Creative Commons License
Super Friends by Whitney Holwadel Smith is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
Based on a work at whit-superfriends.blogspot.com. Super Friends: 2009

Monday, December 28, 2009

More photos

A few more photos I just scanned. I've arranged them in chronological order. 








January 1985


Not sure of the date



1985


April 1987 (3rd birthday)



December 1991
Whit and his beloved Milli
(wearing the Santa Kid cap)



Summer 1992



December 1992

 
May 1992



Spring 1992
Camping in our little
pop-up trailer.



Fishing at Aunt Carolyn and Uncle Andy's
Spring 1992



Birthday 1993



Fall 1993



August 1996
Whit and I took a road trip to visit
my friend Carl McIntyre in Charlotte, NC



October 1996
Whit, Milli and Spike



October 1997
Howe Military School, where
Whit attended 8th grade



July 1998
Fishing at Aunt Carolyn's again



August 1999
Whit and Uncle Andy (my sister's late husband) baiting a hook




August 1999



August 1999



August 1999



August 1999



1999
Another road trip, this time to West Virginia

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Reflections - past and present - on the season



This may be the first incarnation of "Santa Kid." Like all children, Whit had boundless enthusiasm for the season. In his case this included becoming what we all referred to as Santa Kid. Some years he would just wear the hat, but it was a family tradition right up until our last Christmas as a family.

Whit and I wrote annually about what the season meant to us and how we were handling the separation. Here are some excerpts from letters in 2008/2009. Ellipses are where I cut.

To Whit, December 9, 2008

...Speaking of which, it's getting time to pull out my DVD of "It's a Wonderful Life" again. That's the other tradition I observe, along with reading that Washington Irving Christmas chronicle "Old Christmas." I put up a few small decorations in the house, as much for visitors (including I suppose Maryl) as for myself, and continue to forego a tree until you're home again. It's not in the spirit of a sacrifice, but rather because I simply don't feel like it. I've always loved the days leading up to Christmas, but those feelings aren't so much associated with a religious view - though there is, I suppose, a residual non-denominational component to it - as a general feeling of, or at least longing for, a connectedness with family. Partly an appreciation for what is, and partly a nostalgic desire for what isn't. My feelings for the movie reflect all this, I think. Visiting Bedford Falls, where ultimately everybody feels interconnected and goodness is finally rewarded, is a welcome if temporary respite from the greed, exploitation and meanness we face every day in Pottersville. Which of course pales in comparison with the levels of this you are surrounded by in the Terre Haute equivalent of Pottersville....

From Whit, December 13, 2008

...I certainly understand the sentiment you attach to the Christmas tree and also your reasoning for not wanting to put one up. I'm actually trying to imagine what I would do in that situation. Actually, I think I would put one up. There's certainly a strong association with family to that particular tradition but it's just that association that would drive me to still bust out the lights and ornaments every December. It would serve as a sort of tribute to the memories of when the family was together and a reminder of what's waiting for us all when (most of) the family is back together again. That's me, though. And chances are how I feel in my imagination is sharply different from how I'd feel in reality....

From Whit, February 17, 2009

...Before I forget! I finished Washington Irving's Old Christmas a few days ago and loved it. While the book's effects would certainly be much greater around the actual Christmas season [the book shipment was predictably delayed in the prison], even reading the book in February provided me with that lighthearted, blissful feeling usually associated with spending time with loved ones around December 25th. The chapter containing an English coachman's dignities was fantastic! Great, great book; one I'm going to keep around to read whenever I'm feeling blue. Thank you for sending it!...

To Whit, February 17, 2009

...I'm really glad to hear you liked Irving's Old Christmas. I have read this at Christmas time every year since I bought the book in 1978, when I found it at the Irving museum (his home) in Tarrytown, NY while I was in that part of the country recruiting for Ohio Wesleyan University. I'm pretty sentimental at heart, and reading the book is a tradition that means a lot to me. The book is full of observations that make sense to me, but one that stands out are these lines: "The world has become more worldly. There is more of dissipation, and less of enjoyment. Pleasure has expanded into a broader, but a shallower stream, and has forsaken many of those deep and quiet channels where it flowed sweetly through the calm bosom of domestic life." (underline mine). That part rings absolutely true with me, the idea that when we expand our pleasures into innumerable divisions, it's inevitable that we can't feel as deeply about any of them, and especially the ones that really matter. It's a wonderful image, reflecting the topographical reality that as a water system widens and splits it becomes shallower. Looking at myself, I seem to have a few things that I look to for pleasure - the guitar, photography, motorcycling, a renewed interest in astronomy - in addition to my work. But it's always been important to me to keep my life relatively simple, focusing on family and friends, keeping that as the deep center of my life and making decisions based on cultivating and honoring that most meaningful part of me. Irving's language is of course highly antiquated, with many of the words having much different meanings from their current usage ("...the calm bosom of domestic life..." sounds really corny even to me), but I can easily overlook that when I remember when he was writing. I know what he means, and that's what counts....

From Whit, February 24/25, 2009

...It's funny that you mentioned the line "Pleasure has expanded into a broader but shallower stream" as being one of your favorites in the book because I've got that one underlined as well. It's been a few years since my reading of David Copperfield but from what I remember Irving's style of writing is a lot like Dickens'. Dickens also had that ability to pull out the emotion in his settings and atmospheres. Plus they've both got that 19th century lingo....


This year my coping strategy seems to be blocking out everything associated with Christmas, especially the ornamental and symbolic aspects. Once again there will be no tree, and this time no decorations of any sort. I do have Maryl's and Whit's stockings hung. There's no cause for any "reminder of what's waiting for us all when (most of) the family is back together again."

