Journalist Jeff Smith — known for his pull-out-the-stops, devil-be-damned, sometimes profound and nearly always entertaining columns — has died.
He was 67.
Family members said they became concerned on Monday after not hearing from Smith for a couple of days, and a paramedic later found him dead at his home in Patagonia.
“It looked for all the world like dad had been reading a book and just decided to nap,” said Liza Smith, a daughter who lives in Tucson.
“His glasses and a book were by his side,” she said. “It looked as if he had quietly passed away. My feeling is that it was Saturday night, but it’s not certain.”
She said the cause of death was possibly a heart attack or stroke but hasn’t yet been determined.
A STORIED CAREER
Smith’s years as a journalist included a seven-year stint at the Arizona Daily Star, eight years at the Tucson Citizen and runs as a columnist at the New Times alternative newspaper in Phoenix and the Tucson Weekly.
He wrote editorials and covered television matters along the way — but it was his work as a happily off-the-wall columnist that won him devoted fans and snarling detractors.
His work was both revered and reviled.
“Jeff was one of the best and brightest in the business — one of the best writers I have ever been around,” said Carla McClain, a former newspaper colleague and close friend of Smith in recent years.
“He wrote everything straight off the top of his head, and it worked,” McClain said.
But his work was often flamingly irreverent and offensively — to some readers — politically incorrect.
He would reel off hard-edged, ad hominem salvos at politicians he didn’t agree with — from Pima County supervisors to former Tucson mayors.
He also moved close to the cliff of sexism — or fell right over it — on some occasions. In one instance, for example, he described two well-endowed actresses as “the four most prominent stars in television today.”
Many readers thought he ought to be fired for such observations and what they saw as glaring inaccuracies in his work.
“And he was fired a few times,” recalled his friend McClain. “He was always pushing the envelope.”
Smith’s life changed abruptly on an autumn day in 1981.
He and a group of friends, including former Star reporter Dan Sorenson, were riding their motorcycles on a rain-soaked rural road in New Mexico. Smith was riding very, very fast.
“We found him off the road. He had hit a tree,” Sorenson said.
The result: Smith was paralyzed from the chest down and would remain a paraplegic for the rest of his life.
He vowed not to let it slow him down or silence his writer’s voice.
He returned to motorcycle riding on a specially built bike — and he continued his pithy brand of journalism, winning awards for his work along the way.
“After the accident, many of us wondered: How will he go on?” McClain said. “But he handled that loss so gallantly and courageously. He just gritted his teeth and took on life.”
Said Smith’s daughter, Liza: “Often I just forgot he was a paraplegic. He would get down on the ground and work on things under his truck. He didn’t let anything stop him. He was amazing.”
Plans are pending for a memorial event for Smith.
Contact reporter Doug Kreutz at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 573-4192. On Twitter: @DouglasKreutz