In the News
By Pam Kragen
In his 91 years of life, Stan Smith was a sailor, a male model, a big-band drummer and a real estate appraiser. But it was his late-in-life vocation as a military historian that became the Rancho Bernardo veteran’s all-consuming passion and pride before his death on Tuesday.
As the volunteer director for the Veterans History Project in San Diego for the past six years, Smith spent up to 30 hours a week recording the war and peacetime stories of aging veterans for the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. He felt San Diego’s “old gray-haired” men and women like himself deserved to have their stories preserved before they were lost, as World War II veterans are dying at a rate of 348 per day.
“These guys were getting killed in battle, starving in prison camps and freezing to death in Korea. People are forgetting. They should know the severity of what these old guys went through,” Smith said in a 2017 interview with The San Diego Union-Tribune.
Smith said he made the recordings not just for the veterans, but in memory of his older brother, Charlie, who was killed during the Allied invasion of Sicily in 1943. Smith was only 15 when his brother died, and his mother refused to sign his enlistment papers for fear of losing a second son to the war. Although he did serve for two years in the Navy after he turned 18 in 1946, Smith felt he hadn’t properly paid his dues.
“People say it’s wrong, but I can’t help regretting all my life that I wasn’t able to serve in the war,” he said in 2017. “That’s why I interview these veterans — to hear what they went through. I was on a two-year cruise. It was nothing like what they saw.”
In 2013, Smith was creating a memory wall for his brother in his home and called his congressman, Rep. Scott Peters, about getting a duplicate Purple Heart medal issued for Charlie, since the original was lost. That’s when he discovered the Veterans History Project. Smith volunteered to help and conducted more than 25 oral history interviews on behalf of Peters’ office. Then in 2016, he transferred over to working directly for the Veterans History Project through the Veterans Museum at Balboa Park.
“He served our nation as a sailor, and he served our nation as a veteran, ensuring that the stories of other veterans were recorded and preserved in perpetuity so future generations will understand the service and sacrifice made by the Greatest Generation,” Peters said on Thursday. “We are deeply grateful to him and my deepest condolences go out to his loved ones.”
Over the years, Smith recorded more than 100 oral histories of San Diego County veterans. Two years ago, he took on two volunteers to help with his work, personal assistant and archivist Sara Kadowaki and videographer Tom Szymarek. Kadowaki said she enjoyed watching Smith work because he had such a gracious manner with the veterans.
“He’d get them to open up and talk and made them feel really important and interesting,” Kadowaki said. “Doing these interviews became Stan’s purpose in life. It kept him going. Even two weeks ago, he told me he wasn’t ready to pass the job off to me yet. It was too important to him to let it go.”
Despite congestive heart failure and other health troubles in recent months, Smith kept recording interviews right up until he went on home hospice care three weeks ago, according to his daughter, Deborah Zampini of Sabre Springs, who attended her dad’s last recording session with her brother, Kevin, and sister, Kim.
“When they did his last filming, my dad was too weak to do the interview,” Zampini said. “He had his assistant Sara take over and he went back to his bedroom to lay down. He knew it was his last one, and we did, too, so we wanted to be there for him.”
Born on Jan. 24, 1928, Smith was raised in Washington, D.C., where his mom worked as a clerk for the Veterans Administration. At 15, he dropped out of school to help support the family as an errand boy. After serving two years on the USS Salisbury Sound, a seaplane tender, he got a job at a real estate office. He supplemented his income modeling for magazines and newspapers and spent six nights a week drumming for big bands.
One wall of his Rancho Bernardo home was covered with photos of stars he met and worked with during his drumming days, including Nat King Cole, Frankie Laine, Tony Bennett, Gene Krupa, Sophie Tucker and Eartha Kitt.
His first marriage, which produced a son, didn’t survive his years as a late-night musician. But a later, more stable 60-year career in real estate was more conducive for family. His second marriage lasted 27 years and produced four more children. Zampini said that true to her father’s good nature, he remained friendly with both ex-wives, and the children from both unions were very close.
Smith was working as an appraiser for the federal government when he first visited Los Angeles in 1971 and was so smitten with the weather, he moved his family permanently to Rancho Bernardo the following year. He continued working as an appraiser until retiring at 82. Zampini, who followed her dad into the appraisal business, said her father was well-known in the local real estate industry and was beloved for his outgoing personality, impeccable grooming and attire, good manners and sharp memory.
“He was so sentimental and empathetic to everyone. He had the biggest soft heart and was very generous. He was always opening the door for everyone and never met a stranger,” she said.
Smith is survived by his children: Stephen A. Baker of Tustin; Kevin M. Smith of San Diego; Deborah Zampini of Sabre Springs and Kimberly Smith of 4S Ranch. He was pre-deceased by daughter, Robin Smith. He is also survived by daughter-in-law Echo Baker and son-in-law Jason Zampini and grandchildren Daniel and Eric Baker and Taylor and Delaney Zampini.
A celebration of life will be held at 4 p.m. April 28 at the Church of Rancho Bernardo, 11740 Bernardo Plaza Court in Rancho Bernardo. His ashes will be interred at 9 a.m. April 29 at Miramar National Cemetery.
Kadowaki and Szymarek say they plan to carry on the work that Smith started. Veterans who would like to be interviewed for the project can call Kadowaki for an appointment at (858) 487-8437.