Saying A Sad Good Bye To Michael Smith (1964-2011)
Then, as we went to press with our last Wesley Chapel issue, I had to say good bye to Goldie, my sweet, 11-year old golden retriever. Goldie was diagnosed with cancer two years ago, so her passing wasn’t unexpected, although any animal lover will tell you that it’s still like losing a member of your family. Her never-growling demeanor and penchant for bringing you any Laundry left on the floor are already sorely missed and I have to thank Dr. Sree Reddy and his entire staff at Seven Oaks Pet Hospital on S.R. 56 for the wonderful care they gave to Goldie and the way they handled our sorrow.
The day before we lost Goldie, Michael Smith, my primary news reporter and managing editor the last ten years, gave me two weeks notice. He said he wanted to take a significant amount of time off to travel out west with some friends and although I had hoped for more like a month’s notice to replace such a long-standing department head, I had no choice but to let him go. I felt I needed at least that much time to not only find a suitable replacement but to also allow Mike help train whoever got the job for at least one issue. But, two weeks and one last Wesley Chapel issue was all I got and Mike did his usual professional job of getting that issue completed.
A few of his stories from that June 4 issue also appear in this New Tampa edition, which is somewhat surreal for everyone here at this office, because on June 8, I got a phone call from his lifelong friend Travis that Michael Smith had passed away the day before. Now, we all knew that Mike had serious health issues. He was born with only one kidney and that kidney was deformed, which meant that he spent the first 16 years of his life on dialysis, enduring a difficult childhood medically that was made even more painful by the taunts of his classmates. Mike’s sister, Deborah Torvit, who is a couple of years older than he was, says that she often had to protect her too-slight brother from taunting bullies, and his mom, Betty Sesman, says she was told by doctors not to expect Mike to live much past age 20.
At age 16, however, Mike received the first of six kidney transplants, the last two of which he had just before and then a few years after he came to work for me. It is somewhat unusual for one person to receive so many transplants, but apparently, Mike’s blood type and other factors allowed to accept kidneys that other potential recipients could not.
But, every time that kidney failed, Mike had no choice but to go back on dialysis, which if you’ve ever known anyone who has had to suffer through this process three days a week, every week, you’d know just how difficult and draining that can be on someone’s psyche, as well as their health.
Somehow, Mike not only endured, he excelled at pretty much everything he did, especially writing and reporting, and those talents had taken him to any number of small community newspapers like ours, the last one before he moved back to Florida in North Carolina, where this very private person who talked very little about his family, made quite a few friends who loved him to the very end.
A Diffificult, But Worthwhile Relationship
Mike and I had been through a lot together over the years. I will never forget the day that he came to work and his skin was as grey as cigarette ashes. I had never seen anyone look like that and suggested he go see a doctor. He confided in me that his transplanted kidney was failing and he dreaded going back on dialysis.
But, for about a year, Mike was getting his dialysis treatment three days a week. Unfortunately for him, during that time, he was arrested unfairly for violating his probation on a previous charge of “theft of services” because he had stopped payment on a check to an auto repair shop that never did the work they claimed they did. Because of recent cases involving criminals who committed truly heinous crimes while on probation, the state and local authorities made it increasingly more difficult to get out of jail on probation violations, so Mike spent several days in a jail in Lee County, missing at least two dialysis treatments during that time. Although I paid for the lawyer that ultimately got him out of jail (and got the charges dropped against him), Mike paid back every penny out of his bi-weekly paycheck.
Things definitely seemed better with Mike once he had his sixth and final kidney transplant a few years ago, but considering that all five of the previous kidneys he had received ultimately failed, I’m sure Mike felt that the most recent transplant ultimately would fail him as well.
And apparently, that’s exactly what happened. Although he never confided in anyone here at the office about how serious his condition was, his sister says his doctor apparently told Mike last October that unless he either got another kidney or went back on dialysis, he had less than a year and, most likely, only a few months, to live.
Deborah says Mike refused to accept another kidney that might actually save someone else’s life, instead of putting it into what he called “this broken body.” He also said he wasn’t going to deal with dialysis anymore, which meant he was basically accepting that his time on this earth was not going to be long. The only thing that actually surprises me now is that he waited as long as he did to give his notice, knowing how little time he was likely to have left.
Although he had been estranged from his mom for years, Betty says she and her son made their peace at the end, which basically started on June 5, when he was so weak that he couldn’t stand up or catch a full breath. Deborah called her mom and his friends Travis and Kevin, who were already planning to come to Tampa anyway to take a long-planned road trip, to come be with her and her brother.
Mike was admitted to University Community Hospital on June 6 and survived long enough for Kevin and Travis to be holding his hands when he passed. The three friends who had planned a months-long road trip to Colorado to go camping and to a number of outdoor concert events (Mike was a big alternative and hard rock music lover) were at least able to all be together before Mike’s body succumbed. Travis says that shortly before he died, Mike said, “I’m already on that mountaintop.”
Our art director Tony Sica, Mike’s closest friend at the office, said afterward that although Mike never intimated how little time he likely had left, he did tell Tony that he had recently read the Bible cover-to-cover. Considering that Mike had never talked openly about religion (although he had said his mom was a staunch, practicing Christian), Tony said that “should have at least been a hint that something was going on.” But again, Mike was such a private person that Tony still had no idea the end was so near.
I also have to admit that I am feeling a little guilty that I gave Mike a hard time about how long it took him some issues to submit his stories for our issues. Considering how weak he must have been — Deborah says his doctor actually put him in touch with hospice n October — it’s amazing that he was able to not only write, but research and do the interviews for as many stories as he did the last seven months.
Thank You, Skinny’s & Santo’s!
As soon as I got the news that he had passed, all I could think of was doing whatever I could to bring Mike’s family and friends together to celebrate his life. I wanted to meet his sister and his mom and share stories of what an outstanding reporter and editor Mike was for us and how respected he was among members of our city, county and state governments, developers and business owners. Long-time New Tampa Community Council Board member and Hunter’s Green Neighborhood Watch coordinator Carol Poland told me after hearing the news that she could, “always count on Mike to get the real story and get the word out for this community.”
Carol couldn’t make it to the “celebration,” but our insurance man Tom Higgins did join us at Skinny’s Sports Bar on S.R. 54 in Wesley Chapel. Tom and Mike spoke often about his health and insurance issues, but even Tom didn’t know Mike was so near the end.
Bucky, Skinny’s co-owner who had played pool with Mike for years, was happy to have the celebration at his establishment and Ken, Skinny’s coowner and the owner of Santo’s Italian Grill in the same plaza, provided delicious food (wings, pasta, salad and garlic bread) for us. I so appreciate both of them for their graciousness and hospitality. If not for them, I might never have met Mike’s mom Betty, his sister Deborah, her husband Bart, Mike’s friend Kevin, Kevin’s mom Veronica and Mike’s friend Kathy or gotten to share stories about our respective relationships with Mike.
In addition to working together, Mike and I had many other things in common. We’re both trivia buffs who had tried out, unsuccessfully, for “Jeopardy.” We both have written unpublished children’s books, poems and other non-news materials. And we we’re both big music lovers. Mike didn’t start as managing editor with me. He began, as is my new full-time employee, Sean Bowes (see Sean’s first stories for us in this issue), as “news reporter” and quickly worked his way up to news editor and managing editor. Sean indeed has some very big shoes to fill.
Long-time freelance correspondent Melissa O’Brien, who was devastated by the news of Mike’s passing, perhaps summed it up best: “I can just picture him on a mountain road, cranking some great tunes!” Rest in peace, Mike.