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A few more photos

Here are a few more I've decided to put up.




Whit and his maternal grandfather at his grandparents'
cabin outside of Madison, Indiana




Fishing in the pond at my sister's rural Ohio home




Whit and his Aunt Jody. I love this photo.


Halloween at our first house. Whit is Wee Willie Winkie. His mom
was amazing with costumes.




On our last trip as a family, in July 1996, we spent 2 weeks in Tuscany.
One day Whit and Maryl explored the shell of a long-abandoned stone
house in the village where we were staying. He found this old,
threadbare wool coat and decided he had to have it. He hardly took
it off for the rest of the vacation, even wearing it through the airports
on our return trip (in July!). This is the front door of the house
we were staying in, not the one they explored!
I still have the coat.

 

One of Whit's family nicknames through childhood
(and even into young adulthood) was Boneman.
It's a long, silly story. Basically he went (as an infant) from
Whitney to Whitty to Wheaty to Wheat Bone to Boneman.
One of those family name evolutions that just happens.
He got this custom made t-shirt for a birthday.




And finally, a snap of Whit likely taken at an Ohio or Kentucky
state park on a family camping trip.




Sunday, November 29, 2009

Portrait of Whit

The other day I received this from one of Whit's friends from Terre Haute. James Remington was transferred to FCI Oakdale in Louisiana a few months ago, but he and I have been exchanging letters. James taught himself to draw in prison, and had sent me photos of a few of his pieces. I think he's really talented, and sent him a couple of books on drawing recently. He also offered to do a portrait of Whit from any photograph I could provide him with, and this is the result. You can see the original photo in the "Photos" folder of the blog. One of the amazing things about this portrait is that it was done with ballpoint pen and crappy paper. That's all he has. Imagine what he could do with pencils, chalk, pastels etc. and good paper. 




Thursday, November 12, 2009

Whit and Maryl

A photo of Whit and his sister Maryl, taken sometime in the winter of 2005 (after Dayton Correctional Institution and before Terre Haute). One of the very few taken during that time.






Whit at 15 or 16. Maryl is two years older.




Whit and Maryl at their grandparents' getaway cabin in Indiana.




Saturday, October 31, 2009

A letter to President Obama

Today I wrote a letter to the President. Not a letter actually, but an e-mail of sorts entered on the White House "Contact" page. We'll see what happens. I'm not sanguine about my prospects of getting to sit down with him, of course, but by now I'm used to getting no or simply unhelpful responses from any person or agency in the government. Writing letters is just something I do, and I've finally decided to take it to the top.

I've also been wanting to post a request for all of you who were dedicated readers before last April and who continue to check on a regular basis. There are any number things about Whit I could post, but I just don't know what you would find interesting or rewarding. Letters he wrote? More photos? More background about Whit? Anything at all? I feel almost guilty that so many of you keep checking only to find nothing new. Or if it's something you'd like me to respond to privately, please feel free to send me an email: jeff.transtech "at" gmail.com.

Here is the text of my letter to Obama:

Dear President Obama,

This past April 4, 2009 Whitney Smith, my only son, apparently took his life. He would have turned 25 on April 10. At the time he was an inmate at the Federal prison in Terre Haute. I say "apparently" because in the intervening 6 months I have tried unsuccessfully to obtain a copy of the Bureau of Prisons investigation of his death. I asked the warden. I wrote the offices of Sherrod Brown and Steve Driehaus, my Senator and Congressman respectively. They eventually informed me I would have to file a request under the Freedom of Information Act. I did so, and the BOP has refused to share the report of my son's death.
I am not writing to ask your help on obtaining the report, but rather to request an opportunity to sit down with you for 30 minutes or less and tell you about what's wrong with our Federal penal system, and how inhumane at worst and arbitrary at best the treatment of prisoners is, beginning as early as the decision as to where to place a just sentenced individual.
I would like to add that Whit had been in solitary confinement for the 15 months prior to his death, and allowed no visits or phone calls. There is more to that than you can possibly imagine.
Full disclosure: I am a registered and liberal Democrat, but I do believe that some people belong in prison and a smaller number should probably never see the outside again. Whit and I knew his incarceration was appropriate. But he was supposed to come home in 3 more years. The old law-and-order refrain "If you can't do the time, don't do the crime" disturbs me. Those people have no idea what doing the time really means in a Federal prison, nor do they care.
I would be grateful for the opportunity to share not only my grief, but also my experiences with the Bureau of Prisons. I would fly to Washington at any time.

Sincerely,
Jeff Smith

Monday, September 21, 2009

Super Friends gathering

In the days after Whit's passing I was fortunate to have a group of close, empathetic friends around me. Right then it occurred to someone that this core of people represented what could be truly called Super Friends in the same sense as Whit applied it to his own friends and the blog itself. We have gathered twice since then, most recently this past weekend at my sister Carolyn's home in northern Ohio. It's a time to remember Whit and reaffirm the bonds we feel between each other.

One of the Super Friends also invited two of her brothers to the gathering. Although I had never met the brothers, the knowledge that one of them lost a son to a heroin overdose a couple of years ago made it natural to include them. Rafe (Raphael) and I felt an immediate bond, and will soon be sharing things about our sons with each other - poems "Little Rafie" had written, a printed copy of Whit's blog for Rafe.

