By Karen Carr Keefe
The writings of journalist and longtime Grand Island resident the late Doug Smith are presented in a newly published book edited by his son, Joseph W. Smith III. Compiling “The Best of Doug Smith” was a labor of love for his son, whose appreciation for his dad’s life’s 68-year journalism career grew as the collection, itself, grew.
“As a youth, I didn’t care much about Dad’s writing, in the typical way of kids taking their parents for granted,” Joe Smith said. “Then when I left Western New York in my 20s – still pre-internet days! – I had no regular access to his printed work. Thus, for far too long, I had no idea what a fantastic writer he was. So funny, so human, so self-deprecating.”
The book contains more than 150 selections, out of the thousands Doug Smith wrote. He covered it all – from celebrity interviews with the likes of Cary Grant and Johnny Cash; to theater, film and book reviews; to the “Cheap Gourmet” column about local spots to eat well but inexpensively; to his love of baseball and train rides.
Smith worked for the Courier-Express, the Buffalo News, the Grand Island Record, the Niagara Gazette, WIVB-TV and the Buffalo Rocket, among others. He retired at age 80 in 2016 and moved to Central New York. He passed away in 2017.
After his father’s death, Joe came upon nine massive scrapbooks of newspaper clippings, mostly from his father’s 16 years with daily Courier-Express, which ceased publication in 1982. The articles included film, concert and restaurant reviews and travelogues.
Joe’s wife, Mona, suggested he compile a volume of his father’s best writings. Joe said he realized it was an idea whose time had come. In search of some of his father’s later writings, he later hit pay-dirt. He opened a laptop his mother had, found a cache called “Doug’s Files and Folders,” and accessed over 3,300 computer files containing his dad’s later writings.
“I soon saw, with considerable delight, that Doug was an even better writer in his later years than he had been in the ’70s,” the younger Smith wrote in the book’s introduction.
Like Father, Like Son
Joe Smith, a 1978 graduate of Grand Island High School, worked as a high school teacher for more than 30 years. He also is an author, himself, having written thousands of film reviews and features and penned several books, including studies on Hitchcock, the Bible, church life and under-the-radar movies.
Growing up, he was impressed by the career his dad had chosen.
“I always felt newspaper writing, for all its male-dominated, cigarette-smoking grunginess over many decades, was about the coolest job around – especially when dailies still had hard deadlines and so much community influence. Now that all this glory is slowly and sadly dying, I’m resigned to websites and books (both traditional publishers and Amazon Direct) – though these still seem like second-best to me!”
The Grand Island Connection
Doug and his family were longtime Grand Islanders, and several Island topics are on the list of “the Best,” including those in his series of “Letters from the Island,” published by the Gazette.
Joe describes one of his favorite articles of his father’s, titled, “Music of the Night,” as “an enchanting and utterly unique hour-by-hour account of all the overnight sounds Doug could hear from his Grand Island bedroom near the South Bridge.”
Another one of these was his recounting of the “War of the Worlds,” broadcast on Halloween night in 1968 on WKBW radio. Although heavily promoted for a month by the radio station as a recreation of Orson Welles’ 1938 broadcast version of the H.G. Wells science fiction novel, Smith wrote about the reaction of “gullible mainlanders”: “Passengers on the No. 40 bus begged the driver to avoid Grand Island because ‘people are being killed by Martians over there. We just heard it on the radio.’ ”
Wedded to the Word
Doug’s wife, Polly, was a writing partner in many phases of his career. Their son said, “It was a partnership in the fullest – and lovingest – sense. For both the ‘Cheap Gourmet’ series and the later ‘Letters from the Island,’ Dad considered her basically a cowriter; he even signed the latter columns ‘Polly and Doug,’ deliberately putting her name first.
“I know her input on meals and travel was vital – though they did sometimes disagree about movies he reviewed; one column in the book is an irritated ‘letter to the editor’ in which she assailed his negative review of the Richard Burton movie ‘Bluebeard.’ For the record, I wrote him a couple of those letters, too!”
Family Ties: Grist for the Mill
Over the years, Doug and Polly often drew on family … and each other, as subjects for the columns. Son Joe and daughter Holly had regular roles in their popular column “The Cheap Gourmet,” which covered inexpensive dining in Western New York. Joe was given the honorary nickname of Firstborn, and Holly became the Costly Daughter. The series began with the Buffalo Courier-Express in the early 1980s, and thereafter in a number of dailies and weeklies and on WIVB-TV.
Being featured in those and other columns was a positive experience, Joe said. “It was fun, a real family-affair. Doug had a way of including people in his writings that was just the opposite of embarrassing. Everybody loved him – he was such a people-person! – and we enjoyed our notoriety-by-proxy … not to mention free movies and concerts for most of my teen years.”
Rounding all the Bases
His father’s “baseball obsession” was wonderfully expressed in his column, “Base Paths,” encompassing both local baseball and softball coverage. He was able “to sum up a three-hour event in only 400 words … yet also make it relatable for folks who didn’t care about the topic at hand,” his son said. “Despite all the writing he did on food, film and travel, our national pastime was truly his passion.”
Fittingly, Smith’s journalism career ended brilliantly, but not too far along the base path from where it began at age 13, when he was scoring baseball games in Jamestown and got hired by two upstate New York newspapers. Thousands of newspaper articles and two books later, Doug Smith’s collected works are celebrated in a book lovingly and knowingly edited by his son.
"The Best of Doug Smith: Base Paths, Rocket Man, the Cheap Gourmet and Other Adventures in 68 Years of Buffalo-Area Journalism," published April 13, is now available for purchase through Amazon. (Photo courtesy of Joseph W. Smith III)
How to Get a Copy of His Book
“The Best of Doug Smith,” subtitled “Base Paths, Rocket Man, the Cheap Gourmet and Other Adventures in 68 Years of Buffalo-Area Journalism,” can be purchased on Amazon. For signed copies or bulk orders, contact Joe Smith at [email protected].