Legendary Tucson Journalist Jeff Smith Dies

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I blundered into the newspaper racket at a time when practically anybody with a pulse and a vocabulary in triple digits could get a job.

I barely could type my name, never had taken a journalism course, but I was willing to work for $120 a week (pretax) as long as they let me write news stories like novellas.

They did and I did and the rest was a happy tale interrupted periodically by a fit of principle — mine or theirs — or an offense-taking by a publisher or his wife.

—Jeff Smith, Tucson Citizen, Dec. 28, 2007

When I was a young paperboy folding my copies of the Tucson Citizen after I got home from school each day, I always scanned the paper to find Jeff Smith’s column. It was lightning in print, the kind of writing that leapt off the page and into your imagination. He was funny and irreverent and he raised hell.

I never imagined back in those days that I’d one day have the privilege of working with Smith at the Tucson Weekly. And I certainly never imagined I'd one day be writing Smith’s obit.

But here I am, saddened to report that one of Arizona’s journalistic legends has passed away. He was 67.

Details on Smith’s passing are sketchy as I write this, but his ex-wife, Barbara Smith, told me this afternoon that Jeff passed away sometime over the weekend.

As Barbara understands it, “He just sort of went to sleep. I think it was peaceful for him.”

Although they were divorced, Barbara remained friends with Jeff and said earlier today that in recent years, they had spoken almost daily.

Smith loved many things in life: His kids, Liza and Caleb. Motorcycles. Horses. Hard work. Cormac McCarthy. And, of course, guns.

Mark Kimble, a longtime friend and Smith’s editor at the Tucson Citizen, remembers that he was concerned after a New Mexico motorcycle accident left Smith in a wheelchair.

“After his motorcycle accident, I was quite worried about what would become of him,” Kimble says. “But he was basically the same energetic, enthusiastic person he was before. As he always said, he was just a few feet shorter.”

Kimble calls Smith “an extremely gifted writer.”

“He loved Southern Arizona very much and that’s what he wanted to write about more than anything,” Kimble says. “He had a house that he built, mostly by hand, himself, in Patagonia, out in the middle of nowhere, and he was happiest just being there.”

Former Tucson Weekly editor and publisher Doug Biggers, who hired Smith as a columnist in the mid-’80s, calls Smith “one of the best writers the Weekly ever published.”

“He was a legend in Tucson journalism,” Biggers says.

We'll have more on Smith in the days to come, but you can peruse his Tucson Weekly columns here and his Tucson Citizen columns here.

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