I had wanted to do something special for this 2nd gathering, and found just the thing at a nearby micro-winery. In addition to making and selling wine under their own label, they offer the chance to make and bottle your own, including all the instruction, materials and equipment. After 8 weeks of fermentation, my brother Emory and I bottled and labeled our results last week and were able to give a bottle to each Super Friend. The label I designed is based on a photo I took for Whit in 1998. He and I were on the way back to Howe Military School, where he attended 8th grade, when he noticed a weeping willow tree next to a pond on someone's property. He was so drawn to this scene that he made me get off the road and backtrack to take a photo. I never did learn exactly what it was about this that drew him to that image so spiritually, but I had kept a print to give him when he got home from Terre Haute. Now it seemed like a fitting basis for the wine label. The symbolism is there on many levels of course, including the obvious one of loss and grief common to several cultures; just consider the book The Weeping Willow: Encounters With Grief which appeared in 2007.

I'm attaching an image of the label.

There will be more gatherings of the Super Friends. The next one will be here in Cincinnati, and I extend an invitation to anyone who felt especially close to Whit. Just contact me.

Jeff





Sunday, August 23, 2009

Another letter from Tiny

I've been writing back and forth with Whit's closest friend from Terre Haute, Tiny. He's pictured in the photo of the "Superfriends" in the blog. I am happy to report that Tiny has finished his Federal sentence and is now in an Ohio state prison near Columbus, expecting to go home (near Dayton) in December. At his request, I have been sending him (printed) installments of the blog; Whit started the blog while in the hole, and he and Tiny rarely saw each other during that entire time. I've also visited Tiny in Columbus, and a good friendship is developing. He's a terrific guy, and I can see why he and Whit were so close.

Tiny writes the following in his latest note:

Hi! I just want to write and let you know I appreciate you coming to visit. It let me get away from this place for a while and it was good to be able to talk about Smitty instead of just having things keep bouncing around in my head. I got the latest blog entries yesterday and it gives me something to look forward to, which isn't always possible in a place like this. Reading the blog I found out something I didn't know: Smitty had told me his mom had been killed, but the blog explains all that, I just assumed it was true.

Well, that's about all for now. I hope you have a safe trip to Vermont and back. Write soon.

Your friend,
Tiny

Saturday, August 1, 2009


Terre Haute
July 2006

Monday, July 20, 2009




Photo of Whit taken at a homecoming party given for him by his friend Steve Novotni in January 2005. This was his first night home after release from Dayton Correctional Institution. This was the photo James Remington used to create the drawing he made of Whit.



Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Letter from Tiny

Today I received a letter from Tiny, Whit's longest close friend at Terre Haute. Tiny was transferred not long ago to an Ohio state prison to finish his last 9 months of incarceration. I had gotten a letter from him 10 days ago wondering why he hadn't heard from Whit in a while, updating me on what was new, asking me to tell Whit to write and to pass this along: "Tell Smitty he'll always be my retarded cousin!" Tiny is pictured in the "Super Friends" photo in one of Whit's posts.

I was shocked to learn that Tiny hadn't heard through the grapevine, and writing the letter telling him what happened was a hard thing. I told Tiny that any friend of Whit's is a friend of mine, and that I hoped he would stay in touch and even look me up when he gets out. This is what Tiny wrote today:

Jeff,

You have my deepest sympathies, I can't imagine how hard this has been on you. I got your letter today, during our rec time and I'm reading it in the day room and I broke down crying. I am numb right now. Smitty was like a brother to me. We carried each other through a lot of stuff. Smitty was one of those people that didn't belong where he was at. I have done a lot of time, Jeff, and some people you meet in prison need to be exactly where they are, but not Smitty. He was a good person who just made a few mistakes. I think that is why we got so close, in Smitty I saw myself 20 years ago and I knew he wasn't going to end up like me, not if I could help it. He used to get mad because he thought I was preaching to him, and in reality I guess I was trying to get him to see what life would be like if he didn't wake up and see that this was no way to live. He is my buddy and I am going to miss him a lot. Maybe what you said in your letter was true and he just needed to move on.

If you can, please forward my address and prison number to Doliboa, I still know some staff up there that he might be able to find out something from. You're right when you said that a father deserves an accounting of what happened to his son. My advice on that is to contact your state Representative or Senator in Washington and maybe they can pursue it for you. I have seen several times where that was the way families got their questions answered.

Jeff, I am going to end this by letting you know that you are in my thoughts and that I would like to keep in contact with you if possible.

Your friend,
Tiny


As it happens, I have already contacted both Rep. Steve Driehaus (D-Ohio) and Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) to ask for assistance in obtaining the report of the Bureau of Prisons investigation of Whit's death; I am waiting to hear the results of their efforts. Otherwise I have been unsuccessful, even with the aid of a lawyer who knows an Assistant United States Attorney; the AUSA yesterday indicated that he "cannot comply" with my request, and so I still do not know anything about the circumstances of Whit's death. Either the BOP has something to hide, or it is their general practice to be secretive and uncooperative. In either case it seems unconscionable to add such a bureaucratic nightmare to the grief a parent already feels. On the other hand, based on Whit's 3 years in the "care" of the BOP, it shouldn't surprise me in the least.


Jeff



Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Why

Why is a question everyone who has read Whit's words has asked, whether you've been here since the beginning or just recently found the blog. He didn't leave anything that would shed light, but we can make certain inferences from the blog and what we know of him. I believe the two overwhelmingly powerful factors were the prospect of having as many as 6 or 8 more years added to his sentence and what that meant to his own psyche, and the guilt over thereby letting his family and others down, putting us in the position of having to deal with that. It's more complicated than that, but this is how I see it in broad terms.

