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A Long Life Cut Short by a Crash

William Smerling, a devoted family man who spent his life working long days, was finally starting to check things off his bucket list before his death last summer.

He was 82 years old, but he died young.

In the eighth decade of a life defined by 15-hour workdays, Sunday trips with his wife and two sons and a stint in the Army, William Howard Smerling could charge up mountains faster than men half his age; worked just as hard, if not harder at his business, , after retirement; and caught huge halibut when he fished in Alaska.

Smerling was an “old-fashioned gentleman” from Brooklyn who died in August in Santa Monica. It's been six months, but his family is still reeling from the death.

"My dad was 82.... Yeah, people would say he lived a good life, but he wasn't done with his bucket list," said son Robert. "It's a big loss."

His dad's 6-foot frame was shattered—a broken pelvis, wrist and spine—. According to a Santa Monica police report, the Highlander driven by Pacific Palisades resident Cambria Lee Gordon hit Smerling in the head. The impact threw him into the middle of the intersection and left him bloody and unconscious.

The Making of a Gentleman

Smerling was born Oct. 6, 1928, in Brooklyn.

He was accepted to UCLA, but just before graduating from James Madison High School, the university sent him a letter: With the return of veterans from World War II, there wasn't enough space for him.

Asked to reapply the next year, Smerling enrolled instead at City College of New York, then at New York Tech (now Brooklyn College), where he earned a degree in air conditioning engineering. He at last relocated to Los Angeles in 1950 to work at Douglas Aircraft Company, only to be drafted during the Korean War.

Though he left the East Coast, he never lost his Brooklyn accent or his love for the Dodgers.

Assigned to the 1st Infantry Division, nicknamed the "Big Red One," Smerling was trained to go behind enemy lines in Korea. Shortly before his deployment, however, the Army sent him and nearly every other man in the division to Heidelberg, Germany.

His family is unsure how long he served. "He'd tell me these things," but they go in one ear and out there, his wife, Helen, half-joked.

The earlier milestones were memorialized in a short autobiography he wrote for the Southern California Masons upon accepting one of its highest awards, the Hiram.

Rearing a Family

Smerling's story, as his family knows it, becomes a lot more colorful after his marriage to Helen Jan. 31, 1959.

Helen had come to the United States from Paraguay, a haven for her Jewish family escaping Nazis in Czechoslovakia, to learn English shorthand. She met William while he dined at his brother's mother-in-law's home in Crescent Heights. It was love at first sight.

She was 10 years his junior and struck by his calmness. He wasn't deterred by the fact that she didn't speak fluent English. Three months into their courtship, they were married.

"He seemed so wise, so well-read, and he didn't have his hands all over me, and I thought that was so great," she said, chuckling.

His calmness extended to child-rearing. "Whenever you thought he was in my room spanking me, he was actually giving me a good talking to, followed by him hitting the bed while I pretended to [scream] in pain," Robert told his mom.

As patient and cool as he was, Smerling was tenacious, Helen said. And he didn't swear and was always punctual. Most of all, he worked hard.

"My father lived by a simple coda: Take care of your family and help others," Robert told a standing-room only crowd at the funeral Aug. 17 at Home of Peace Memorial Park, recalling a time when on the way home from Las Vegas, his father pulled over to help a woman whose car had broken down.

"Not a day or a moment passed when he didn't stick to those principles."

The memorial drew nearly 1,000 people, from clients to fellow Masons and Shriners. With Robert, he had helped organize successful fundraisers at Shrine Hospitals for Children, and he had served as a former president of his local chapter. 

"And, finally, to everyone here, I know my dad had touched you in some way, and that's how I think he would want to be remembered," Robert concluded his eulogy.

A Community Man, Too

It was in his retirement that Smerling immersed himself in community organizations and cared for his grandchildren, reading books aloud in their elementary classrooms and taking his autistic grandson—who also benefited from his calmness—to appointments.

When Smerling was younger, there wasn't time for the volunteer work and the vacations to Israel and Europe that he would later take with his family. During a recent trip to Italy, a tour group took to calling him "Iron Man" after he charged ahead of them while climbing 10,922 foot-Mount Etna.

Brentwood Royal Cleaners would close each Sunday. That's when Smerling would meet up with his wife and sons during weekend getaways to Southern California vacation spots or take them out to restaurants in the station wagon. They'd visit different "countries" by eating at ethnic restaurants.

"He was working 15 hours a day. We were trying to bring up honorable, good citizens in our children," Helen said.

It was her family that ventured into the dry-cleaning business. Helen's parents later joined her in America from Paraguay. Having heard from friends that immigrants with thick accents either owned liquor or dry-cleaning businesses, her parents chose the latter.

Together, William and Helen bought Brentwood Royal Cleaners in 1985.

In retirement, Smerling would accompany Robert on delivery routes. He knew 99 percent of his clients, and he spoke with them regularly. He met with every new customer.

When he wasn't working, he was taking long walks down San Vicente Boulevard to the beach or chatting with neighbors over coffee at the Brentwood Country Mart. He was eager to teach his grandchildren how to speed-skate and dreamed of visiting China, not just a Chinese restaurant. 

Those dreams were quashed by the accident. The woman who hit him, Gordon, might face a misdemeanor charge. The Smerlings filed a civil suit against her earlier this month.

Smerling spent four weeks in the hospital, three of them in an intensive-care unit. Tubes were coming every which way out of his body, he coughed up blood, and his neck and head shook violently, his family recalled.

"During that month, he suffered so much," Helen said. "I never realized how many things he did, and I never really appreciated it."

kathleen Owens January 04, 2012 at 06:52 PM
My sympathy to you and your family. It is NEVER a good time to lose a parent. This poem gave me some solace upon my Mother's tragic passing. I hope that it can help relieve some of the your grief. It is by Mary Frye: Do not stand at my grave and weep, I am not there; I do not sleep. I am a thousand winds that blow, I am the diamond glints on snow, I am the sun on ripened grain, I am the gentle autumn rain. When you awaken in the morning’s hush I am the swift uplifting rush Of quiet birds in circling flight. I am the soft starlight at night. Do not stand at my grave and cry, I am not there; I did not die.
Jack De Merit January 05, 2012 at 02:45 AM
Bill was a Lodge Brother and a dear friend. If I had to be at the Lodge at 5 a.m., he was there with coffee and a smile. He always put others first. He will be missed more than I can say. He had a great many things planned for the future that was cut short.
Laurie Yahnker January 05, 2012 at 07:54 PM
I did not have the privilege of knowing Mr. Smerling, however, after reading about him, I feel that the world was a better place for the 82 years that he occupied it. Such a loss for his loved ones and friends.
Bill Andro January 06, 2012 at 09:39 AM
Iron Man was a great guy, a loving husband/father, a great travelling companion and I shall miss him each and every day for the rest of my life
Mark Neighbors January 06, 2012 at 11:19 AM
Bill was always a gentleman, friend, and scholar. We meet eight years ago at an Americas Best Cleaners meeting. Bill sensing my discomfort at being a invited to be in such an elite group made a point to set by me, visit with me, and make me feel a part of the group. Always a man who had a kind word to everyone he was also thoughtful enough to share his advice in a humble way that showed respect for the person he was visiting with. After that, we always visited at all meetings we attended after and had dinner together with his family more than once in LA. Bill was a gentleman who was always more interested in what you were doing than talking about himself. I will miss him. Mark Neighbors Edmond, Oklahoma

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