First Dakota
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Col. Jon Stories


When Johnny Smith passed away in early May, we lost a good friend, a spokesman for small cattle producers, a great rodeo announcer, and an ag. activist who feared no one in court or over the airwaves. Johnny had the heart of a lion, but his human heart finally gave out from its battle with diabetes, failing kidneys, and heart disease.

It was a great honor, that Johnny laid in his coffin right in the ring at the Ft. Pierre Livestock so that the huge crowd could file by him in showing their respect to this well-liked and beloved friend. The Ft. Pierre Livestock was also the only facility large enough to handle such a huge crowd. I really wish that I could've joked with him one more time and told him he drew more folks than the news clips we've all seen at mob bosses funerals' except, instead of $1,000 suits we got Stetsons, blue jeans, and boots. "And Johnny, you drew a larger crowd than all those corporate bosses you did battle with most of your life."

Johnny would've liked his day being called a "Celebration" of his life. It was the finest production I've ever seen. Willie Cowan did a masterful job as emcee passing the mike out through the crowd with a gentle prod to get folks talking about the guest of honor, Johnny Smith. They laughed, they cried, and they honored Johnny and better yet, gave everyone a glimpse of the man they didn't know; the family man, the civic man, and the good samaritan.

The mayor of Ft. Pierre talked about the great efforts and time Johnny gave to the Ft. Pierre community. He mentioned that no child in Ft. Pierre ever spent a Christmas without presents and a holiday meal. Johnny made sure of it. He was basically Ft. Pierre's Santa Claus in a Stetson.

All Ft. Pierre businesses flew their flags at half-mast for three days in Johnny's honor. The mayor displayed a plaque that he and the city council had voted unanimously on. It simply said that every May 11th would be know as Johnny Smith Day, henceforth in Ft. Pierre.

Willie Cowan addressed Johnny's character while telling the story of how Johnny was instrumental in the building of the Casey Tibbs Rodeo Center. He told the story of an elderly ranch widow who donated 3 million dollars that enabled Johnny to finally get the project completed and made the point that in many instances "some fast talking dude would keep half the money for management fees, but not Johnny. He didn't keep $5.00. That's just who he was and how he conducted himself. He was an honorable man. "There wouldn't be a Casey Tibbs Rodeo Center without Johnny."

The mic was passed on to Johnny's sister who described how the family would discuss projects and problems and if Johnny wasn't there, they then would ask "what would Johnny do." She ended by saying, "I guess from now on it'll be what would Johnny have done."

One of Johnny's nieces got the mike and told how Uncle Johnny would always fall asleep watching the rodeo channel. The kids would then crawl on the floor and gently pull the remote out of his hand, at which point, he'd wake up and tell 'em, "you kids go outside and play." Then he'd go back to sleep. There were all kinds of stories like that, which gave the huge crowd a chance to share a laugh at Johnny's expense.

Johnny's pastor even got in on the stories. He told the story of running into Johnny at the grocery store and Johnny asked him where he got that awful looking shirt. It was a pullover and I had it on backwards. You could always count on Johnny telling it like it was.

Whenever I traveled to Ft. Pierre, it would be 8:00-9:00 at night when I got to the sale barn; but Johnny would smile, shake my hand, and start talking about the latest projects he was involved with R-Calf or the cattle industry. That would be the start of a late night over at the Chateau Steakhouse in Ft. Pierre. These get-togethers were special therapy for yours truly!

Having been a pro-activist for small producers in the 1980's & 90's, picking Johnny's brain and taking his advice on a variety of issues really meant a lot to me. It didn't seem to matter what area of endeavor we covered, in respect to my fiery epitaphs, Johnny had already been there and offered a lot of good advice in my direction.

One night we discussed a very important question that I asked Johnny. I told him a handful of friends advised me to tone my hot air down just a little or the big shots might buy me off the radio. Johnny told me it was more important to get correct; honest market reports out to the people than to continue pro-active commentary. Johnny said, "I give 'em hell all the time. That's why R-Calf was formed. You keep doing your job, cause it's damned important. Leave the ranting and raving to guys like me and you stay on the air." I remember our conversation like it was yesterday; not years ago. I not only valued friendship, I relied on his vast experience and cutting edge opinion. He always told you where he stood and what he thought. How could you ask more of a man.

The old Col was humbled and honored to receive the SD Beef Industry Council's Prime Promoter Award at a luncheon during the Beef Bowl weekend in Brookings. When I walked into the room, where the luncheon was being held, I saw Johnny and immediately walked over to his table and sat down with him. He immediately looked me in the eye and told me if I sat with him they might not give me the award. He shoved a magazine over to me under the table and told me to peek at the cover. There was Johnny (in living color) on the cover of Successful Farming with the caption, "The Man That Would Kill the Beef Check-Off."

I told Johnny I wasn't near as worried about getting the award, as I was getting the shot. The award came my way a little later, along with "the rest of the story." Johnny didn't think enough of the dollar check-off was staying in South Dakota, so he decided to take on N.C.B.A. over the issue. As usual, he made his point in a big way and stuck with it.

One night out in Rapid City, the R-Calf directors invited me out for steak in order to fill me in on their many projects. When we finished our meal, Johnny leaned over and told me to meet him in the restroom. In the restroom, he told me the walls were pretty tight in bathrooms, so nobody would hear what he wanted to tell me. Johnny and five other men had filed a class-action lawsuit against some major corporations down in Alabama. They contended that the "big boys" had committed price-fixing, among other things. During the last part of the trial the corporate lawyers offered the six men a huge multi-million dollar settlement to just go-away and forget the class-action suit.

The six men met and talked about what they should do. Johnny told them that they never intended to make a lot of money for themselves, because they represented all cattle feeders and that they should stay the course. The jury ruled in favor of the six men and all the cattle feeders they represented. The judge over-ruled the jury's verdict and ruled a mis-trial.

All Johnny said was, "I guess we know how much it costs to buy a judge." Only Johnny would have the guts to say something like that.

Six men could've filled each of their pockets and Johnny told them no and to do what's right.

A few brave men receive the Medal of Honor for valor and courage during war. We don't have anything like that for civilians, but Johnny deserved something for what he did during that trial. He walked away from millions because of his personal conviction to do the right thing. How many folks would do what Johnny did?

That's why I'm proud to say, I was Johnny Smith's friend. He had a lot of 'em and now you know why.

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