Just yesterday I got a letter from a good friend here in Cincinnati who had met Whit only once or twice between his time at Dayton Correctional Institution and Terre Haute, but knows me and and Whit's course very well. She gives weight to the first of the two factors, and in a way that I have thought about but hadn't yet put down on paper so clearly and insightfully. I offer it here to perhaps help some of you who knew him only through the blog understand what happened, and I welcome your comments. I'll reproduce the entire letter here:

Jeff,

This is what I imagine…. Whit was ready to move on. He’d reached a point in his young adulthood where he totally understood it was time for him to grow, to no longer make the same choices and spin the same wheels.

We all reached that at some point in our 20’s, didn’t we? The difference being that Whit was in a system that would not allow him to grow, to change, to move on to another level of maturity and understanding. Whit wanted “to be whole” but there was nothing “whole” in the entire prison system to assist him. The guards weren’t “whole,” the prisoners weren’t “whole,” the system is fractured. And he knew this …. He was ready to grow and evolve. He knew it in every cell of his being. To wait another 8 or 10 years, this was incomprehensible to a 25-year old who was on the cusp, and knew it, but shackled in ways no other 25-year old is.

I’m sorry I haven’t stayed in touch Jeff. I pray you are doing okay.

I will add that these days when I feel self-pity, or stress over job or mortgage etc…. I remind myself that these were the mundane problems in life that Whit prayed for, everyday. These daily stressors of “normal life” were all he wanted in life – just a chance.

I love you Jeff and think of you and Whit frequently,

J.

… and remember, Whit is no longer suffering. He is free and whole!



Thursday, May 14, 2009

Guest Book

I've been exchanging e-mail occasionally with someone who was one of Whit's most appreciative and loyal blog readers. She still checks it nearly every day to see if something new has been posted, but I still don't have a sense of what if anything could be added. Her suggestion was something like a guest book, or as she described it: "... there are days I want to go there and mention that I am thinking of him/you ... or share a memory, or comment on how remembering certain posts made me feel ..."

And so for now I'll put this entry up and open it to comments. Or if anyone has a letter from Whit they'd like to share in whole or in part, feel free to either include the text in your comment or send it to me in an e-mail. And any suggestions for how to get Whit's voice heard in a larger way would be most welcome.

Thanks to all of you for your understanding of what my son was doing, and your appreciation of what he was trying so hard to become under such horrific circumstances and conditions.

I've been asked to make the contact information for memorial donations more conspicuous, in case people missed it in the other folder.

Circle Tail, Inc.
8834 Carey Lane
Pleasant Plain, OH 45162
http://www.circletail.org/

Of course you don't have to fully sponsor a dog, donations of any amount are very much appreciated by Circle Tail. You can specify that it go towards the prison dog program.

Jeff


Tuesday, April 28, 2009

April 2005



This is from the last series of photos I took of Whit before Terre Haute. For his birthday I took him gliding - the first time for both of us. For his actual birthday Diane and I planned a few things like seeing a live acoustic band at a local record store, lunch and frisbee in the park, but Whit said afterwards he really wanted just the two of us to do something. This did the trick. Unsure of the exact date, but around 4 or 5 days after his actual birthday of April 10. The instructor is showing him the controls here. I know I took a lot of photos that afternoon, but this is the only one I can come up with.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

From Emory, also

Read at Whit's memorial:


Hands holding hands, arms embraced, lives entwined, the fabric we share as a human race

In all things done boundaries stretched, each path pursued the soul will test

Heart’s twisted from forces unseen, unnamed; rend from us tears of love and pain

Given sight we stumble, seeing through a prism, given freedom we hesitate and ourselves imprison

What is death’s share of the bargain we make

Wings or flesh, does it give or take

Answers hidden, knowledge in a language unspoken, humanity rises in waves unbroken

Timed to a silent metronome, each wave of life crashes on death’s shore

Breakers uncovering crystals of sparkling sand sliding back into Mother Sea once more

In the face of this spectacle, as answers are sought, there is reawakening to my sense of purpose and thought

A time of remembrance that I am not the sand, the wave nor the sea, but rather, they are me

So we are not Whitney but now he is us. He has been consumed and integrated into each of us that know him. He is nourishing to our beings isn’t he? Between the moments of anguish and ecstasy isn’t life a magnificent struggle? Clarity of purpose and meaning are gifts bestowed to few of us. Questions will always outnumber answers. Pain often outpaces pleasure. It can be hard to feel, let alone measure the benefits that we earn through hardship. While clothed in these human forms we’ll never fully understand what lies behind life’s curtain. But I often think that this life is a lesson in love. In giving, receiving, sharing and expanding our capacity to love under the most trying circumstances

And I could thank you all for joining us today and sharing your love for Whitney and our family, but I only have to open my eyes a little wider to see that there is no ‘you’ and ‘us’. WE are all one family here; all Whit’s family. And I wish the best of luck to each of us in our personal lessons of love.


Friday, April 17, 2009

March 21, 2009

While I still don't have perfect clarity about where the blog goes now, it seems like letters from Whit to me, and perhaps a few to him, might be good. I want to start with the last one I received from Whit, dated March 21, 2009. Although he had had no phone or visiting privileges for over a year - which is not even normal for solitary confinement, which usually allows visits 'through the glass' and monthly phone calls, he was able now and then to sweet talk a CO into letting him call me. He'd obviously written this just after the last call. There is nothing unusual about this letter. References to the exchange rate reflect his awareness that it affects my income. "Grandpa" is his maternal grandfather, whom he was close with and who manages my IRA - beautifully, under the circumstances. Other comments in brackets will always be mine.

Hey Dad!

What's crackin'? Another great call today. Hopefully you enjoyed it at least half as much as I did. What's kind of weird is the fact that in situations like that when there are a hundred different things to talk about, conversation is sometimes the toughest because I never know what is important enough to justify spending one of those fifteen precious minutes talking about. You sounded good. Glad you were able to get out in the yard today (or a few days ago, by the time this arrives.) I know it's looking like a fantastic day out this way.

