1987. "That is the whole point of journalism, and it is the single best reason for citing AIDS as a cause of death."
He suggested that those wishing to conceal information or have entire control over content could buy a paid death notice.
"People try to deny painful memories," he wrote. "In this way death is the enemy of common sense and, unless one is very careful, death always wins. Denying painful memories is to deny part of the life itself."
Mr. Smith set a similar standard for himself and declined to deny his own painful memories. In 1989, when Redskins player Dexter Manley was disciplined by the National Football League after he tested positive for substance abuse, Mr. Smith discussed publicly his own addiction to alcohol and his recovery.
"I first hit bottom when I was arrested for driving while intoxicated," he wrote. "Some years later, after another period of drinking and recovery, I found myself living in a dark little room in a blighted neighborhood where not even the best days found much of happiness and where the police were always in the local convenience store and fast-food outlet to keep peace among the inhabitants.
"My anchor at that time was the people who could help me with alcoholism. The truth is that because I asked every day for help I wasn't even tempted to pick up a drink."
Mr. Smith met his second wife, Marian, in Alcoholics Anonymous in the early 1980s. He later cared for her when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and he raised their three children.
He continued working full time for The Post until 1996, first copy editing for the editorial page under the powerful Meg Greenfield before returning as a reporter to obituaries, which he called "far and away the most interesting and difficult work I have ever done."
In recent years, he did contract writing for The Post and prepared obituaries for former Post publisher Katharine Graham, cartoonist Herblock and Pope John Paul II.
His first marriage, to Martha Mayor Smith, ended in divorce.
Survivors include his wife of 18 years, Marian Ambrose Smith of Annandale; two children from his first marriage, Thomas Smith of Friendship, Maine, and Yeardley Smith, an actress who is the voice of cartoon character Lisa Simpson, of Los Angeles; three children from his second marriage, Macs Smith, Hope Smith and Henry Smith, all of Annandale; and a brother.