On Sani­bel, you never know what sto­ries your neigh­bors have to tell. Meet the man who helped make the To­day show a suc­cess

Times of the Islands - - Departments - BY MIKE EISGRAU

Friendly Neigh­bors

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.

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