Sounded like things are running pretty smoothly back home, which is really great to know. Actually, without attempting to make myself sound self-pitying or whatever, it seems almost inconceivable to me to live a life where for weeks and often months no major dramas occur either to me or at least within my vicinity. Yet another thing I'm looking forward to when coming home.

Hey! I noticed the U.S. dollar has been taking a major pounding lately! Yay! I know on Thursday, the last rate I've seen, it was back to well over $1.30 versus the Euro. Seems kind of unusual when our stock markets are strengthening. Why is that? Does it have to do with all the new money the Fed. Reserve is pumping into the country? This is another reason why I'm looking forward so much to doing an economics course or two from O.U. Even if I don't do exceptionally well with the material, I should at least have a decent understanding of it which should mean the things I read in the money section of the newspaper take on a whole new meaning. Well, if not NEW than at least a greater meaning.

Thanks for explaining the situation with your investments/IRA a little more. You mentioned that you've lost 1/3 to 1/2 of the value compared to 2 years ago. Can you elaborate on that a little more? For a simple example, let's say your IRA was worthy $10,000 two years ago and then... oh, reading that passage again I understand now so no need to elaborate. Wow, that sucks. Such a considerable loss seems astounding when I consider the fact that Grandpa was managing your portfolio throughout this entire time. That means that either he made some seriously bad decisions or I guess it means that a lot of other people came out a lot worse than you. What a depressing topic, though. Moving on...

I really like your idea of converting your backyard into a landscaped garden. Yeah, it's not a whole lot of space but then again, I learned from our tomato growing adventures that sometimes it only takes a few plants to produce quite a bit of food at certain times. Those tomatoes were definitely delicious, although even with oregano, six or seven a day got to be a little much. Well, whenever your garden plan happens to come to fruition, I do have one request - sugar snap peas, and lots of them.

Great pictures!! Of downtown and Hyde Park Square. I'd forgotten that the fountains wouldn't have actually been turned on, though. Oh well, it was still a refreshing sight. I've got two of them taped up to The Wall next to my bunk.
[Whit had recently asked me to take and send photographs of two locations in Cincinnati that had special meaning for him.]

It's nice that you went to Esme's memorial. Were there very many people there who didn't actually know Tom, Lisa or Esme and were just there to show support? Reading about the drawings she'd done as a kid hanging from the walls at the memorial at first made me consider how, despite what difficulties we had (and still have, sometimes), things could still be worse. But then I realized the condition Esme's parents must be in having endured the worst-case scenario. The way you described your state during the service was vivid. I'm trying to find a way to empathize but it seems impossible. You've endured an incredible amount during your life and now this tragedy which, even at its distance, is much too close for comfort. I wish I could offer some advice or say something hopeful. You're the Dad, though - that's your job :-). You're in my mind all the time, whatever that's worth. Hopefully you're able to keep in mind how much good you've done in your life and how much success you've had. Without even mentioning the obvious things like a Ph.D., a great house with friends who care a lot about you, and just generally being a man someone should strive to be, there's also me. The fact that I've been in quite a bit of trouble throughout my life is a reflection of my failures as a son. But the fact that a kid like me who dropped out after 9 years of school can be at least moderately intelligent and open-minded as I am is a concrete example of your success as a father. I've been incredibly lucky to have the father I do.

Alright, I'm going to let you go now. Hopefully this finds you in much better spirits than you were in when you wrote this letter of the 12th. Thank you for being so open with me, though. I miss you and love you.

Your son,
Whit


Wednesday, April 15, 2009

From Brian

Diane read this from Brian at Whit's memorial.

When I first arrived at USP Terre Haute I knew there was not going to be a lot of people that I could count on. In a place where you always have to watch your back and automatically know to trust no one you have to be careful who you become friends with. Smitty was one of the first people I met. From the very beginning he looked out for me, giving me my first pair of shoes and shorts, and ultimately preparing me for what to expect as I settled into a place where I would be spending the next few years of my life. We continued being friends after that, but got a lot closer when we were placed into a cell in solitary confinement together. If you read his blogs I am referred to as Brad. Having the life of a prisoner is not easy and laughter rarely occurs, but if you have read his blogs it is something Smitty and I did a lot together. Prison may not be the life that either of us planned or wanted, but we tried to make the best of it and got through each day the best we could. I can honestly say he will probably be the only person I meet in my life that can make Christmas cookies out of candy bars, but hey, we were not going to miss out on holiday goodies just because we were in prison... ha ha. He was always good for creating a good laugh and turning something negative into a positive. Smitty is the most honorable person I have ever met. He was honest, smart, respectful, and an amazing writer. Out of 1500 men in this place I can truthfully admit to only having two good friends that I can trust and depend on, and sadly now that number has decreased to one. I will never forget the many memories of the times we had together or the amazing person he was and always will be. So many people want to look down on prisoners like we are not people. We have all made mistakes, but that does not define us. I wish everyone could have had the opportunity to get to know the person I knew, not Whitney Smith the criminal, but Whitney Smith the person, because we would all be better people. I am privileged to know him and to have the opportunity to call him my friend. Smitty, you will not be forgotten and may your voice continue to tell your story, for you, and for all of us here at USP Terre Haute.

I love you and I will miss you man!

Brian


And this "from Vroom and Whitney's many friends at USP Terre Haute":

SMITTY - What happened is such a tragedy. You were always there for us. You are an amazing guy and we will always remember the time we spent together. Your homeboys love you and miss you man. We will never forget you.


