December 9, 2011 > A man of all seasons
A man of all seasons
The joyous shout of "YOWZA!" has been a trademark of Newark for over 33 years. Symbolic of an abundance of joy, enthusiasm and optimism, it's a perfect fit for the man who has led and promoted the City through three-plus decades - good times and tumultuous alike. David Smith embodies the heart and soul of Newark: focused, resolute and brimming with energy.
Relaxing in the hilltop office of the Ohlone College Foundation overlooking the Fremont campus, the easy manner of this man from humble beginnings in the upper peninsula of Michigan reflects the virtues of honest endeavors that are well recognized by his constituents and all others who have had the pleasure of his company, no matter how brief or extensive.
Retirement from Newark City Council as councilmember and mayor for over 33 years and his alter ego, executive director of the Ohlone College Foundation for the past six years, has caused a ripple of shock through both communities, and although both have been beneficiaries of Dave's fortitude, creative inclinations and direct approach, Smith had decided it was time for other pursuits. The mayor says, "I'm a pretty diverse guy and have a lot of interests in different things." As the second longest serving mayor of the United States, Dave has no regrets and has often told the longest serving mayor, Joe Riley of Charleston, South Carolina, "a perfect Southern gentleman" that he doesn't mind "being 'Avis' to your 'Hertz.'"
Citing an overflowing "bucket list," Dave, soon to be age 66, says he would like to concentrate on becoming a better musician, improving his golf game, and spending more time fishing and with his wife, Marsha, and family, including six grandchildren and a great-grandchild. His vacation home in Arnold will get more use now too. His first order of business will be to clean up a long neglected home office and garage. Following a "moratorium" on additional organizational responsibilities, the refrain of "YOWZA!" will ultimately return to the Newark scene as the Smith family has no intention of leaving the area.
As a young boy growing up in Laurium, Michigan, life was not easy for Dave, but his strong spirit prevailed, even with the loss of his father when Dave was only six years old. The family was left in 1952 with "an old car and enough money to put him in the ground... that was about it." Those in the small community were hardy, exemplified by another product of the town, Norte Dame Football legend, George "The Gipper" Gipp, immortalized by Knute Rockne's famous speech to "Win just one for the Gipper." Smith jokes that people in that part of the country traveled to Green Bay during the winter to find relief from the cold.
Life was tough for his Mom, Dave and his younger sister in the small copper mining village, but strength of body and character were at the heart and soul of area inhabitants, mostly immigrants who knew how to handle hardship and hard labor. Dave's Finnish roots instilled core values that have endured throughout his life. With little money and his mother confined to a wheelchair two years after his father died, the car could not be driven, resulting in many long walks to buy groceries and supplies, Dave never thought of himself or his family as poor, although "I had to grow up really fast."
His mother would describe what was needed and how much things should cost and then Dave, pulling a sled in the winter and wagon in the summer, would travel to whichever store or stores carried those supplies. "Mom would check in the groceries and if I came in with the wrong change or product, I was going back to the store." Dave quickly learned which cashiers were best at giving the correct change!
The old coal-burning furnace that burned lump coal required crumpled newspaper and kindling. His uncle helped the family by felling maple trees then allowing the wood to season during the summer. During the fall, pickup truckloads of wood would be stacked in the basement to provide kindling for starting the coal furnace in winter. Each morning, the fire would need to be restarted to warm the house and heat water. "I thought I died and gone to heaven when we bought a coal stoker."
Encouraged by his mother and aunts and uncles, Dave valued education and involvement in activities around him. Expectations were high, but he was up to the challenge. In high school, he was denied only two activities - the girl's honorary literary society and the future nurses club. "I was involved in everything else and lettered in football, track and played intramural basketball, participated in the band (trombone), student band conductor in my senior year, student council, competitive forensics." Smith characterizes his formative years as "a great upbringing." My high school graduating class of '63 was a very close group; we get together every year."
Michigan Tech University, although only 13 miles away, presented challenges since the six-person carpool had to leave early enough for the first class for any of the carpoolers and leave following the last class for the group. "I switched majors four times and still graduated in four years... that wasn't easy. I was also an ROTC jock and Cadet Colonel, the highest rank as a unit commander."
