During Charlie Smith’s 47 years, he impacted the lives of people from a wide array of backgrounds and persuasions. On Sunday, June 3rd “Charlie Smith Day” in the state of Minnesota more than one hundred of those people gathered at the Phalen Park Pavilion in Saint Paul, Minnesota to remember the life and work of this remarkable man.
Sponsored by Access Press, with help from many organizations and people in the disability community, the event served as a rally and rededication to the spirit of Charlie and how he lived his life as a quiet, determined, and resilient fighter for disability and human rights.
As the late-day sun broke through the clouds and splashed bright, clear light onto the pavilion floor, a parade of speakers gave the audience a variety of vivid impressions and memories of the late Access Press co-founder and publisher. In the eyes of the event’s opening speakers Senator Paul Wellstone, U.S. Representative Betty McCollum, and County Commissioner Pete McLaughlin Charlie was remembered as a teacher. Wellstone remarked, “If I had to identify one of my real teachers in the community, it was Charlie Smith.” McLaughlin added that “Charlie Smith had a clear agenda and there was no backing down.”
Long-time activist Jeff Bangsberg illustrated McLaughlin’s point with an anecdote of Charlie as an advocate. In 1996, Charlie led a demonstration at the Governor’s office. When the group demanded that they be allowed to speak directly to the Governor about PCA/TEFRA legislation, they were told that the Governor was unavailable. To this, Charlie replied plainly and firmly, “We’ll just wait here, then.” And wait they did. To protect his fellow demonstrators, Charlie had even arranged for an attorney to be present, aware of the possibility that group members might be jailed for using such tactics. However, much to the delight of the demonstrators and much to the consternation of the State Troopers present no one could figure out how to transport the “Wheelchair Dozen” to jail!
Former state representative Lee Greenfield commended Charlie for his solid journalism. Greenfield pointed out to those in attendance that Charlie was not like the average journalist. For one thing, Greenfield said, “When Charlie Smith interviewed you, you knew that he knew what he was talking about.” Charlie often was invited out into the community to speak to children about disability culture and issues. A touching moment came when some St. Paul schoolchildren spoke of the impact Charlie’s efforts had on them. Two notes written by these grade schoolers appear elsewhere on this page.
Rick Cardenas, a longtime friend of Charlie, presented the audience with a view into their friendship. He remembered that they could talk together about music, beer, and women, topics that one “can’t talk to just anybody about.”
Charlie’s well-deserved reputation as a family man also received mention in the memorial. As Senator Wellstone said with conviction “He was a great uncle to his nieces and nephews.”
Representative McCollum spoke for many when she said that “The best way to honor Charlie’s spirit is to pass on the knowledge.” Margot Imdieke Cross pointed out that Charlie’s legacy goes beyond simply knowing, reminding those present that “Charlie Smith was a man of action.”
Many of the presenters spoke of Charlie’s strengths with a call to the audience to carry on in honor of the example that he set. Access Press Board Member Steve Kuntz promised that “We will carry on the torch, Charlie.”
The following are two letters from young students at a St. Paul grade school. They were read at the June 3rd Charlie Smith Day event:
“We had a man named Charlie come into our classroom. He was in a wheelchair because when he was little it was a hot summer day and he and this girl were standing on a diving board. She was being funny and pushed him. He was trying to catch himself but instead of going into the water he fell on the concrete and from that day on he was in a wheelchair and in very critical condition. A couple of weeks ago he died and everyone he knows really misses him a lot. In loving memory of Charlie.”
“I did not know Charlie well over his lifetime. All I know is he was a good man. He came to our class. I was sad for him, but I got to know him well. I loved him, just like you. He made me a NEW person. He’s not in my family, but I loved him, it is sad. He was a great man he forgave people. We will miss him for the great things he did. He is gone but his soul will live on. He did great things in his lifetime, but he’s in a better place and we will miss him every day. He is up in heaven and he is watching us every day with joy, hoping we will be strong, rejoicing in the sky above. He was the best man in the world, too. But one thing he was strong.”