Tuesday, April 14, 2009

From Diane

This was read at Whit's memorial by my giving, loving and unwavering partner, Diane Debevec.

I have been among the closest to Jeff during Whit's years in prison. I am in awe of his steadfast love and belief and hope for Whit. There have been times of anguish and despair - and for me, my primary experiences of Whit have been through some of the darkest times and the pain these caused to Jeff. But being with him through those times told me what I needed to know about what kind of man I had here - deeply sensitive, fiercely loyal, and never wavering in his hope that his son and his daughter Maryl would find their ways in the world, would find good lives and their own measure of happiness.

Whit and I corresponded somewhat regularly throughout his incarceration. I would like to read a letter I received recently - after my sweet dog Adelaide was struck by a car and killed.

9 February, 2009

Hi Diane,

Thirty seconds ago I received a letter letting me know that Adelaide was hit by a car. As I sit on my bunk with this paper and pen in my hands I find myself at a loss for words. While my ideal outcome with this letter would be to cheer you up, attempting any sort of humor would be inappropriate. Plus, more than a week has passed since Adelaide's passing, so guessing what your state is is impossible. In spite of my inability to give you the comfort I'd so much like to be able to provide, I hope that you will be at least somewhat positively affected by the knowledge that there is a man in a room in Indiana who has absolutely no more important task than to think about you and send positive thoughts and is doing exactly that his every waking hour.

I miss you terribly and hope this finds you well.

Yours,
Whit

Monday, April 13, 2009

From Michael Millard

Michael was kind enough to allow me to share what he spoke at Whit's memorial service:


I am the family guitar maker. Some years ago I built a guitar for Jeff which later figured in one of Whit's "escapades." When Jeff told me about that, the conversation led quite clearly into an important friendship with both father and son.

Whit and I wrote many, many letters to each other over the last four years. Until last year when he was placed in solitary confinement, we enjoyed as many phone calls as he was allowed. I was also lucky enough to be able to visit him at Terre Haute once. I'm sure he got a lot of flack from his fellow inmates about hugging that grizzly geezer when I was leaving.

I am speaking today because Whit's Dad has asked that I do so, this from his belief that somehow I understood Whit fully. I am honored.

I love Whit Smith.


The almost universal questions are "Why?" and "What might I have done to change this?" We've all asked; many of us are still asking.

Whit is someone for whom I have enormous admiration. He was thoughtful, generous and kind. He was brilliant, curious, and magnificently creative. Please.....examine his body of writing. He was courageous beyond my ability to comprehend.

When I met Whit, he had really begun to ask himself (as a grown man), "So, what IS it with me?" He saw the trail behind and asked "Why?" He did NOT Understand. He asked these things fully and honestly. There was no "right answer"; he wanted the truth. And he did most of the work of understanding the why and wherefore of his life, which most of us do between the ages of 25 and 50 years, in the four years from 20 to 25. He began, in all facets of his life, to take full responsibility for himself, his choices, and his actions.

If you need any measure of the quality of the man, I ask you to envision a 20-year old learning this in the context of the hell which is Terre Haute F.C.C. This is an extraordinary human being.

But even the most extraordinary of us have our doubts, that place wherein we ask ourselves and all creation: "Am I worthwhile, a WORTHY human being?" There must be enough unconditional love in a child's existence to fight off the doubt that each of us will eventually encounter in life.


Over the last year, I watched Whit as it became possible to him that he might spend a very long time in prison. In light of that, I believe he chose the only option he had. He did this bravely, with dignity, and, I believe, with as much kindness as he could toward those he loved.

Whit and I talked a lot about death over the last year. My father had been very ill for some time. He died five days before Whit took his own life. In Whit's death I see nothing unkind, no parting harshness to anyone, simply an acknowledgment that what he had in store did not give him what he needed.

This is a man who knows himself very, very, well, perhaps better than many persons several times his age.

For Jeff and Kathy:

We practice Forgiveness awkwardly, sometimes desperately, on others, usually in the silent unrecognized hope that we can come to forgive ourselves.
Please.....Forgive.

Jeff:

I know you well, my friend. There will come a time when you will hold your grief as a sacred duty. Please, let it pass. Be kind to yourself, to your amazing family, and to Diane. Perhaps most of all, to Whit. Take Joy in who your son is. You deserve nothing less, and he was, and is, a miracle.


Memorial Donations

The family suggests that donations be made to Circle Tail, a non-profit organization located near Cincinnati which provides assistance dogs to people with mobility, hearing, neurologic or psychiatric disabilities. It would be helpful to specify that the donation be allocated to their inmate/canine education training program. Whit often expressed his desire to volunteer at an animal shelter upon his return home.

Circle Tail, Inc.
8834 Carey Lane
Pleasant Plain, OH 45162
Phone: 513-877-3325

Their main Web page is here.


As a general note, regular mail contact for Jeff is:

Jeff Smith
2835 McKinley Ave.
Cincinnati, OH 45211




Sunday, April 12, 2009

Scott Ainslie

Remarks for the Memorial Gathering for Whitney Smith
April 8, 2009
Cincinnati, Ohio

Welcome

Good afternoon and welcome. My name is Scott Ainslie. I have been asked to say a few words now and to help facilitate the service this afternoon.

I am grateful to be among you today – to mourn the loss, and to celebrate and honor the life of Whitney Smith.

Three years ago, our mutual friend, Michael Millard, gave me Whit’s address along with a very gentle, but unmistakable nudge to write.

Whit and I became friends the old fashioned way: through letters.

A gifted writer, Whit began – and ended – our correspondence with candor and intelligence, humor, humility, and always with his characteristic clear-eyed and openhearted gratitude.

