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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.”

Though it was dangerous work, she said, “He had the time of his life.”

The couple had returned to Sonoma County and taken ground jobs at the county airport when Walt Smith chose his next move. He applied to the California State Police Academy in Sacramento.

He would learn that the governor at the time, future U.S. president Ronald Reagan, wanted to have young officers as bodyguards. New state policeman Smith, then 22, joined the governor’s personal security team.

“I was beside him every day,” Smith told The Press Democrat in 2004. “I was like part of the family.”

He became tight with Reagan as the actor-turned-governor traveled far and wide, and met socially with Hollywood stars the likes of John Wayne, Frank Sinatra and Clint Eastwood.

About a year and a half into the bodyguard assignment, Smith returned to flying. His task: to pilot a small state airplane up and back along the 444-mile-long California Aqueduct, looking for security issues, accidents, anything out of the ordinary.

Also at the time, in the early 1970s, Smith joined the California National Guard. In 1973, the occasion of his graduation with distinction from Officer Candidate School prompted his friend Reagan to attend the ceremony as its featured speaker.

Smith served the National Guard full-time in Sacramento for about five years, then switched to part-time.

He hired on with the Federal Aviation Administration as an air-traffic controller in 1977. He would be assigned as Air Traffic Manager at the Sonoma County Airport, then at Monterey and then at SFO.

While working in the tower at the Sonoma County Airport in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, Smith volunteered to work nights and weekends as a reserve Sonoma County deputy sheriff and as a pilot of the sheriff’s helicopter, then dubbed Angel II.

“He went on some of the most dangerous calls that I can imagine,” said Lois Smith, a retired nurse.

Her husband suffered his worst day since the one in 1968 in Vietnam on Oct. 23, 1980.

Walt Smith was working air-traffic control at the Sonoma County Airport. There was dense fog as Angel II approached for a landing. The chopper crashed short of the runway and two of Smith’s friends, deputies Bliss Magly and Brent Jameson, were killed.

Smith made a career of the FAA, and he ascended up the command ladder in his weekend work with the National Guard.

He and Lois also volunteered for decades at Safari West, the wildlife preserve northeast of Santa Rosa. In addition to helping to feed and care for the animals, he took on the task of preparing fire safety plans and training.

“He was involved in all aspects of Safari West as time went on,” said co-owner Nancy Lang. “He was a real game-changer here.”

In 1999, the FAA summoned Smith to the national headquarters in Washington, D.C., to help lead the agency’s Y2K risk assessment and response. He also performed high-level, highly classified work related to assuring the safety of the president and other national leaders in the event of a major crisis.

Smith had been with the FAA for 30 years when he retired in 2007 as the Bay Area airport manager. He and Lois left their home in Santa Rosa and relocated to near Boise, Idaho, to be closer to some of their children and grandchildren.

In Idaho, Walt Smith became a leader of Boise’s Veterans Day parade and made some big changes to it. He introduced a whole new crowd of admirers to the gorgeously restored 1944 Willys jeep that he’d bought as a teenager from his buddy Dan O’Connell.

About a year ago, Smith fell and broke his back. He never fully recovered from the injury. His death was caused by heart failure.

“He’d had a heart murmur for quite a long time,” Lois said.

Some time back, the former pilot, combat veteran and National Guard general chose his final resting place at a national cemetery north of Boise. The plot is atop a hill with a commanding, elevated view that these days takes in snow-capped mountains.

“Anyone he could get to go there with him, he’d show them where he wanted to be,” Lois said.

In addition to his wife in Idaho and his brother in Graton, Smith is survived by his daughter, Jennifer Biery of Boise; his sons, Scott Smith of Nampa, Idaho, and Marc Smith of Kailua, Hawaii; his sister, Melinda Marshall of Sebastopol and his brother, Gregg Smith of Ukiah, and seven grandchildren.

Services Friday in Garden City, Idaho were followed by interment at Idaho State Veterans Cemetery.

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