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‘The price of a life’: Charles Smith lived a full life before dying of COVID-19

Chuck and Judy Smith in Glacier National Park. (courtesy)
Chuck and Judy Smith in Glacier National Park. (courtesy)

In a 2008 sermon for the Unitarian Universalist Church of Spokane, Charles “Chuck” Pennypacker Smith Jr. wrote, “To be a community of memory means that we re-member, that is, we reaffirm – perhaps through ritual or by conscious acknowledgment – that what we are today – the fact that we even exist today is in large part because of what others have done and stood for in the past.”

Smith was a Navy veteran, budget analyst for the Atomic Energy Commission, Spokane Falls Community College business teacher, Spokane Men’s Club member, ordained Unitarian minister and KPBX board member. Above all, he was a thinker whose main concern was his fellow humans. He died on April 29 from COVID-19. He was 84.

Born in Los Angeles and raised in Palo Alto, California, Smith earned a degree in geology from Oregon State University.

He then served in the Navy, where he met Joyce Elizabeth Johnson at an officers’ reception. They married in 1959. The couple moved to Mercer Island, Washington, and Smith earned a master’s degree in business administration from University of Washington in 1962.

The couple moved to Richland for Smith’s work with the Atomic Energy Commission. They had two children, Erik Smith and Jennifer McCormack.

Smith was assigned to projects to find peaceful uses for atomic weapons, such as using the bombs for digging harbors along the Alaska coastline and nuclear powered aircraft.

“My father after few years, he thought, ‘This is insane,’ ” said Erik Smith, who is a former Spokesman-Review reporter. His father once said: “They will never find a peaceful use for nuclear bombs. I’m sorry, it’s just not going to work.”

In 1965, Smith was called to Alameda, California, for reserve duty during the Vietnam War. During this time, Smith worked as an instructor at Sacramento State College, now California State University-Sacramento. Ultimately, Smith chose academia over bureaucracy.

He took a position at Spokane Falls Community College as a business instructor, and the family was very involved with the Unitarian church.

“Everybody had butcher block cutting boards,” Erik Smith recalled. “They all had a living room terrarium. We all had beanbag chairs. And I remember for Christmas 1972, my father received four copies of ‘Jonathan Livingston Seagull.’ I mean, it was the whole 70s thing.”

He remembers his whole family dancing in the living room while “Baby Elephant Walk” played on the turntable. He also went to the Expo with his family nearly every day.

“My father and my mother loved the ‘Up With People’ thing much more than I did,” Erik Smith said. “Every time the relatives came over, they always had to take everybody through this. All these upbeat, freshly scrubbed young kids, all of them singing songs. It was sickeningly sweet, even for me at age 12. Parents loved it.”

Smith took interest in his children as individuals. Erik Smith became an avid bicyclist in high school, and his father suggested he bike the state of Washington, as some of the professors at the community college had recently done. So he did it during both his junior year of high school and the summer going into his freshman year at University of Washington.

“My dad said later, ‘You know, I think I was kind of crazy for letting you do that,’” Erik Smith said.

When Erik was becoming an adult and deciding how he would be different from his parents, one of the conclusions he came upon was that he would not worry like his father did. Erik said his father was the type who would worry aloud about the evening news.

“For those of us who are like 12 years old, it’s kind of scary seeing your parents have a lack of confidence in the future,” Erik Smith said. “But then I realized as time went on, no, that was just my dad. And that was my dad being thoughtful and reflective, but maybe the world is not as imperiled as my father often seemed to think.”

In 1984 Smith and Johnson divorced.

Smith continued teaching, and in 1991 he met a student by the name of Judy Pettingill, a divorced mother of five who was returning to school. After she had completed his class, he invited her to the college to watch VCR tapes he had recorded of Joseph Campbell.

The two bonded over their love of outdoors – especially Glacier National Park – and soon began dating. In 1994, Judy Pettingill became Judy Smith. One of Judy’s favorite memories with Chuck was a time they went camping in Glacier.

“We were in the tent and it was a terrible storm,” she said. “We just laid there and we could hear the thunder just hit and roll down the valley and it was just incredibly special. That was a wonderful, wonderful time.”

The two held different religious beliefs; Judy is Mormon, but they made it work through mutual respect. Judy’s youngest daughter, Anne Grange, lived with them. Even though it wasn’t what Smith believed in, he would take Grange to her early morning seminary at 6 a.m. throughout high school.

“He was the kind of guy that was like supportive and loving of what was best for you, without judging you, without trying to tell you what to do or fix you,” Grange said.

In the Mormon faith, there is a tradition of the baptism for the dead, and Grange brought this up to Smith when she was in high school.

“I had told him that when he passed away that I would be doing that for him,” Grange said. “I was some arrogant, like 16, 17-year-old. I just remember him saying, ‘If that’s what makes you feel good, then do it.’ It encompasses so much of him where he was just loving, thoughtful, kind and not affected by these different beliefs.”

Smith was the leader of the Witness For Peace group for his church that went to Nicaragua. Former Spokesman-Review reporter Dan Webster described him as a calm presence during the trip.

“It was a little rough traveling in Nicaragua in those days, in the backs of pickup trucks, but he was he was good at making sure that everybody’s needs were being met,” Webster said.

After retiring, Smith embarked on his next journey, studying theology at Gonzaga University, and becoming an ordained minister in the Unitarian church. The Rev. Todd Eklof first met Smith because he was on the hiring committee for Eklof’s position in 2011.

“My first and lasting impression was Chuck was, you would call him a nice guy, but I think the reason he seemed nice is because he seemed to care for everybody,” Eklof said. “Just a very caring soul, very interested in people, soft spoken, and yet had a real pastoral presence.”

In 2013 doctors diagnosed Smith with Parkinson’s disease.

“He kept struggling, persevering,” said friend Douglas Huigen.

In January 2018, Judy could no longer provide her husband with the type of care he needed, and he went to live at the Spokane Veterans Home.

Erik Smith was planning a trip to Spokane the weekend coronavirus closed Spokane Veterans Home to visitors.

“We watched it, and it was coming closer and closer and closer,” he said. “We wondered ‘Would it strike? Would it get through the door of my father’s room in the nursing home?’ And ultimately it did. I just find myself thinking that it’s something that’s bigger than all of us. I just don’t think there was much that we could do. I don’t think there was much that anybody could do.”

The family said that the doctors and nurses at the Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center did a wonderful job communicating with the family while Smith was sick, and the family was able to use FaceTime to talk with him.

Grange was able to talk with Smith about 20 minutes before he passed away.

“[The doctor] pulled up on FaceTime, and I just let him know how much he meant to me, and how much I loved him,” Grange said. “… I understand there’s livelihoods at stake here. There’s business, but I’m not going to get my dad back, and you can’t put a monetary value on that.”

In 2010, Smith presented a paper to his men’s study club entitled “The Price of a Life,” where he provided an overview of the way various industries put prices on human lives.

“What, then, will matter will be the people you loved and those who loved you,” Smith wrote in his conclusion. “The ways you raised the world with your intent and your effort, your acts of courage, integrity, compassion and sacrifice. The gifts of time you shared with others and your significance in their lives. … It won’t be the count of those you can name, but how many will feel a deep and lasting absence when you are gone. Your memories will leave you and not matter, what will matter is the memories that live in those that love you. Your worth is measured, then, in how well you have passed your days. May this be the price of a life.”

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