John Strong Macauley Smith

John Strong Macauley Smith “tipped over,” in the words of his mother, on May 30, 2023 at age 89, after battling Alzheimer’s disease with grace. In his last years, John pondered “the hereafter.” His last writing project was “Looking Forward,” and he was eager for answers to questions about his next chapter.

John was born in Louisville, Kentucky on August 27, 1933, the son of Emilie Strong, a leader in chamber music and historic preservation, and John Macauley Letchworth Smith, a lawyer and circuit court judge. His father drove his mother over rough roads to hasten his birth. He reportedly cried for his first six months and began speaking his own language, translated for others by his beloved older sister Rachel Macauley Smith Lord.

John was barely educated at Louisville’s Ballard School where his passion for escape to the out-of-doors made him a bad boy and his dyslexia was ignored. An intuitive coach at the Lawrenceville School in New Jersey put John, unannounced, into a national race at Madison Square Garden where he won the indoor half-mile two years in a row, 1951-52.

John took up flying at age 17, following in the steps of his father and his Aunt Betsy. He got his pilot’s license the summer after he graduated from high school. In an epic journey the summer of 1958 with his childhood friend Paul Semonin, he flew a Cessna 172 from Louisville to North Bay, Canada. In an act of imagined larceny, John and Paul considered taking-off in an unlocked floatplane.

John dropped out of the University of Colorado at Boulder, an unfulfilled geology major, and joined the Army draft where he quickly learned to navigate successfully by remaining “under the radar.” It helped to have a Sergeant also named John Smith. Back home in Kentucky, his sister coached him on the importance of a good education. He graduated from Yale University in 1959 with a degree in American Studies, lifelong friends and a strong desire to get going.

Growing up, John had spent summers in Colorado and Wyoming because of his family’s love of the mountains. He headed west for summer jobs in the oil fields and as a farm laborer. After college, he got his first job in journalism at The Aspen Times. John was motivated by his deep curiosity and his will to overcome dyslexia by developing his writing skills. He married Katy Sterling in 1960. At The Louisville Times, John’s career took shape and his son Nicholas Macauley Smith was born on Derby Day in 1961. Soon the family moved to Goshen, New York where John worked for The Times Herald Record in neighboring Middletown, New York, home to one of the first “offset” newspapers in the country with its stunning reproduction of photos. He developed his skill as a photographer as well as a journalist there. Daughter Emily Strong Smith arrived in June 1963.

Three months later, John met and photographed President Kennedy at the dedication of the Gifford Pinchot Institute of Conservation Studies in Milford, Pennsylvania. Walking down a flagstone path bordering the house, he was tongue-tied when greeted by the President. John Kennedy was assassinated two months later. John then changed his life dramatically, hitting the road with his family in their station wagon pulling a trailer. He returned to Colorado where he earned his Master’s Degree in Journalism from the University of Colorado in 1966. That led to UCLA where he taught photojournalism and became vice-chairman of the department.

Summers were spent in Colorado where his family built a cabin in Little Woody Creek outside Aspen. Restless again, John moved his family from Los Angeles to Colorado full time in 1970. He started the first community cable television station in the U.S., scrounged for staff and funding, recruited interns from everywhere. The station carried local news and features, and in the summer of 1972, a wildly popular soap opera “The Edge of Ajax” was launched with an abundance of local talent in the Aspen of that era. The Woody Creek years included wild cross-country skiing races with Le Mans starts and volleyball games – competition was keen and subversive.

Burnout and a failed marriage resulted in John leaving Colorado in 1977. In his pickup with his faithful golden retriever Ajax, John “wandered in the wilderness” and unexpectedly found a mentor in a coffee house in Carmel Valley. He bought an old 24-foot wooden boat in Oxnard, California, discarded the engine so he could really learn to sail and moved onboard. He sharpened knives, and did odd jobs. In Santa Barbara, John worked as a counselor in a halfway house and became a bartender. Piece by piece, he forged a new life.

A friend led him to Eugene in 1980 where he bought a small farm in the Crow area and found a new home. In 1984 he went to Nepal at the invitation of his college roommate who introduced him to his second wife in the lobby of the Mala Hotel in Kathmandu. “Met Catherine,” John wrote in his diary, the sole entry. His roommate Jim Ottaway was repaying the favor of John having introduced him to his own wife during their first year in college.

John and Catherine Manz fell in love en route to the Base Camp at Mt. Everest, a trek selected by Catherine because it was the highest place in the world and her friend Bruce Klepinger was leader. At the 18,519-foot summit of Kala Patthar with its spectacular vista of Everest, John gave Catherine a ring and asked if she would move to his small farm in Oregon. “Yes,” she replied breathlessly. They were married the next year.

For the next 35 years at Crow Farm, John and Catherine put hearts and hands to work building an oasis for family and friends. The farm was a magical place with an old farmhouse and outbuildings, including a barn, gardens and a guesthouse. The Elf Hut was John’s final architectural masterpiece – an 8ft. x 8 ft. space in the upper pasture with a wood stove, four chairs and French doors opening onto a small deck with a splendid view over the Crow Valley. There was no room for anything but conversation and the delight of telling stories without electronic interruptions. Treasured memories of the Elf Hut are an eloquent testament to John’s creative spirit.

Moving into Eugene in 2020 during the pandemic, John pondered, “What’s next?” His career decisions had always been driven by his curiosity and the challenge of something new. What would be new at age 86 when his children had advised him to stop driving because of his age? For years, John had been fascinated by what happens after we tip over. He put those thoughts into a book Curious Events Occurred on the Way to My Funeral (2019) and a short work Looking Forward (2022). (His curious nature was also reflected in the title of his 2014 book, My Curious Camera.) In his new home, John created the Celestial Phone Booth, a garden retreat with neither a telephone nor a booth where one can sit quietly and send messages to departed family, friends and pets. John cautioned, “Don’t expect a response.”

John was a beloved friend and an out-of-the-box thinker, making him an advisor of considerable insight. His quirky sense of humor was first evident in the child nicknamed “banjo eyes” for big blue eyes that he used to great effect mesmerizing classmates and strengthening his near-sighted vision, according to his optometrist decades later. John led his basic training platoon in a demonstration of fake limping that caught the attention of the high command. For the Everest trek, John had packed red foam clown noses – just in case. Those noses warmed everyone in the dinner tent on a cold, snowy night. John’s grandchildren and many others know the hand-to-hand Disappearing Cork Trick and the Dishtowel Toss. He had the gift of asking oddball questions that produced meaningful answers. John counted many dogs among his best friends, including Walt Whitman, Ajax, Lil’ Bit, Lively, Ivy, Harper and Molly.

John is survived by his beloved wife Catherine Manz Smith; remarkable children Nicholas Macauley Smith, Emily Smith Baker and Suzanne Field Smith; grandchildren Macauley and Cole Baker; Jordan, Alex and Katya Blandino; sister-in-law Connie Manz; devoted cousins, nephews, goddaughters, and countless other loved ones whom John considered family.