Dave began his occupational career with Ethyl Visquine, the plastics division of Ethyl Corporation that manufactured the lead anti-knock additive (tetra ethyl) for gasoline. The plastics division made polyethylene film used for food packaging, plastic bottles and developed the exterior coating for disposable baby diapers... demand skyrocketed! As part of a group of engineers that studied work flows and developed efficient methods of manufacturing, plant managers around the country were clamoring for industrial engineers and Dave, who had worked on a project for the manager of the Fremont facility, was asked to work there full time. In 1968, Smith moved to Fremont.
He reminisces, "Lucky Dave got to come to Fremont to work at a factory on Blacow Road, just north of the railroad tracks between Central and Thornton." The area was much different then and company athletic teams were very competitive. He remembers, "They would recruit workers for the factory based on how well they could play softball!"
Dave Smith and Alan Nagy were presidents of Junior Chamber of Commerce (Jaycee) chapters in Fremont and Newark respectively. Very competitive, they were involved in community activities and traveled throughout the state. Both considered running for a top spot of District Governor but after discussing the situation, decided that Dave would run for office and Al would be his campaign manager; a pattern to be repeated in the future.
When asked if he would move to Baton Rouge, Louisiana to run the Industrial Engineering Group for the entire division, Dave said "yes" and left Fremont. A year and half later, in 1974, he was asked by a company executive if he was interested in returning to Fremont to run the plant. "I leapt across the desk and shook his hand and said 'Take me, I'm yours!'... I have been here ever since." He settled in Newark and reestablished his relationship with Al Nagy and the local Jaycees. However, time had passed and opportunities for advancement with that organization had changed.
High tax rates were a major complaint by Smith, and finally Nagy had enough grousing and encouraged him to run for office... "Same song, different verse, different arena!" With a year-and-a-half in Newark, just turning 30 and Nagy as his campaign manager, Dave knocked on doors, talked with a lot of people and became a councilmember under a borrowed Jaycee slogan, "Do Something!"
Without experience, the duo found themselves in the midst of city politics. That was the beginning. When Mayor Jim Ballentine decided to retire, he asked Dave if he was interested in the position. In a quandary, both he and Al were unable to figure out what to do. Seeking advice of his pastor, Doug Shultz, he was told of "The Rocket Ship Theory."
Pastor Shultz told Dave to think as captain of a rocket on the launch pad. You have to figure out what to do. The control panel has green, yellow and red lights; check to see if the lights are green for "go." At the time, others had declared their candidacy for Mayor making the decision to enter the race extremely difficult, but green lights were visible so "I knocked on over 4,000 doors with cardboard and plastic in my shoes during that winter which was bad one." This was not the only challenge he faced that year.
Profitability of the Fremont Ethyl Visquine plant was barely acceptable, so in his inimitable manner, Dave challenged employees to increase their effectiveness. He told them, "I would really like to see is for this plant to thrive the way I know it can." Setting a high goal of productivity and safety that would be extremely difficult to achieve - from worst to first and 365 days without an injury - Dave felt comfortable to wager that on day 366, he and his personnel manager would perch atop a "flagpole." No mention was made of weather conditions. The employees came through and in January 1978, in the midst of his mayoral campaign and a torrential rainstorm, on a pole erected just for this event, he made good on the wager!
In March 1978, David Smith became mayor of Newark!
The following months were not easy since three months after his election as mayor, Proposition 13 passed - a huge budget impact for Newark - followed by innumerable meetings to deal with the challenge. "It seemed like we were meeting every other night!" In the wake of Proposition 13, Dave says, "We adopted a conscious effort to be proactive in soliciting businesses that were going to generate other sources of revenue for us."
Dave notes that throughout his tenure, he has been blessed with an incredible staff. He quips, "Although every mayor will tell you that, I am the only one telling you the truth!" He adds, "We were inventing the Newark Way - teamwork - without calling it that." Consensus is important for success, trying to get as many people as possible to agree. He adds, "The boat is not ready to sail if you have half the folks in and half of them out."
Thirty-three years later, Dave says, "Newark is a special community with special feelings and special values... a city where you can work, live and play. The spirit of Newark is built on the shoulders of those who have come before. At a recent volunteer recognition event, Newark citizens, from age 17 to 93, gathered to honor their city. It continues on: how can you not feel good about that?"
Mayor David Smith concludes that the reason for his longevity in office and what "revved my engine every day" was "being part of a winning team." He is confident that that team will continue its winning ways under the direction of his friend and fellow councilmember, Mayor Alan Nagy.