Walt Smith, Gov. Reagan bodyguard, former Sonoma County air traffic control manager, Marine veteran, dies at 72
Through Walt Smith’s bold and richly accomplished life, he fought and was badly wounded as a teenage Marine in Vietnam. He risked his life flying fire-attack bombers and the Sonoma County Sheriff’s helicopter.
He was an armed bodyguard for California Gov. Ronald Reagan. He enlisted in the California Army National Guard and rose to the rank of brigadier general.
He fed and worked to protect giraffes and zebras and other exotic wildlife at the Safari West preserve northeast of Santa Rosa and he oversaw federal air-traffic control operations across a vast swath of the western U.S.
A genial, top-of-class sort, Smith took to each challenge and adventure with the same wonder that fueled his childhood fascination with flying things and his foraging through the Old West town and Hollywood memorabilia museum that his father, George Smith, built near Graton.
Reflecting on his survival of perilous situations and his full life, he once told The Press Democrat, “My guardian angel did a fine job. It’s been pretty exciting.”
Smith died Feb. 10 in Idaho, home to him and his wife, Lois, since his retirement in 2007. He was 72.
When he stepped back from daily work as a regional leader of the Federal Aviation Administration at age 58, he left an office in the San Francisco International Airport tower with glass all around and a million-dollar view. He stayed active as an international projects consultant with a Virginia-based air-traffic and aerospace consulting firm until just a couple of years ago.
To the end, Smith – sturdy, beaming and 6-foot-2 – sustained a love affair with flying machines. It began in the late 1950s, when he was country kid on his family’s apple ranch on west Sonoma County’s Frei Road, near the Laguna de Santa Rosa.
“Really young, Walt would climb to the top of this Douglas fir in front of the house and for hours would just watch airplanes go by,” said one of his brothers, Guy Smith.
Most of those aircraft were on approach at the former World War II Army Airfield that following the war reverted to the Sonoma County Airport.
Guy Smith, who lives still on the family ranch that includes his late father’s Georgetown western set and collection of Hollywood artifacts, was sharing a bedroom with Walt, three years his senior, when Walt took a pencil to the ceiling.
“He meticulously drew an F-4 Phantom (fighter-bomber),” Guy Smith said.
Walt Smith, who was 4 when parents George and Joyce Smith moved their family from Southern California to the ranch outside of Graton, hadn’t been a teenager long when he got a job washing airplanes for a flight school at the county airport. Flight instructor Jim Alford offered to reward him with airplane rides.
“From that point on,” Smith told The Press Democrat in 2005, “I couldn’t take my bicycle fast enough to the airport.”
He began flight lessons and first flew solo at 16.
“Walt had always wanted to fly,” said friend since childhood Dan O’Connell, now of O’Connell Vineyards. O’Connell said that to fly with Smith was to witness what an aircraft can do with a master at the controls.
Smith was a student at Forestville’s former El Molino High School when he met, in a youth group at Santa Rosa’s Family Life Center, Lois Kiker, then a junior at Santa Rosa High. Smith was 17, Kiker 16. They began dating.
Smith graduated from El Molino in 1967, as the Vietnam War was escalating. Rather than be drafted into the Army he enlisted in the Marine Corps, hoping to become a pilot.
Instead, he was sent to boot camp and then shipped in 1968 to Vietnam.
“I was in combat immediately, from the first day I arrived,” he said in the 2005 interview.
On Aug. 27 of ’68, his platoon came under attack. Marine buddies fell dead all around Smith, and he suffered serious mortar shrapnel wounds.
Lois, then a high-school senior, learned that before he could be flown out of Vietnam he contracted malaria. He was flown for medical treatment to Guam and then to San Diego.
Before Smith was discharged from the Marines he was awarded a Purple Heart Medal for the injuries that put him out of the war.
He returned to Sonoma County, resumed flying and in mid-1969 earned a commercial pilot’s license. The combat veteran was then five months short of 20 years old.
His girlfriend graduated from Santa Rosa High that June. The two of them married a week later.
The rush was on, Lois said, because Walt had been hired to fly firefighting tankers out of Portola.
“There was no way I was going to explain to my parents that I was going along unless we were married,” she said.
Walt Smith flew borate bombers for two fire seasons. “He worked long hours,” said Lois Smith. “They were gone from sunrise to sunset, sometimes for weeks at a time.”
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