Wednesday, July 09, 2008

A lesson in hope from a man who should have none

I received an email from a friend today telling me that one of the local columnists had done a story on him. He was a columnist himself for a competing newspaper. I wanted to share the column with you and also alert you to his blog Slim's Stories. Slim and I are a lot alike in many ways and I met him at my church a few years ago. A fine southern gentleman. I would ask all of you to check out his blog and send him some enouragement. He seems to be doing well now and is on the right path. Keep pushing on Slim, you're doing great man!

A lesson in hope from a man who should have none

by Laurie Roberts - Jul. 9, 2008 12:00 AM
The Arizona Republic

"You may not remember me," the e-mail began, which was sad because I do, though I confess I hadn't thought of Slim Smith in a while.

I never actually knew the guy, but he used to come to my house a couple of times a week. And then, suddenly, he didn't anymore. Maybe that's why his recent e-mail, responding to something I'd written, struck a chord.

"You may not remember me," he began, "but I used to be the metro columnist at the Tribune. This was before I went to prison for DUI, of course. Anyway, that experience has taught me a lot, including a lesson or two on humility . . . "

I made arrangements to meet Smith at his home in Tempe, more a room than a home really, but still, a decent place to begin again. I'm not sure what I expected to find - self-pity maybe, or anger or resignation. Instead, I met a man who has used the last year to profitable result, if not exactly the kind that you can eat.

Smith's a Southerner who grew up reading stories and telling them, which is how he came to newspapering: first in his native Mississippi and later in California and at the East Valley Tribune. For 25 years, he worked in newspapers, the last two as a columnist, his dream job.

While he enjoyed telling other people's stories, his own was something of a mess. A divorce in 2001 led to loneliness, which in turn led to extended stints at the neighborhood bar. Two DUIs in a year should have been a signal. Instead, it became a way of life.

Feb. 19, 2006. Smith doesn't have to fish for the date. A few beers at a bar led to a few more at another. "I left and the lights hit me and boy, my life changed from that point on. Everything got changed inside out, starting with that night."

Smith spent everything he had fighting that DUI, his third, the one that would send him to prison and cost him his job. He did his time - four months - and figured he could pick up the pieces. He worked for a while for Mark Salem, who had given him a place to live and a job in his car-repair shop. But eventually, having no mechanical skills, he ran out of things to paint and did the honorable thing. He moved on, sure that something would turn up.

He worked as an $8.30-an-hour barista at a coffee shop but lost the job when he couldn't provide a doctor's note after an illness. This because he couldn't afford the $112 to see a doctor.

Smith hasn't yet taken another $8-an-hour job. Instead, he's focused on finding something that'll allow him to use his skills and rebuild his life.

It was a year ago last week that Smith got out of prison. So far, he's had one interview, a publishing firm that never called back. The F word - felony - is not exactly a career enhancer.

These days, Smith's reach extends about as far as his bicycle and his determination will carry him, which I'm hoping will be a good distance. If you'd like to follow his story, he's keeping a blog (

There are a lot of unemployed people in the country right now, good people just looking for a chance and finding none. Already this year, 438,000 jobs are gone. That's 73,000 a month.

It would be easy to give up, easy to become isolated, to question where you fit in when who we are is so tied to what we do. Yet Smith sees value in this last year, in coming to terms with his flaws and deepening his faith in God and maybe himself.

"In some respects I know I'm a better person for having been through it," he told me. "I know what it's like not to have $100 to go to the doctor. I know what it's like not to have a job, not to have a career. I know what it's like to be judged . . .

"I think the most important thing to do is don't quit. The only way you lose is if you quit.

And to recognize that there are a lot of things outside your control and you can't let that consume you. I'm hopeful. I mean, look: I think my net worth is like $500. I don't have anything. My family and kids are far away. I'm alone. I don't have any real prospects, and I think if you look at that you can get pretty depressed about it, but I don't. I'm hopeful. I think you have to be."

Reach Roberts at or 602-444-8635.


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