Not a month ago, on an early Spring day not unlike today, he wrote:

“Looking around me, it’s amazing to see how the glory of Spring is able to permeate the thickest of walls and highest of fences. Drainage pipes stretching across the ceilings of the coops provide a perfectly secure nook for robins and doves to build their nests, which they are already busy doing. And the troops of ants, beetles and caterpillars, which at most times would be an offensive sight to behold, at this moment are a welcome sign of the changing season, as they cautiously venture from the cracks in the concrete.”

We feel his absence keenly. Today – our grief is new. And sharp. It can turn on us.

But the very clear message that Whit sent out to us, before he lay his body down, was meant to encourage us not to use his life – or his death – to do ourselves or each other harm (something that in the chaos and disorientation of new grief often too easily happens, and something that would be a profound misuse of his life and memory). Something that he very consciously and deliberately tried to prevent us from doing.

So, today – together, we will begin the process of filling in the space – long held for Whit – with our memories and love for him: honoring the steps and missteps, paying careful attention to one and other, and to his Spirit.

Today, in stories and songs, in his words and ours, we offer to one another our gratitude for having had time here – under this sun and these stars – with him.

In Closing

Climbing out of adolescence to adulthood is never easy. But, Whit’s particular mountain was higher than most.

Whit became a man – a kind, thoughtful, and loving man – while confined in the Federal Pen. at Terre Haute, a place that more readily turns men into beasts – and beasts into monsters.

And he did what the very best of us too rarely do: he lifted himself up out of the brutal circumstances surrounding him and became, in his own words, “a man who values and protects his sense of honor and duty” – to his friends, to his family, to himself.

Let us all remember – as has been noted by others here today – that Grief is not a medal, a commemorative souvenir of the battle to be worn on the chest or preserved on display in a shadow box on the wall. It is the process by which we reassemble our lives.

Time does not heal all wounds. (Left alone, Time makes many of them worse.) But healing takes time – and a strange combination of indulgence and attention.

We are mapping a new world – under unfamiliar stars – without Whit.

As they become familiar we must let Grief – that Dark Horse – wander a little and mark where it goes. We must learn the lay of the land, taking care neither to rein it in too soon, nor to let it get away from us altogether.

Patience, awareness, and compassion are our tools – for ourselves, and for each other.

Today, we have begun well. Let us continue together, offering each other our ears and our support – and being grateful for Whit’s presence in our lives – as he was so openly grateful for each of us.



From Emory

Written by Whit's uncle, my brother Emory Smith. This blog is not mine, and none of this is about me; it has always been and will always be the voice of my son. I post Emory's creation nevertheless, because even though it's intended to deliver some measure of succor to me, it's beautiful, and the depth of this father's pain is at least a true measure of the infinite love that this father's son deserved. It honors Whit, and it deserves to be read.

A man and his son were lost at sea in a small boat. They passed the time talking of things they would do after reaching the shore or being rescued. But the days were sad and arduous, there was little joy and the constant fear they would never reach land.

One morning the father awoke to find the son dead from the hunger and exposure. In his grief he fell into the sea. The boat quickly moved out of reach. He struggled as the sea began to swallow him. It was cold. Sobbing and shivering, he soon felt it pointless to fight the inevitable fate. He drifted off into unconsciousness.

Next, he awoke to find himself in the same situation, but making a weak, almost involuntary effort to stay above water. Soon, he drifted off into unconsciousness. Again he awoke, still anguished at the loss of his son, but once again making just enough effort to breathe.

This repeated over and over, overwhelmed with cold, despair and loneliness he couldn't understand why he kept awaking. Death would be merciful in his situation. After what seemed like dozens of tortuous hours he again drifted off into his sea of despair. The next time he awoke, he felt different somehow, with clearer thoughts of his son and their dreams. He began to tread water. Still cold, hungry and in pain, sometimes sinking below the surface, then kicking just enough to arise again, he lapsed into unconsciousness.

When he awoke it was as if the fish around him had transferred strength to his legs and arms. He began to swim a little. Just a little time spent swimming, then treading water again. Of course in time he was again exhausted; crying out to his son he fell silent.

So it went for the next few days. Miraculously, always re-awakening with a little more strength in his body, but no less miserable, empty, and alone. One morning he awoke with land in sight. Not sure whether it was an illusion, he began swimming towards it until exhaustion closed his eyes.

The next time he awoke he was on the shore; an unlikely event for someone who had succumbed to drowning. Alone now on land, he looked longingly at the sea which could only remind him of his son. A more time passed, he began to accept his situation with a mixture of sadness and acceptance. Each evening he would walk along the beach, smelling the salt air, being sprayed by the cold sea spray. And each night as he lay on the beach, fish would gather at the shore line, and watch him sleep.


Saturday, April 11, 2009

Photos - continuing









Whit and his dad, late summer 2001


Whit at his favorite coffee shop



Whit and his sister Maryl


















Thursday, April 9, 2009

Father's Day 2008

This piece was Whit's gift to me on Father's Day 2008, handwritten and mailed to arrive well before the day.

It's hard to describe this as a piece of fiction, even though the literary conceit of a narrator sitting in the cemetery takes place only in his own heart and mind. Spring Grove Cemetery is where he attended the burial of his maternal grandmother; he was given leave from the military school where he attended 8th grade. As far as I know, it is the only time he was ever there. The death he refers here to is the death of an old self, or rather just part of a self, and in no way was a conscious anticipation of what has now happened. It gave me even more reason to believe that he was finding a path that, once home with family and friends, would never lead back to prison.

Every single recollection of Whit the narrator in this piece actually happened, and even his recall of the exact words is completely full and accurate. I know, because I was there. Only the literary device of the setting, with all the creative symbolism, is fictional.

