It’s hard to know where to begin the daunting task of describing the many facets of Charlie Smith and what he meant to the disability community. He was an entrepreneur and the founder of Access Press; he held the position of Editor and Publisher for more than ten years. He was a passionate and committed advocate and activist, he was a mentor and a role model. He was a loving brother and uncle, and a devoted friend. He was a sports fan. He loved reggae music, good blues, Kentucky Fried Chicken, White Castle hamburgers, and enjoyed a good beer every now and then. He loved warm, sunny Minnesota summer days, and being out and about, tooling around taking in the sights of the city. He enjoyed a good poker game, or a game of backgammon. He took great pleasure in keeping a salt-water aquarium and watching the brightly colored tropical fish swimming around inside it. He loved his two cats, Lizzy and Jasmine.
Charlie became a quadriplegic in 1967 as a result of a diving accident at the age of 14. He fell from a diving board onto the concrete below and sustained a spinal chord injury at the C 4 and 5 level. He tried his hand at college, but found the party scene more interesting. In 1981 he entered the Residence at Courage Center for rehabilitation. After leaving Courage Center, he explored several business options, but nothing gave him the personal satisfaction he was seeking. As he moved through the adjustment process of living with a significant disability, he began looking around for a way to combine what he had learned with a desire to help others in similar situations.
He looked at other minority communities and saw they had tabloid newspapers that provided a vehicle for communication, education, and information within these communities. The disability community had no such tool. In 1990, with the assistance and support of his parents, Bill and Renee Smith, he founded Access Press, the disability community newspaper.
In the early days, the Access Press offices were in the basement of Charlie’s parents. His parents provided administrative, financial, and emotional support. After his mother’s death in 1993, Charlie’s father moved from the old house to a building across the street and the Access Press offices moved with him. His father continued to provide guidance and financial support. Then in 1996 when Charlie’s father died the disability community came together to help him restructure the paper. It became a 501 (c) 3 nonprofit corporation. As a result, Charlie was able to pursue grant opportunities, and the offices were relocated to the Griggs Midway Building in the Midway area of St. Paul.
Access Press grew in its importance to the community as a vehicle to educate consumers about issues such as health care, employment, housing, transit, education, and disability culture. It became a way for people with disabilities to communicate with each other. Decision-makers learned to read Access Press to get the pulse of the community. Funders began to recognize and acknowledge its place in the disability community, and Charlie’s efforts at fund-raising began to pay off. By the time he became ill, he had built the paper to be self-sustaining through grants and advertising sales.
Through it all, Charlie grew in his understanding of the issues facing people with disabilities. He developed a style of advocacy that was fierce in its passion and commitment to the civil rights of people with disabilities. His gentle, quiet power put him at the core of the heart and soul of the disability community. If decision-makers wanted to know what the community was thinking, Charlie was one of the first to be consulted.
Often the phone would ring at the Access Press office and it would be a community member wanting to talk to Charlie about an issue. He knew when to listen when it was called for and when to give help when it was needed. He considered it part of his job as editor and as advocate to step in personally when he thought he could make a difference.
As a colleague, Charlie practiced advocacy the old-fashioned way. When an advocate would speak out and say something difficult that needed to be said, Charlie would pipe up and say, “That’s the thing ” He would continue to affirm the point that was being made. It was a level of unwavering and unconditional support that is rarely seen in the community today.
When tension would build and passions arose in one of the seemingly endless meetings he attended as an advocate, Charlie would ease the tension with some sarcastic remark. His humor always made the hard work of social change move along a little smoother.
As a journalist, he knew when to push hard and ask the difficult questions. While the person being asked the question may have been uncomfortable, his journalistic intuition was usually right on target. In his position as editor of Access Press, he presented the issues fairly, but was able to maintain his integrity in the way he expressed his values and opinions.
Charlie cast a commanding shadow in the community. It’s likely that he, himself, failed to fully understand the depth and breadth of his impact on people’s lives until the last couple of months of his life. He received cards, letters, E-mails, phone calls, tapes, and flowers while in the hospital all from people who wanted him to know they were thinking about him after he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. At first it overwhelmed him, and then he began to accept and appreciate the outpouring of love from the people with whom he lived and worked. He joked that, “I’m going to have to keep a social calendar when I get out of here.”
Outside of his very public role of editor and activist in the disability community, Charlie was an intensely private person. He drew support from his family and close friends. His nieces Katie, Maggie, and Renee, and his nephew Alexander gave him great joy. He took pleasure in watching them grow. He looked forward to weekends when the family would get together. He kept toys in the Access Press office for the children to play with when they came to visit. He knew that he could always count on his sister Bridget, his brother Bill, and sisters-in-law Jenny and Diane to be there whenever he needed them. A conversation with Charlie almost always included some story about one or more family member.
He came to feel and appreciate the sense of pride his father and mother would have taken in his accomplishments and in who he had become.
He loved the family cabin and the long weekend breaks he sometimes took from the paper and from the clamor of community noise. He looked forward to sitting out on his pontoon boat where he’d drop a line in, not caring whether he caught anything.
In the spirit of the brotherhood of quadriplegics, Charlie enjoyed taking winter vacations in warm places like Mexico or Hawaii. Last August several advocates traveled to Chicago for a conference on Social Security Work Incentives. The air-conditioning in the room was turned up too high. One advocate related going outside to warm up and seeing Charlie there, trying to get warm, basking in the sun “like a Bassett hound,” and smoking a cigarette.
To be counted among his close friends was an honor and a privilege. He was fiercely loyal and would fight to protect those he loved from any hardship. His quiet reserve sometimes hid the depth of feeling that was present behind those deep brown eyes, but his actions often gave way to his unspoken love and caring. He was always there to listen at the other end of the phone. His friendship was a treasured gift. Just as large as the shadow he cast is the hole he leaves in the hearts of those whose lives he touched.
The word hero is too often over-used, but the disability community has lost a true hero in Charlie Smith. In his humble way, he would hate being singled out for such an accolade. Oh well, get over it, Charlie! Those of us who knew and loved him will keep his place at the table as we carry on the advocacy work to improve the lives of people with disabilities that we began together.
Be at peace, Charlie Smith.