Near the end of his life, he was honored by U.S. military brass as a hero for helping liberate Nazi death camps, but to a generation of Haines schoolchildren, Norm Smith Sr. was a teacher who connected with them.
"He was a strong teacher, but he was entertaining. He kept your interest. When we were growing up, we couldn’t wait to be in his class," said former student Christy Tengs-Fowler.
Smith, 86, died at his Albion, Neb. home on Dec. 21 from complications of post-polio syndrome. He left Haines in 1975, but former students interviewed this week had vivid memories of him.
"When he talked to us, he acted like something we said was something he’d consider," said assembly member Debra Schnabel.
Smith also served as a local Boy Scout leader and American Legion commander and played clarinet in the school pep band. In retirement, he researched and wrote accounts of early Haines history. "He had an amazing drive to be involved in all things civic," said son Carlton Smith of Juneau.
Born in Iowa in 1925, Norm Smith grew up in Seattle, the son of a printer. He was drafted into the Army at 18 and volunteered to be a paratrooper, joining the 101st Airborne Division.
He saw combat action in Austria, France and Germany, and toward the war’s end, he and other soldiers occupied Berghof, Hitler’s private home, family members said.
Son Carlton Smith of Juneau said his father could not forget the skeletal survivors and smell of burning corpses in a concentration camp his company liberated at Landsberg, Germany.
Smith said his father told stories of survivors too starved to eat and others who made their way outside the camp’s gates in order to die there as free men.
Norm Smith later became active with groups preserving Holocaust history, and spoke at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. "It’s my obligation to serve these people," Smith told a Juneau Rotary Club gathering in 2006.
Smith married high school sweetheart Eileen Curtiss in 1949 and operated a fuel distributorship in Seattle. In 1951, he was stricken with acute onset polio, which atrophied the right side of his body. "I learned to walk at the same time he was learning to walk a second time," Carlton Smith said.
Norm Smith worked on his wife’s uncle’s seiner in Hydaburg during summers and earned a teaching degree at the University of Washington on the G.I. Bill. The family came to Haines when Smith started teaching fifth grade here in 1960.
Smith led his students through dozens of projects ranging from matchstick bridges to ceramics and read classics like "The Three Musketeers" aloud to them during lunch, said former student Lee Heinmiller.
Perhaps due to his own affliction, Smith showed concern for students with disabilities and led one of the state’s first special education programs. Former Haines superintendent Steve McPhetres told a reporter Smith was an "outstanding" teacher.
Smith earned a master’s degree in special education and spoke publicly on the topic of polio and post-polio syndrome.
The Smiths rented a Soapsuds Alley house in exchange for improvements on it and later bought #1 Officers’ Row, at a time when only two other houses on the street were occupied. Heinmiller said Smith was undaunted by his disability, climbing atop roofs to shovel off snow and hiking to Lily Lake to work on the water system intake there. "He’d stump his way up there, polio or not."
When Carlton expressed an interest in monkeys, his father purchased two as pets and named them "Wally" and "Ermalee" for then-Gov. Walter Hickel and his wife. "Kids from all over the place would knock on the door and ask to see the monkeys," Carlton Smith said.
Discussions with Port Chilkoot Co. founder Carl Heinmiller led to an interest in archival research. Smith poured through proceedings of the U.S. Boundary Tribunal, gleaning references to Haines. He maintained that a log from a Navy ship proved that the U.S. flag was raised here at Yendeistakye a few hours before it officially was raised in Sitka after purchase of the territory from Russia.
On recent visits here, he shared his research, including a presentation about the significance of Pyramid Island as an important landmark in the first surveys of Southeast Alaska.
In 1966, Smith married teacher Donna Wilson. They left Haines for Albion, her hometown, fulfilling Smith’s lifelong dream of being a gentleman farmer. He bought a tractor, wore overalls and raised vegetables, chickens and goats.
Smith was preceded in death by first wife Eileen and by parents Howard and Violet Smith. He is survived by wife Donna Smith of Albion; brothers Lowell Smith of San Diego and Gary Smith of Madison, Wis.; sister Marlene Vickers of Renton, Wash.; by sons Carlton Smith of Juneau and Norm Smith of Haines and by numerous grandchildren.