Chilkat Valley News - Serving Haines and Klukwan, Alaska since 1966

Smith: Paratrooper, logger 'did what he wanted'

 

Leo Smith

A celebration of Leo Smith's life will be held 11 a.m. Saturday morning at the American Legion. Smith died Nov. 22 in Anchorage of head trauma caused when the logging skidder he was operating rolled on Nov. 15.

"The story of Leo's life is that he did what he wanted to do. He was going to be 90 in January," wife George Ann Smith said this week.

For nearly 50 years, Leo Smith Logging Co. harvested timber, cleared house sites, cut trees close to structures, moved large boats and sold campfire wood from the porch of his waterfront home. At one time he operated snowmachine, outboard motor, motorcycle and chainsaw dealerships.

Smith volunteered heavy equipment work for the ball fields at Oslund Park, the Senior Village, the American Bald Eagle Foundation, the Southeast Alaska State Fair and the library. He was instrumental in skidding the "White Fang" movie set from Jones Point to Dalton City and competed in the Southeast Alaska State Fair logging show for decades. "Leo was a showman" who enjoyed the accolades his logging skills earned him, his wife said.

As the fair's logging show became more of a timepiece, Smith was important not only as a volunteer, but also as a connection to the history of the industry, said longtime show volunteer Alan Heinrich. "He was dependable. He'd bring his old saws and equipment and put on demonstrations. He was one of the few guys we had who had been a logger."

Smith co-founded the Chilkat Snowburners snowmachine club and once attempted to ascend Skagway's Chilkoot Pass from Skagway, escaping serious injury after his sled rolled on top of him. He was a member of the former Elks Club and the American Legion, where he enjoyed a beer after work.

He was baptized and became a member of the Port Chilkoot Bible Church in his seventies.

"Leo was an excellent man," said friend and fellow logger Bob Jensen. "He was the nicest, easy-going, mild-mannered, get-along kind of guy I knew."

Leo Lain Smith was born to Lain Smith and Dorothy Demaris Smith on Jan. 21, 1927, in Prineville, Ore. An aunt and uncle raised him before he moved into his mother's boarding house for loggers and sawmill workers.

By age 15, he was cutting and selling firewood. He played football and ran track. In notes he wrote about his life, he claimed to have set the record in the mile run at Crook County High and held it for 22 years. "I had college scouts from all over coming to our house trying to get me to forget about going in the Marine Corps... I was afraid if I took the time to finish high school and then go to college, the war might be over," Smith wrote.

At 17, he joined the Army and became a paratrooper in a regiment that arrived in Japan after the atomic bombs were dropped.

Smith returned to Prineville and married Naomi Jeane Booth in Reno, Nev., in 1947. The couple had two children. Smith logged, worked as a mechanic, and owned a service station in Prineville, which he wrote made him "flat broke" before he married George Ann Riley on March 20, 1960, in Nogales, Mexico.

He and George Ann raised two more children, and she often worked alongside him as he continued to try a variety of jobs from a mechanic at a copper mine in Arizona to driving a cab in Reno. He cut trees seasonally, including a stint logging the north rim of the Grand Canyon.

The Smiths moved to Alaska in 1963, living in logging camps until landing in Haines in 1966, where he homesteaded at 8 Mile Haines Highway. "He built the house with a chainsaw" and settled into it as an independent logger, said son Andy Smith.

Southeast Roadbuilders president Roger Schnabel worked with Smith when he was in college and admired how he managed his crew. "When he was dealing with loggers, who can be stubborn, Leo would not say, 'It's my way or the highway' but he made it clear he was the boss, and what his expectations were," Schnabel said.

Smith was a gardener and an avid outdoorsman with a moose camp in the Interior. In his eighties, he joined logging show buddy Erwin Hertz, diving into Portage Cove during the New Year's Polar Bear Swim.

He loved cats. This week, his 27-year-old cat, Junior, died and was buried in a box Leo had already made. "He inscribed the top, 'Within this cat casket lies one very nice cat,'" Andy Smith said.

The last entry in Leo Smith's notebook is, "And that is about all there has been in the past and up to the present time of my charmed life."

He was preceded in death by his parents and stepfather, brother Gene Smith, and son Gary Lain Smith.

He is survived by his wife of 56 years, George Ann Smith of Haines; children Laverla Jeane Young of Grants Pass, Ore., Cynthia Ann Bennett of Craig, and Andrew Allen Smith of La Habra, Calif.;10 grandchildren; and eight great-grandchildren.

 
 

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