On Sanibel, you never know what stories your neighbors have to tell. Meet the man who helped make the Today show a success
Alan Smith never dreamed that in one year he’d be wearing two different uniforms. That year was 1951, the year in which he was drafted into the U. S. Army for service in Korea, just months after donning the uniform of a page, or tour guide, at NBC in New York.
That’s not the only surprise for this longtime resident of Periwinkle Park, a mobile home community on Sanibel Island, where he has been happily retired since early 1995. Little did he know that the brief experience as an NBC page eventually would lead to his becoming managing editor for the network’s Today show.
Smith is a quiet man, sitting in his small but comfortable Periwinkle Park home, his calm eyes smiling through big wire- rimmed glasses, his pleasant face encircled by a white neatly- trimmed beard, topped with a rather impressive mustache. And his open- collar, red- knitted sport shirt belies his 83 years on this earth.
Talk about rising through the ranks. In the Army Smith started as a private, and two years later in 1953, he was honorably discharged as a sergeant. At NBC News the former military man started as a copy boy and worked his way up to the top in the broadcast and entertainment industries.
A native New Yorker, Smith is a product of the city’s public school system. His dad was a senior editor, covering nightclubs and vaudeville for the famous music entertainment journal Billboard magazine. He wanted Alan to become a lawyer.
Smith had other plans. He graduated Syracuse University in 1951 with a degree in speech and dramatic arts, with heavy concentrations in broadcasting and journalism. His summer job was as a copy boy for the old New York Daily Mirror. Although his dad was not thrilled, that summer job landed his son a similar position across town at NBC.
The NBC News copy boy met, fell in love and married a lovely gal named Helane Hecht, who was a production assistant for one of the first TV news shows in history, the Camel News Caravan with John Cameron Swayze. The NBC job eventually gave Alan the chance to join the Today show staff. His title was news and features assistant, in other words a fancy union name for gofer.
Smith gathered national weather information for Dave Garroway, the show’s original host. His other job was more interesting: scouring New York City for unusual filler to be talked about each day on air. Garroway loved gadgets, and Smith found them for him to use on the show.
After two years and much pleading, he was given a two- week trial as a Today writer/ producer— and never looked back. Smith talks about his time working with Garroway, “He could be very stubborn, but was a remarkable talent.” When the star blasted him on a story in front of everyone, the young writer quit. Back home the phone rang and it was the show’s host apologizing as the staff listened. “When a star as important as Garroway apologizes in person . . . from then on I would have walked through fire for him,” recalls Smith.
On the set, Smith had the opportunity to work with celebrities from Barbara Walters, who he describes as a hardworking, driven perfectionist, to news anchors Hugh Downs and John Chancellor. He rose to become managing editor of Today, overseeing all of the staff and feature material that filled each day’s broadcast.
More opportunities presented themselves for Smith, and he accepted the position of planning manager for NBC’s election unit in 1972, the year President Richard Nixon ran against Senator George McGovern for re- election. It was a time when computers filled entire rooms, and he recalls raising his hand, showing his watch and saying to his colleagues: “There’s more memory in this watch than in that entire computer room!”
Then in 1976 Smith received an offer he couldn’t refuse. It was from the president
of the major music licensing organization Broadcast Music Inc. ( BMI)— and a chance for something new. He finished his career in 1995 as BMI’s vice president of research and information.
Moving into the golden years, Smith and his wife began traveling the country in their RV, until Smith realized that he really wanted to settle down. When the couple arrived on Sanibel Island, they had no thoughts of looking any further. “Sanibel is unlike any other place we’ve ever been, a community unto itself,” he says. And as for Periwinkle Park, “It is a trailer park of sorts, but with retired doctors, dentists, engineers. The level of education and intellect is very high,” he says of his neighbors.
On Sanibel the couple quickly found volunteer work to be rewarding, and they now spend time helping out at Big Arts, the local cultural center at the Herb Strauss Theater, and as guides at the Sanibel Historical Museum and Village. This year Smith joined a morning “Koffee Klatch,” where his eclectic neighbors take on most every topic except religion and politics.
Among them is Bruce Richardson, who says of his Koffee Klatch friend, “He cares. The first thing he says is ‘ How can we help?’ And he doesn’t expect anything from you.”
More important, says Richardson, “No matter what your background is— how much you’ve accomplished or how little— he’s a colleague, an equal and never superior in his demeanor.”
When Smith, who has a son, two daughters and five grandkids, is asked what his family should be most proud of him for, he replies, “Probably and truthfully as a guy who didn’t give them a bad time.” Adding, “after a life of hard work, not enough time.”
But truth be told, Smith just hopes that colleagues and family will see him as “someone who somehow, somewhere, made a difference— as a guy who has had some positive effect on their lives.”
The Smith clan. From left to right: Alan and Helane Smith, Melanie Sendrovitz ( foreground), Debbie Smith, Richard Sendrovitz, W ayne Zukin, Lily Zukin, Susan Smith, Isaac Zukin, Rick Smith and Sarah Smith
Alan Smith and his wife Helane proudly celebrate a milestone few couples reach: their 60th wedding anniversar y.