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Ron Smith (Date) - June 29, 2011

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Ron Smith was an important person to both Scott and me. The man was a lion, a guy you could meet once and never forget – a personality as far out there on the edge as a person could go, yet as grounded and centered as a Buddist monk. His passing affected us both deeply, and we were each moved to mark the launch of with a personal essay. Ron would have not liked all the attention, but he would have loved this site.

By Mike Plant

For Ron
June 29, 2011

It’s hard to speak about Ron Smith in the past tense.  Even on his next-to-last day, none of us would  have been surprised to see him swing his feet out over the side of his hospital bed, stand up, shake out the kinks and stride off down the hall, with his bare ass hanging out of his gown, trailing tubes and wires and shedding cancer cells like fleas. 

No such luck.  Ron died this morning, June 29. As in all he did, he went gracefully, without drama or fanfare.

Ron was the kind of guy you would have wanted your kids to meet. You would have wanted them to look into those slightly rheumy eyes of his, look into that half-wrecked but still-handsome face, and learn how to live.  Ron never shrank from a challenge, never gave an inch, but he also gave everything he had to the people around him. He treated CEOs and janitors exactly the same – as if they were people.  That’s all.  People.  He wasn’t a corporate guy not because he didn’t have the brains or the talent (heaven knows, he had more than his share of both), but because his heart was too big. He cared too much about being down in the trenches with the crew, hands-on helping, making sure things were done just right.  Don’t get me wrong, Ron could lead; he could, and did, command with authority, but I know that somewhere down deep, he probably figured that if you couldn’t do it in flip-flops or running shoes it wasn’t worth doing.  Wing tips, business suits and boardroom politics were ridiculously not his style.

In case you don’t know the story, Ron Smith was one of the best age group triathletes of all time. He   finished his first Ironman in 1980, the last year the race was held in Oahu,  back when the “sport” of triathlon had not emerged  from its cocoon of insanity.  He raced up and down the Queen K Highway in Kona annually for years after that – a 40+-year-old former Navy UDT-frogman with the heart of a lion and the body of a god.  A powerful cyclist, Ron was so fast in short-distance triathlons that he was disqualified more than once by race directors who didn’t believe a 45-year-old guy could be winning not only his own age division, but also the two or three groups below him. They figured he must be cutting the course.  He wasn’t. 

In his pre-triathlon days Ron was an early man into the Chart House restaurant chain, and he made a chunk of money, lived in a big house in Rancho Santa Fe in North San Diego County. But when he lost pretty much everything in a financial scandal not of his own making, he went from living in luxury to living out of his Volkswagen van, pretty much overnight, and thing is, you would not have known one Ron from the other because there truly was no difference. The van was big enough for his bike and his workout gear and from that point on it was all good.

This for sure: you’d want Ron on your team. For anything. He would never let you down.  He used a crude term that he picked up in his UDT days that I found compelling: “When the shit gets brown…”  Whenever I was with Ron, I knew that when the shit got brown he would be there.  He would walk through fire and ice for a friend, and I think it’s fair to say we would all do the same for him.  

Way to go Big Man.  You did well.

(A version of this article appeared in SLOWTWITCH.COM on 6/29/11)

By Scott Tinley

Ron Did It                      
 But whoso is heroic will always crisis to find his edge.
I called it out and moved my man.
That’s Emerson’s tweak on Heroism.
Ron Smith wrinkled his nose and parried my play. 
It might’ve been on a Big Island lanai, one of those expansive decks that extend beyond the horizon right into tomorrow’s sunrise. Smith was about to say something else, scratching his chin and squinting as he did before offering some hard-boiled insight. He and I were sneaking up on the 1982 Hawaiian Ironman Triathlon by playing backgammon on the lanai, a game that Smith would often use to send his message across the decades.
“Got you on the run, don’t I?” He taunted. “And all you need are double sixes, twice.
“Never trust fate, Hot Shot. Be your own future.” 
The surf at Banyans and Pine Trees had been good that morning but we’d given it a miss, hoping to save our arms for the 2.4 mile swim that would begin a very long day of endurance racing; eight and one half hours for the winners, twice that for mortals. Ron had turned 50 that summer and entered another competitive age-group. It wouldn’t matter, really, since in previous Ironman competitions his time in the 40-44 and 45-49 year old crowd would’ve won several younger age groups, a fact that he hadn’t realized until a journalist noted it. 
Back then, his summer-colored skin was more calf hide than hardened leather and the graying side burns only forecasted the great silverback he’d  become. As usual, Smith had me stabbing and dodging wildly to avoid a gammon and I shook the die longer than necessary as he scratched and squinted.
“It’s not that important, you know.” Smith noted, looking over the teak railing toward a distant Maui.
“Are you talking about the race, the game, or the missed surf?”  I asked, dropping a crummy 2/3 roll.
No answer. Then, “just respect it, Hot Shot” followed by, “and don’t let it bite you on the ass.”
“You ever get bit for not respecting something?” I asked, flipping my sunglasses down for effect.
Smith rolled snake eyes and mortgaged them into a blockade. 
“When things got hot and sinister in and around Cuba around February ’61,” Ron handed me the die as if they were sacred cubes, “we started to probe the Caribbean.”
“Creeping up on the Bahia de Cochinos?” I let slip the Spanish for Bay of Pigs, sensing another nugget from this former UDT commando, the CIA-trained predecessors to the Navy SEALs.
“I can’t tell you anymore,” he smiled in dropping the too-easy reference and advancing his men on the board, “but that’s about when I discovered some amazing surf on St. Thomas and Tortola.”
“You surfed Cane Garden in ’61?”
“Naw, it was flat that month but I got bit by a 300 pound sea lion while probing…uh, diving in the Gulf of Cazones at night. Sonofabitch took a good piece of my shoulder too. I didn’t respect the mission enough.”
“Man, that was Castro’s bay in ’61. Still is.”
“He can have it. There’s still no surf there.”
I miss that sonofabitch.