On April 17 I wrote a letter that I need to tell you about. It is a letter I wrote to former Tribune columnist Slim Smith, telling him I would not be reinstating him at the Tribune when his prison term is up at the beginning of July.
For newcomers to the Tribune, Smith was our East Valley community columnist.
He and I had worked together at the newspaper since 1998. For most of those years he was the newspaper’s sports editor, guiding us through the spectacular 2001 World Series between the Diamondbacks and New York Yankees.
But in mid-2004 when we had an opening for an East Valley columnist, Smith applied for the job, explaining that he wanted to devote full time to writing and about something other than sports.
I don’t know if he was an immediate success, but it didn’t take him long to start getting noticed by readers.
Smith wasn’t your traditional news columnist. He cared more about everyday people than politics, but when he did write about politics, boy, could he make you laugh. His interpretation of one Mesa City Council meeting was nothing short of hysterical as he took you behind the council members’ public masks and into their minds.
But mostly Smith liked to write about people who were not in the limelight, such as the homeless man who lost his residence under a tree on a vacant lot in Gilbert when the tree was cut down.
He wrote a lot about people in the East Valley and their surroundings when, a year ago, he walked more than 100 miles from the south East Valley to the north East Valley.
His humble beginnings in rural Mississippi. His affection for the writing of William Faulkner. The Sunday I stumbled across him at Barnes and Noble quietly reading in the corner. The photo he took with an unnamed little girl in a bonnet at the Gilbert Constitution Days that sparked a couple of columns and a lot of e-mail.
It all added up to an exceptional journalist. Learned, yet rooted in common values.
On Feb. 6, Smith asked to meet with me, deputy editor for news Chris Coppola, and East Valley editor Patti Epler.
In the meeting, he told us that he soon would be facing trial on a DUI charge. He was only slightly over the legal limit, he said, but he faced serious prison time because he revealed it was his third DUI, dating back to a difficult divorce.
I was determined not to lose this talented writer and hoped that he could weather prison time and the coming storm of criticism from readers and fellow staffers.
But that was before I had read through all the reports. That was before I did the math that added up to three DUIs in four years. That was before I learned that in 2003 he had spent 30 days in the county jail, coming to work under a work-release program.
That was before I learned from another publication that Smith spent 48 hours in jail last September for driving on a suspended license in Mesa. That was before I learned that in January he was arrested again in Mesa for driving on a suspended license.
I wondered how often Smith had driven on a suspended license to gather material for his Tribune columns, and thought about our company policy that requires writers to provide us every year with copies of a valid driver’s license and insurance.
I hadn’t been especially diligent in enforcing this requirement, preferring to trust people to follow the rules. Not any more.
In my April 17 letter, I wrote Smith to tell him that he would not be reinstated at the Tribune. I urged him to find strength from within and from family and friends, not from hopes of returning to his columnist job.
Now I’m writing to you because I know that a number of you were looking forward to seeing Smith’s columns once more in the Tribune.
Smith’s ex-wife, Susan Smith-Wildin, has written the Tribune urging readers to send him letters or cards of encouragement. I think that would be a good idea. His address:
Tim Smith ADC#215980
P.O. Box 9200
Florence, AZ 85232-9200