As it happens, Whitney will be buried in Spring Grove Cemetery, next to his grandmother, on Saturday, the day after his birthday. For each of the past 3 years, he has asked me to go to this cemetery and take photographs of spring as it arrives in this beautiful setting, so that he could post them on his wall. This is the weekend I had planned to go out on this year's photographic stroll through the grounds.

His gift reads as follows:

Gazing across the rolling terrain of the cemetery, I realize how appropriate a place like Spring Grove is for the deceased to do what I assume the dead desire most: To rest in peace. I suppose graveyards in general are known for having atmospheres in accord with, or even encouraging, solemn reverie. But this one in particular seems to me to be at such a height of serenity, all others simply fall short. A fact only emphasized by that cloudless Sunday afternoon in June. On that Father's Day.

In what seems to be a slightly bizarre counterpoint to what those grass covered acres represent, I can't remember ever seeing so many living, breathing birds and squirrels and hares and other vibrant creatures. All of them completely unaware of the significance we humans attach to those stone and marble blocks they dart around. Likely unaware of the concept of death altogether. Wouldn't that be nice.

It is on a marble bench where I sit. An overly expensive and extravagant tribute to a man or woman's existence. A lifetime of experiences culminated in a few lines of chiseled letters on glossy rock. From this vantage point I can see hundreds of markers, sculptures and gravestones, each with their own stories. But there's only one with any significance to me.

At first glance this one seems like all the others around it. To me it looks bland. And a little smaller, maybe.

'That's only appropriate,' I think.

It seems like some sort of emotion should be swelling up inside me. Grief, regret, sorrow. Anger. Or even happiness. But there's nothing. How can that be when the stories and experiences those grooved letters represent are so much a part of my life. Or were a part, I should say.

In the distance the gargling hum of a lawnmower carries in the breeze. I find myself being drawn into its gentle rumble. I came to this place to mourn. But in order to mourn something I must first have a feeling of loss. So it is there on that bench where I sit in my introspective haze trying to determine what, if anything, I lost.

Our relationship was always bittersweet. Not that any relationship isn't; I think our bitter and sweet was just more polarized than most. Although one common ground we shared, the one thing neither party will dispute, is that we both did what we thought was best for me. It still boggles my mind how polluted a person's judgment can be. But sure enough, he would dig me into one hole after another, each one was promised to be my true path to success and happiness. It's really my fault for allowing myself to be controlled like that. And I'm sure any harm done was unintentional; he just didn't know any better. Yes, he meant well.

At the same time, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

In 1999 I was in my mid-teens. Already no stranger to the Juvenile Detention Center, silly things like school and work didn't take up too much space in my day planner. It's tough to schedule that stuff around important activities like stealing and partying.

One day, with a duffle bag packed full of clothes and a determined look at the front door, my father asked 'Where are you going?'

'I'm moving to Pittsburgh.'

'No you're not,' Dad said, blocking the door.

'Yes I am!' A very educated retort, I know, but what do you expect from a rebellious teenager?

There was a short foot chase around the house until downstairs in the basement, halfway out of the back door, Dad caught up. A wrestling match ensued. Today in similar circumstances things may have had different results, but Pops didn't have too much trouble then.

'Let me go!'

'No!'

'I'm not living here anymore, let me go!'

'No,' Dad said, 'I will never let go.'

And then there were the robberies. What was supposed to be an exciting way to spend Monday night turned out to be nothing more than a forfeiture of three years of my life.

Seeming to be a figure either directly or spiritually present in every major happening of my life, true to form Pops was there in the hours after my arrest. The officers told him he could come down to the station to visit with me before I was booked. So there I sat, a shamed and, I reluctantly admit, terrified 17-year old kid when Dad comes in with two sodas and a bag of McDonald's.

For over an hour we sat there talking and eating chicken nuggets. There was almost no mention of the robberies. We did our best to dance around that topic, instead talking about movies or memories. Casual bullshitting. I suppose we just both knew that these were our last moments together as the father and son we were then. We did our best to spend those last minutes together with as much normalcy as possible.

I was born in 1984. Sometime in 1989 a little boy was being dropped off by his father at daycare. Every morning that boy would get out of the car and run as fast as he could to the window in time to watch his dad drive off. Five days a week that kid would zoom to that window and smile as 5 days a week his dad would smile back at him and wave good-bye. Until one day he didn't. No smile, no wave, not even a glance. And so as that car pulled back into traffic there was a little boy who had just realized that his father no longer loved or wanted him and who had just been abandoned in this daycare where he would spend the rest of his youth eating canned peas and Wonder bread. When asked by a woman why he was crying so hard, it must have seemed a little confusing to hear 'He didn't wave' as a response.

Behind me the once-distant lawnmower crests the small hill where I sit, the shrill chugging of its engine pulling me back to the present.

Refocusing my eyes, I read the name on that slightly inadequate gravestone one more time.

What had I been thinking about? Oh yeah, loss. Mourning.

As connected as we were for so long, I feel no loss. No more than I would feel the loss of a virus purged from my body. And after being such a poison to my well-being, maybe that's truly what has happened, a sickness cured.

Rising from my bench's cool stone I walk to the grave and look one last time at the name neatly scribed on the molded concrete.

'Whitney Smith,' it reads.

For all our memories, there is no longing for what lies buried in the earth where I stand. The impulsiveness that steals and lies, the brashness that scorns a loving father, the childishness that feels abandonment: It is all better off laid to rest here in the ground.

The rest of me turns and walks away. I've got to meet up with my father and have lunch. It's Father's Day after all.